“Thou Shalt Not,” “Whitey” Schafer’s most famous image.
Note: This is an encore post from 2013.
In the very early days of the motion picture industry, stills photographers meant nothing to the moving picture companies. They asked their feature cameramen to work double duty, shooting scene stills after completing filming that very same scene. These companies also hired local photographic studios to shoot portraits of their stars, or allowed the stars themselves to hire photographers to shoot images that could be employed in advertising.
When stars’ names and faces became important tools to sell product, stillsmen became integral in shaping a motion picture company’s or star’s brand that could be sold to consumers. Studios hired their own photographers to shoot scene, production, off-camera and reference stills that could be employed in advertising, while major stars Mary Pickford and William S. Hart signed their own personal cameramen like K. O. Rahmn and Junius Estep to capture their on- and off-camera pursuits. By the middle of the 1920s, each studio established stills departments to shoot, process and manufacture the thousands of stills required for product-hungry newspapers, magazines and consumer tie-ins.
Mary Mallory’s latest book, “Living With Grace: Life Lessons from America’s Princess,” is now on sale.
From left: A.L. “Whitey” Schafer, Gail Russell and William Farnum, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
A. L. “Whitey” Schafer” experienced the evolution of motion picture still photography in his 30-year career working as a lenser at film studios. He would go on to head two studios’ portrait galleries, win awards and share his talent with amateur photographers, becoming one of the top star shooters of the 1930s and 1940s.
Born in Salt Lake City, May 16, 1902, Adolph L. Schafer moved with his family to Hollywood in the mid-teens, where he studied and created art. Schafer won an art scholarship to a Chicago school after graduating from high school, but lack of funds prevented him from accepting the offer. Instead, he joined Famous Players-Lasky in 1921, where he worked in the stills laboratory, processing prints.
A popular, outgoing man, Schafer was described as being as loud as his clothes. Somewhere along the way, he acquired the nickname, “Whitey,” but with a name like Adolph, it probably occurred when he was a boy.
In 1923, Schafer joined the Thomas Ince Studio, where he shot stills and occasionally appeared in features. Schafer revealed in a 1948 Popular Photography article, “That was in the days when everybody on the lot was called on to act at times. When we weren’t shooting pictures, we were doing “walk-ons.”
Schafer stayed at the Culver City studio as a stills photographer through 1931, as it passed from Ince to Cecil B. DeMille, Pathe, and RKO-Pathe, later joining Universal. He moved to Columbia in 1932, before being appointed head of the stills photography department in 1935 upon the death of department chief William Fraker. Schafer would create glamorous, lush portraits of such stars as Rita Hayworth, Loretta Young, Jean Arthur and William Holden over the next six years. Many of his photos featured simple lighting highlighting female stars’ flowing locks, full, relaxed body shots, or heroic, manly poses. His simple yet lovely images defined stars’ personas.
“Whitey” Schafer’s “Portraiture Simplified,” listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $9.99.
In his 1941 book, “Portraiture Simplified,” Schafer emphasized, “…portraiture’s purpose is the realization of character realistically.” That meant capturing people as they really were. Portraiture required forethought in capturing character, with its goal “…to get the entire character of your subject into a single picture.”
His intent in writing the book was to assist amateur photographers in creating vivid portraits and not just snapshots. Schafer described the equipment required, especially lenses and lighting, along with the proper film, papers and processing. The heart of his book, however, focused on composition of portraits, giving examples of each type (straight, full figure, effect, illustrative, and high and low key), with illustrations explaining the proper setup of lights and backgrounds.
To help promote the book, he wrote articles for a variety of magazines, including Popular Science in 1943 and Popular Photography in 1948. In Popular Science, he listed suggestions on how to improve pictures, especially employing backgrounds with patterns, looking for interesting lines, finding a contradictory line between the center of attention and plain background, varying the heights and directions of group poses and most important, have the subject look away from the lens as the photographer tilts the camera.
“It is the background that makes your pictures…Place your subject directly against the wall, turn one shoulder toward the camera and arrange a single key light high enough to cast a butterfly shadow under the nose so long as almost to reach the lip.”
In Popular Photography, he stated, “Composing a portrait is comparable to writing a symphony. There must be a center of interest, and in all portraits this naturally must be the head, or your purpose is defeated. Therefore, the highest light should be on the head.”
Schafer replaced Eugene Robert Richee as Paramount Studios’ stills photography head in 1941, moving away from Richee’s more experimental and inventive lighting and sophistication to focus on more conventional and subdued photography. He also experimented with technology, manufacturing a specially balanced tripod and speed lamp, and patenting the Devin One-Shot for color.
Grace Moore in a portrait “Whitey Schafer,” courtesy of Mary Mallory.
For the inaugural Hollywood Studios’ Still Show in 1941, a show created by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize outstanding still photography work, help define professional practices, and promote films to the general public, Schafer decided to create a novelty shot to satirically slap at the Production Code, the censorship standards of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Assn. His satirical image, entitled, “Thou Shalt Not,” displayed the top 10 faux-pas disallowed by industry censors, who approved every photographic image shot by studios before they could be distributed.
Fellow photographers and publicity heads loved the photograph, which became a popular bootleg item among the studios. Outraged organizers pulled the image from the competition, and Schafer was threatened with a $2,000 fine for violating the Production Code. Schafer defended himself, noting that all the judges were hoarding the 18 prints submitted for the show. The image was banned for many years before being printed in a newspaper decades later.
Schafer’s success as a studio photographer enabled him to move his wife, Beulah, and son Wayne to a 10-room North Hollywood home at 10337 Valley Spring Lane, drive a flashy convertible, and establish an outside photography store.
While on a vacation with his wife to visit friends in Bremerton, Wash., in late August 1951, tragedy struck. On Aug. 26, Schafer was attempting to help the owner of the 42-foot yacht light a stove, when the boat “exploded, burned and sunk,” per the Sept. 1, 1951, Los Angeles Times, in an explosion heard two miles away. Four other people were injured. He died from his injuries on Aug. 31.
Schafer’s Requiem Mass was held the morning of Sept. 5, 1951, at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, with the Paramount stills department closed for the morning to enable the staff to attend the service. “Bud” Fraker, the son of William Fraker, replaced him as Paramount stills department head.
Only 49 when he died, Schafer left an impressive body of work behind, and sadness of what other great accomplishments he might have achieved.