Max Munn Autrey, from Pictures and Picturegoer, August 1925
“In Hollywood, photographers spring into fame overnight. They are, for a time, a fad—and only become recognized as established worth when they prove that their ideas are not limited. All an ambitious camera artist needs to start him off on the road to fame and fortune is to display two or three portraits of big stars and if he has obtained something of beauty in photographing them, he is made. The fact, alone that a star admired his work enough to pose for him, is recommendation, and soon the other stars follow. When the picture trade is established, the photographer expands his business proportionately, and sets his prices. The more famous photographers have been known to charge as much as $350 for 12 prints of a single portrait.”
— Walter Irwin Moses, Pictures and Picturegoer, August 1925
Max Munn Autrey’s portrait of Jane Winton, for sale on EBay listed at $199.95.
Texan Max Munn Autrey sauntered into the world of Hollywood still photography in the 1920s, a journeymen cameraman looking to settle down. He found his niche in portraiture, helping devise mystique and sensuousness in star portraits.
Born June 24, 1891, in Hamilton, Texas, Autrey moved around the state taking photographs as an adult. He was employed by P.T. Collier & Son in Dallas, per his World War I registration papers. In 1918, he married his wife, Bonnie, in her hometown of Tyler. They lived in Burleson in 1920, but soon decided to move to California.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
In 1922, the great Hollywood photographer Albert Witzel needed a steady hand to help produce the many portraits turned out by his studio, occasioned by the departure of his head photographer Walter Frederick Seely to establish his own studio. Autrey’s artistry impressed the portraitist, renowned for producing high-quality, striking images. Dr. David Shields, in his book, “Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography,” states, “As decidedly as Seely was a pictoralist, Autrey was a glamourist. He always sought for integral effect, poses that enhanced the sitter’s mystique, and lighting that made the image more sensuous and more spiritual simultaneously.” Industry enthusiasm for Autrey’s work was so great that Witzel established a branch studio in Hollywood, run by Autrey from 1922 to 1925.
Pictures and Picture Goer called Autrey “a master photographer” in an August 1925 article, stating that he produced most of the Witzel Studios portraits and earned that position only two months after joining the studio. Clients loved the lush look of his portraits and seated compositions.
Tom Mix by Max Munn Autrey, from Motion Picture Classic, 1923-1926.
Fox quickly seized upon Autrey and his talents, signing him to an exclusive contract late in the year, placing him “in charge of the special studio fitted for him by the Fox organization,” per Motion Picture News. Autrey focused his attention on portraits, giving glamour and prestige to the former simple, unadorned studio look by employing a sharp focus, high-contrast style, inscribing his name into the negative. Fox stars soon appeared as radiant and ravishing as those at the more luxurious studios, posing as Jazz Age cuties, holiday belles, and, like actor George O’Brien, almost nude camera studies. Autrey selectively shot scene stills for Fox’s more prestigious productions, such as “What Price, Glory?,” “7th Heaven, Street Angel,” “Four Devils,” and “Sunrise,” while spending his time crafting gorgeous head shots of Fox’s headliners. in 1932, Autrey established his own portrait studio on the side, where he worked part-time.
Autrey opens his own studio, Hollywood Filmograph, 1932.
In 1933, Fox named Arch Reeve head of its Publicity Department, which led to a complete makeover of personnel. Photographer Ray Jones was named head of the still department, sharing portraiture duty with Autrey, a demotion for the Texan, per the Jan. 14, 1933, Film Daily. Wanting complete autonomy, Autrey left to work at his own studio at Sunset Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. He bought an ad in Hollywood Filmograph announcing, “The Unusual in Camera Studies Awaits Your Inspection.” The trade itself stated, “If atmosphere and artistic surroundings are conducive to the production of high-grade photographs, Mr. Autrey’s studio is the last word.” Many Fox stars and other film people continued coming to him for portraits and special work at the 7075 Sunset Blvd. location.
Janet Gaynor by Max Munn Autrey, from New Movie Magazine, 1931.
Autrey shot scene stills for Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” in 1936, the last silent film produced in the era, probably thanks to being almost a next-door neighbor to Chaplin’s studio. During the same time, his wife, Bonnie, began breeding and selling Irish setters out of their home, dogs which won many awards at competitions.
As time passed, Autrey turned his attention to shooting society portraits, while occasionally making star headshots, which he entered in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Still Show. During World War II, he shot photographs of soldiers on leave. Autrey joined professional organizations like the Professional Photographers’ Assn. after the war, per an article in the monograph, “Max Munn Autrey: One Photographer’s Hollywood.” He moved his studio to 7009 Sunset Blvd, which is now an In-N-Out Burger. The artist joined other national and international photographic organizations, winning awards in multiple competitions. He also toured the world, speaking at conventions and galleries.
One of Autrey’s last Los Angeles jobs occurred in May and June, 1965, when he shot color portraits of high school and college graduates in the San Fernando Valley Bullock’s, with three 11x14s regularly costing $155, on sale at $125. In 1967, Autrey closed his studio and retired. The great photographer passed away Aug. 5, 1971, with little notice taken in local newspapers.
While Autrey and many of his peers like Fred Hartsook, Albert Witzel, Nelson Evans, and Melbourne Spurr helped devise and establish the field of glamour photography in the 1910s and 1920s, they were all virtually forgotten by the 1950s and 1960s, when photography became more about shock value, skin shots and wild abstraction.
For those interested in learning more about the artistry and development of early moving picture still photography, Dr. David S. Shields will be giving a PowerPoint presentation Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hollywood Heritage Museum promoting his book, “Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography.”