Bessie Eyton by Junius Estep, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
In the early days of silent film production, moving picture companies promoted their brand names to consumers, selling films around the quality and type of pictures produced by their individual companies. By the early 1910s, these companies quickly discovered that stars drew fans’ interest more than brands, quickly creating publicity building up the stars to the general public.
Beautifully produced images created by portrait photographers crafted the iconography and importance of stars, inaugurating a mass form of publicity practiced to this day. Fans clamored to buy new issues of magazines, postcards, pennants, or any type of product featuring the likeness of their favorite celebrities. These powerful photographs sold the glamour and importance of the film industry, helping to expand profits and audience reach. The images also lured ambitious young people to growing film center Hollywood, exponentially growing the city.
In a photograph by Junius Estep, director Frank Borzage talks to Margaret Sullivan during filming of the Universal picture “Little Man What Now?” At left, leading man Douglas Montgomery. Behind the camera, Norbert Brodine with assistant William Dodds. At right, Sergei Petschnikoff. From the cover of International Photographer, August 1934, and converted from hideous magenta and white.
Many early film photographers gained their start in the commercial side of the business, while others produced society portraits for a living. Their reputations for crafting elegant images in a timely manner helped ease their way into the moving picture business, a field that would garner them increasing recognition and pay for their work.
(At right, Junius Estep in a photo from The International Photographer, June 1930)
Such cameramen as Albert Witzel, Fred Hartsook, Frank Hoover, Nelson Evans, Melbourne Spurr, Jack Freulich, Donald Biddle Keyes, and Eugene Robert Richee dominated the field in the 1910s-1920s, but other names crafted lovely work whose names remained somewhat buried in history. Junius Estep and Alfred Lindstedt worked for years in the early film industry, shooting important players and creating dynamic work, but whose names remained mostly unknown to the general silent film fan.
Born March 22, 1877 in Ohio, Junius (June) D. Estep moved to Chicago, where he worked as a merchant and married in 1900. Some time thereafter, wanderlust drove him westward towards Los Angeles. By 1907, he was running his own commercial photography business with F. H. Taber under the name, Estep and Taber, at 206 1/2 S. Broadway. Estep joined with C. C. Pierce in 1908 at 127 W. Sixth St. in a commercial photography business taking photographs as well as selling photographic supplies. Estep established his own studio in 1910 per the July 27, 1910 Los Angeles Herald, taking out a business permit to establish a photography studio at 617 S. Broadway in a building owned by the Morton estate. Needing help financially, he joined with M. D. Kirkpatrick in forming Kirkpatrick Estep in 1912, located on the second floor of 535 S. Broadway.
While maintaining the studio, Estep began shooting freelance work for film companies, starting with the Selig Polyscope Film Company in 1912. His portraits of the West Coast players display one of the earliest credits and copyright notices for a Hollywood stills photographer. David Shields notes in his book, “Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography,” that Estep quickly gained a reputation for being both versatile and proficient at shooting posed studio portraits as exterior scenes.
Estep established an independent studio again in 1915 on the fourth floor at 219 W. 6th Street, while continuing to shoot stills for the Hollywood film industry. He shot sessions at LKO Comedies in 1918, especially cheesecake portraits of their starlets posing in pajamas or bathing costumes, as well as fashion studies of such stars as Julanne Johnston in 1923-1924. Estep also worked for the Elco Company, a defense company, in 1918. In order to be closer to his work in Hollywood, Estep and his family moved to 6667 Selma Avenue in the early 1920s.
Bartine Burkett, photographed by Junius Estep, Moving Picture World, November 1918.
Western star William S. Hart admired Estep’s versatility, hiring him as a stills man for his productions at Triangle Films. “June” Estep devised elegant and sometimes breathtaking visuals of the dramatic Western landscape, revealing the grandeur and vastness of the open American prairie in his scene stills. Shields states that Estep “mastered making a visual field dynamic symbolically,” especially through the use of binary tensions between light/dark and interior/exterior. The October 5, 1925 Los Angeles Times revealed that experts were calling his stills for Hart’s 1925 film, “Tumbleweeds,” perfect because of their high quality.
Upon Hart’s retirement that year, Estep joined up with the ambitious young director Josef von Sternberg, shooting stills for his inaugural artistic film, “The Salvation Hunters.” Over the next several years, he aided the artistic von Sternberg in understanding the nuances and importance of stills photography. Estep freelanced between First National and von Sternberg’s films in this period, concluding his work with the director on “Shanghai Express” in 1932.
The stills man worked for Paramount in the late 1920s and early 1930s, before moving to Fox Film Corporation, where he shot stills for Frank Borzage’s dramatic film, “Little Man, What Now?”
In the late 1930s, Estep moved full circle, returning to commercial photography. After several years, he and his wife moved north to Tulare, where he died March 6, 1953. Though virtually forgotten today, Junius “June” Estep created dynamic still images for a range of important filmmakers as well as crafting elegant portraits for others. He also stands as one of the first photographers to be credited for motion picture publicity images. Thanks to the striking work of Estep and other stills photographers, stars became glamorous gods and goddesses, bathed in an iconic glow.
Peggy Hamilton photographed by Junius Estep, Picture-Play Magazine, September 1923-February 1924.
Mostly forgotten as well in early Los Angeles/Hollywood still photography history is Alfred Robert Lindstedt, one of the early society photographers in the city. Born July 28, 1877 in Ludvigborg, Sweden, the young man arrived in New York May 22, 1898 before making his way to Kansas City, Missouri. Trained as a photographer in his home country, Lindstedt opened a studio in the city, a juncture where three vaudeville circuits and several rail lines converged. On November 13, 1901, the photographer applied to become a citizen of the United States.
Finding the field dominated by a few select photographers, Lindstedt immigrated west, arriving in California November 8, 1905. In 1906, he began working for the great photographer George Steckel, etching photographs. Lindstedt established his own studio in suites 203, 204, and 205 at the 3212 W. Second St. Columbia Building in 1910.
As David Shields writes in his book, “Still,” the photographer applied the dreamy, poetic, Pictorialist style to photographs of children, and a somewhat more straight-forward style to adults. That year, the Los Angeles Times published a photograph of his daughter, helping build his career as a society portrait photographer. Over the next several years, many of his portraits of Los Angeles’ movers and shakers and their families appeared in newspapers. On January 23, 1912, Lindstedt received his naturalization papers in Los Angeles, becoming a United States citizen.
From an Artura Iris Print by A.R. Lindstedt, Studio Light, September 1914.
An early practitioner of the Pictorialist style of photography, Lindstedt often exhibited in salons around the West Coast, one of the early members of the Camera Pictorialists, with such members as Edward Weston, Karl Struss, and Fred Archer. The February 13, 1916 Times praised his work of a child’s portrait in profile, noting that his work “has the quality of a chalk drawing.” Much of Lindstedt’s earliest images stand out for their striking use of etching and engraving, resembling hand drawings rather than photographs. Several of his striking works appeared in Salon Books in the-teens, revealing his sharp, dynamic eye.
By the mid-teens, after Matzene arrived on the Los Angeles’ photographic scene, Lindstedt focused his work on a highly illuminated and straighter style, often with a simple or minimal background. He also moved his studio to 617 S. Hill Street in 1915, and moved at least two more times in the next few years. In 1923, Lindstedt served as President of Hoover Art Studios, one of the first important portrait studios to focus on motion picture work. Founder Frank S. Hoover had also shot his photographs in a style reminiscent of Rembrandt, and as he eased out of the business, Lindstedt took over. Actress Nell O’Day’s mother served as one of the etches for backgrounds of Hoover-Lindstedt portraits.
From an Artura Iris Print by A.R. Lindstedt, Studio Light, September 1914.
By the mid-1920s, Lindstedt formed the Lindstedt-Phelan Studio in Beverly Hills with his brother-in-law. They functioned as one of Beverly Hills’ top photography salons, shooting glamorous images of bon tons for the next several decades.
At the same time Lindstedt operated the photography studio in the late 1930s, he invested in a British color system that incorporated under the name Omnicolor Pictures Corporation. The officers of the Corporation included President Charles Soderstrom, former photographer Henrik Sartov as Vice-President, and Lindstedt serving as Secretary-Treasurer. They operated out of the Granada shops at 672 S. La Fayette Park Place, buying ads that stated, “We have prints to prove the new Devin Precision Color Camera in perfect. We sell them.” In the mid-teens, Sartov served as Hoover Art Studios’ top photographer, whose work lured legendary director D. W. Griffith to employ the studio as portraitist for his company.
Lindstedt left Omnicolor in 1943 to continue focusing on the photography studio. He passed away January 19, 1958, with most of his great work long forgotten.
Alfred R. Lindstedt’s poetic, dreamy style of portrait photography influenced many early Hollywood stills photographers, helping shape the glamorous style of early Hollywood stills photography that many love today. Photographers such as Estep and Lindstedt helped shape the lavish, illustrious look of early Hollywood and its beautiful stars, creating the romantic, gorgeous images remembered and treasured today.