Thanks to the work of often uncredited talented stills photographers during the era of classic Hollywood, movie stars appeared sexy, glamorous and larger than life, gods and goddesses the moviegoing public could only aspire to. These stills men and women created the stunning iconography of classic Hollywood thanks to their sharp eyes for details, lighting and composition.
While a few such as Ruth Harriet Louise, George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull and Eugene Robert Richee achieved renown for their output, the vast majority remained virtually anonymous to the general public, just camera cogs in the giant studio system. Most of the time their stunning prints appeared uncredited in magazines and newspapers, though occasionally their last names would be mentioned in captions.
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Receiving even less recognition for their work were the photographers who focused their cameras primarily on commercial enterprises, providing them with a sheen of respect, beauty and prestige. These journeymen often struggled to find clients or pay their bills while working at something they loved.
Walter J. van Rossem and Otto Schellenberg split their time between the sizzle of Hollywood and the drudgery of everyday life, crafting striking images to sell Hollywood hotshots and local businesses to their respective audiences. Virtually forgotten today, their stories reflect those of the vast majority of photographers operating around Los Angeles 90 years ago, providing a service employing a skill they loved.
Young van Rossem was born May 24, 1894, in Chicago, to former Dutch shipping executive and businessman Adriaan von Rossem and his wife Josephine, originally from Canada. When Mr. van Rossem’s health deteriorated, the family moved to Switzerland, where he passed away in the summer of 1894, per an April 5, 2018, post on gamblehouse.org. Josephine quickly moved her two toddler children to Pasadena, Calif., in 1895 looking for a new start.
A van Rossem photograph of Pebble Beach.
Arriving in the Crown City, Mrs. van Rossem commissioned a home at 371 Arroyo View Terrace along the arroyo, with her mother, and two brothers John and Joseph Williams soon moved to join them. At the same time she met photographer E.E. Kohler, joining him as partner in opening a photographic studio on Colorado Boulevard. Josephine took up photography as well, and worked 15 years in the studio, obviously influencing her son.
In 1901, Pasadena architect Charles Sumner Greene and his wife, Alice, moved nearby, constructing an elegant bungalow. Josephine van Rossem admired the elegant, superior craftsmanship employed in homes designed by Greene and his brother Henry Mather, commissioning them to design two homes in the neighborhood as investments before eventually hiring them to design the family’s own residence as well. Gamble house researchers have not discovered whether these homes were meant to be sold or to serve as rentals.
By 1915, Walter had left high school after completing three years and was working as a clerk, residing and working at 2751 Sunset Blvd. Perhaps his mother was helping him financially, as he and his brother Adriaan purchased four lots in 1915 possibly to build their own spec homes. They ran into trouble however, as the 1917 Southwest Builder and Contractor reveals companies filing liens against the brothers, their mother, and title companies on the properties.
A van Rossem ad in American Cinematographer, April 1923.
Van Rossem worked as a clerk for a few more years before attempting to make a living as a salesman in 1921. In 1922, young “Jack” van Rossem became a photographer, listing himself as such in the Los Angeles City Directory. Later that year, the young stills man married his wife, Irene Danko. He opened his own commercial photography studio at 6057 Hollywood Boulevard in 1923, per the city directory, moving to 6049 Hollywood Boulevard in 1924.
For the next ten years, van Rossem operated his own studio, moving between commercial and portrait work as well as developing and printing stills, and later renting out film and photographic equipment. van Rossem joined the Stills Photography Union, and sometimes shot movie stills for independent productions, such as the film “Temporary Marriage” in1923, “Soft Cushions” in 1927, and director James Cruze’s 1928 film “The Red Mark.” The Los Angeles Times occasionally printed candid stills he shot of movie celebrities around town as well, such as actor Douglas MacLean with his yacht and western star Jack Holt with his polo ponies. The young cameraman perhaps loved aeronautics as well, as several images of small private racing planes from the early 1930s also appear on the internet.
Perhaps the young photographer enjoyed aeronautics as well. Not only did he shoot images of private racing planes now posted on the Internet, he also served as an aerial and ground photographer for the exclusive Hollywoodland development. Some of these images show overhead shots looking at the Mulholland Dam and the tract, others reveal the interiors or exteriors of estates. The M.H.Sherman Collection at the M.H. Sherman Library in Corona Del Mar possesses receipts from van Rossem documenting his work for the real estate company
Perhaps hard work with little profit drained van Rossem. The May 1933 American Cinematographer magazine reported that he had sold his studio to William A. Rees, with a name change to the van Rossem-Rees Studio. City directories and newspaper stories show him leaving photography to enter the more steady field of dentistry manufacturing. A 1932 ad reported that he served as vice president of Surgident Ltd. and selling Orasorb, Surgident and Oranold dental supplies while serving as the stillsman for a stamp collectors magazine.
By 1935, machinery patents with his name also appear, suggesting van Rossem also worked as a tinkerer in his spare time. The January 1938 issue of Chemical Industries stated that he was attempting to “manufacture photographic color plates; dye toning a bleached silver photographic image in a solution containing an iron blue dye.” Even though no longer working full time as a photographer, van Rossem continued experimenting with his artistry and helping develop new equipment and styling, finding happiness and skill in shooting and making photographs. van Rossem passed away in 1980.
A Schellenberg portrait of Jack Hoxie, 1925.
Born February 21,1883, in California, Maurice Otto Schellenberg spent the vast majority of his life in the San Diego area, the son of a German father and a mother from California. Little can be found of him, but San Diego city directories show him working as a photographer by the early 1900s. The 1910 census stated Schellenberg owned his own photographic studio, from which he would have shot portraits of individuals, or visited locations to shoot images of buildings, meetings and the like.
Without knowing it, Schellenberg captured his first celebrity in a portrait in 1912, when he recorded an image of the San Diego School of Expression posing in front of his camera. A teenage Harold Lloyd studying acting at the school is captured sitting on the front row in an image in the Margaret Herrick Library’s Digital Collections.
Schelleberg landed the Kodak Film Co.’s concession on the plaza at the 1915-1916 Panama Pacific California International Exposition in San Diego. Images in the Panama California Exposition Digital Archive show several photographs shot by Schellenberg, real photo postcards of guests to the Expo posing in rolling chairs or standing on the plaza, surrounded by pigeons.
Two women at the Pacific-California Exposition, by Schellenberg.
By 1918, the renowned Los Angeles’ stills photographer Albert Witzel hired Schellenberg to work in his 811 S. Hill Studio, so noted in his 1918 Army registration papers. Witzel, one of the fathers of Hollywood stills photography, would have trained the inexperienced Schellenberg in posing and treating celebrities and what constituted an excellent publicity portrait. Schellenberg worked for Witzel until 1923, when Universal Film Manufacturing Co. hired him as one of the studio’s stills photographers working under their talented photography department head Jack Freulich.
Schellenberg shot candids, portraits, and possibly film stills at Universal that appeared in newspapers and magazines, occasionally signing his name to particular portraits he considered good work. By the end of the decade, however, Schellenberg quit the movie business and moved back to the San Diego area with his wife, Maybelle, and 13-year-old daughter, Virginia. The 1930 and 1932 San Diego city directories list him as a photographer living in Imperial.
On March 19, 1934, Schellenberg lost his life in a tragic automobile accident. Several newspaper accounts report that the local Oceanside photographer died instantly when a car driven by Harry K. Perry overturned when missing a curve at high speed.
Though virtually forgotten today, Van Rossem and Schellenberg demonstrate the fine work done by less famous stills and commercial photographer, men lucky to make a living pursuing the skill they loved.