Joan Bennett photographed by Fred Archer, Modern Screen Magazine.
As stillsmen Elmer Fryer and Fred Archer wrote in the 1928 article for “Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers,” “In the advertising field, the still picture is used to illustrate and help plant the articles broadcast by the publicity department throughout the periodical world and it is used for lobby displays…A good “still” will attract and hold attention where many poor ones will receive but a passing glance.”
Photographic stills sold films both to exhibitors and to the public long before the advent of television and broadcast media. Movie studios sent out publicity stills en masse to magazines and newspapers looking for free copy in which to sell their product. Photographers in the 1920s-1940s devised glamorous, artistic images deifying motion picture stars, defining the glamorous iconography idolized and worshipped by decades of movie lovers.
Boris Karloff on the set of “The Mummy,” photographed by Fred Archer.
Some of these lensers pushed the boundaries of artistic expression, eventually leaving the film world behind to concentrate on creating visual tone poems expanding the field of photography. Fred Robert Archer led the way in creating dramatic works of photographic art, demonstrating the deep artistry and skill of a visual poet, evoking dreamlike worlds of symbolism and composition.
Born December 3, 1888 in Atlanta, Georgia per his World War I draft record, Fred R. Archer pursued the study of photography from a young age. The voracious autodidact inhaled the world of the camera, taking classes and making images on the side while holding down full-time jobs. After moving with his family to Los Angeles around 1900, Archer focused his creative skills on art, taking illustration and drawing classes at Los Angeles High School under Roger J. Sherrett. In 1908, Archer and other advanced students’ drawings of battleships were displayed at the art room of the school, per the March 29, 1908, Los Angeles Times, and the students were preparing to create a mural on the subject for their school. The young artist and fellow classmates created Western Art for a book in 1909. Archer created a bookplate for a 1910 art show.
Archer’s sharp eye and artistic vision led to a career as a commercial artist, with his own studio located at 217 1/2 Spring St. When not working, the skilled cameraman focused on pictorialism, demonstrating his talented eye in shaping gorgeous, soft-focus images, subjective expressions of man’s psyche. In 1914, Archer was one of the founders of Los Angeles Camera Club, later serving as its Vice President. He also helped organize Los Angeles Pictorialists that year, which included members like Edward Weston and Alfred Lindstedt. He presented auto chromatic views at the Veterans’ Home for Spanish Civil War Veterans, per the April 12, 1917 Los Angeles Times. As early as January 1918, he exhibited, “The Shepherd’s Youth” in the First Annual Photographer’s Salon at Exposition Park. His career as a renowned artist was just beginning.
Drafted into the service and registered on June 5, 1917, Archer put his photography sills to good use, serving as an aerial photographer for the United States Army in France. The government wisely enlisted civilian photographers to serve this purpose, sending them to basic training and then on to photographic school at the Eastman Kodak Company plant on Lake Avenue in Rochester, New York. After several weeks training with Kodak, the men were sent for a few weeks training at Baker Farm, before heading to the battlefields of France to map battle grounds to aid troop movements. Archer served in the 23rd Aerial Photographic Division.
Archer returned to Los Angeles after World War I, resuming his work as an artist. He spent five years in the art title department of Universal Studios, named as its head in 1920, where he supposedly created the first animated title ever employed on a film. Archer also created the art titles for the Lon Chaney film, “Outside the Law,” while also exhibiting five photos in Pittsburgh’s Photo Salon in March 1920, as stated in Exhibitors’ Herald. While at Universal, Archer was slightly burned in a fire which destroyed 35-40 feature prints, causing more than $300,000 in damages. Archer, actor Norman Kerry, editor and photographer Edward Curtis, and editor Frank Atkinson were all slightly burned attempting to save cutter Edward Bush and the prints.
A satirical poem by Fred Archer about training for World War I.
David Shields writes in “Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography” that Archer developed a national reputation for his artistic skills, creating works “in a literary and illustrative mode.” His allegorical, highly elaborate works hung in the first and second National Salon of Pictorial Photography at Buffalo, New York’s Fine Arts Academy in the early 1920s. His poetic images evoked the ephemeral world of dreams through artful composition, lighting, and technique.
Throughout the 1920s, Archer participated in many salons and exhibits. He took part in the Southern California Camera Club’s second exhibit in the lobby of the Los Angeles Public Library, presented pictorial works at the Southwest Museum, exhibited in the Paris, France International Salon of Photography in 1926, and won second prize in photography at the 1927 Los Angeles County Fair. Archer served as director of the Los Angeles Camera Pictorialists in 1925. He also began serving on juries for competitions or salons during this period, serving on a jury for the Southwest Museum February 1924 pictorial show with Karl Struss.
In 1924, Archer signed on to the photographic staff of First National Studios, concentrating on portraits. The lensman learned how to adapt his time consuming, elaborate images into quickly shot but well composed stills for the motion picture industry, giving a soft, evocative glamour to portraits. Along the way, he gained Elmer Fryer as a protege, helping the young man develop his artistic eye. In 1928, they co-wrote a piece on the use of stills photography for the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, noting that effects, wardrobe, and set departments all turned to stills to verify details and maintain continuity. Archer stepped back into commercial work for a short time before he was named Head of Warner Bros. portrait department in 1929, per the May 1929 American Cinematographer, and hired Harold Dean Carsey away from DeMille Productions.
Warner Bros. named Fryer head of the stills and portraits department at the end of the year, demoting Archer. He quit, deciding to work freelance on film productions, which would allow him more time to pursue his art work. Jumping from studio to studio, Archer shot stills on such productions as “Ladies of the Big House (Paramount, 1931),” “This Is the Night (Paramount, 1932),” “Grand Hotel (MGM, 1932),” and “The Mummy (Universal, 1932)” over the next several years as he streamlined his work, turning towards a more simplified, stark, avant garde style. Angles, shadows, and geometric patterns replaced the soft focus pictorialism of his earlier work. His stark, sleek style won him new fans.
An ad for the Fred Archer School of Photography, March 1949.
Archer turned his attention to serving and teaching others. He saw many works published in International Photographer, as he attempted to influence younger, more impressionable cameramen to be creative at the same time they shot promotional work for others. His wonderful eye for composition and lighting was recognized by his fellow photographers. The February 1930 International Photographer stated, The editor agrees with the brother who said recently ‘Fred Archer can get a masterpiece out of a corn cob and a dried grape vine.”
The cameraman taught classes in photography, entered competitions, and served as a jurist for many salons while experimenting with his craft. Archer devised a new camera for still work in 1933, combining features of cameras currently in use, while adding a lens turret, finder, and focus plane shutter, to help speed setting up shots and more carefully focus on action shots.
In 1932, Archer exhibited in the All American Photography Salon along with fellow International Photographer members Kenneth Alexander, Madison Stoner Lacy, and Jackson Rose. Westways published photos he had shot of Colorado, Red Rock Canyon, and the desert under the title “Touring Topics” in 1936.
Archer began teaching at Los Angeles Art Center School by 1936, where he and artist Ansel Adams developed the Zone System of Photography late in 1939. He would eventually establish the Fred Archer School of Photography at 2510 W. 7th St. in Los Angeles in 1946. In 1948, he published “Fred Archer on Portraiture” through the Camera Club, offering detailed, simple instructions on lighting, composing, and setting up portraits.
He continued working right up until the end, dying April 27, 1963 at his 2235 Silver Lake Blvd. home, surrounded by his wife Rosamond and his son, Irving. Archer was buried at Valhalla Cemetery.
Though mostly forgotten today, Fred Archer helped bring a more artistic vision for stills photography in the 1920s, conducting research and enhancing equipment to speed the studio photography process.