Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on March 7, 2013
Ava Gardner with photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull (1945)
Photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull is probably best remembered today as “The Man Who Shot Garbo.” And while it’s true that his publicity photos of the illusive actress helped create Garbo’s mystique, he also had a hand in sculpting the public’s perception of many other popular performers such as Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Katharine Hepburn, Peter Lorre, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Bela Lugosi, Hedy Lamarr and Elizabeth Taylor (just to name a few!). Today it’s easy to take his iconic photos of various Hollywood stars for granted but Clarence Sinclair Bull’s photographs are a critical part of film history and they’re still influencing the way we observe, admire and fetishize celebrities.
Clarence Sinclair Bull was born in 1896 and spent his formative years in Montana on his family’s ranch in Sun River. His father ran the local paper and his mother was a teacher who devoted herself to homeschooling Clarence. By age 3 Bull could read and at age 6 he was already learning to ride a horse and shoot a gun. Life on the ranch was somewhat isolating and he rarely spent time with any children his own age so young Bull devoted most of time to reading and riding. In 1906, when he was just 10 years old, an event occurred that would change Clarence Sinclair Bull’s life forever. His aunt visited his family’s ranch during the summer and brought along a camera. He had never seen one before and watched with rapt attention as his aunt snapped photos of the ranch. After the photos were developed, Bull was surprised to find that the unsightly scaffolding that had been blocking the view of his house had mysteriously vanished and been replaced by more attractive shrubbery. He was amazed by the retouched photo and according to authors Terrence Pepper & John Kobal, Bull became enamored with “the power of photography to transform a less than satisfactory reality into the ideal.”
Not long afterward Bull found himself hospitalized for a hip operation. While he was there a kind nurse introduced him to the Montana cowboy artist Charles Marion Russell, who took a liking to the boy and eventually invited him to his art studio. Young Bull was fascinated by Russell’s paintings and loved to observe the artist at work. Russell eventually offered to give Bull art lessons and taught him a lot about composition and lightening but soon discovered that Bull wasn’t a good painter. Russell knew he had some creative ability so he encouraged Bull to buy a camera and focus his attention on photography instead, which had obviously captured the boy’s imagination.
Cameras were an expensive luxury item at the time that Clarence Sinclair Bull and his family couldn’t afford so young Bull embarked on a number of moneymaking endeavors in an effort to purchase his first camera. He became a paper boy and delivered the news on horseback to isolated ranch homes. He also managed to acquire a franchise and sold face creams, hair tonics and Currier & Ives prints to local townspeople. By age 13 all his hard work paid off and he saved enough to purchase his first camera. He immediately realized he’d need a steady income if he wanted to pursue photography because film and processing chemicals weren’t cheap so he devised a plan to snap landscape and wildlife photos, which he turned into postcards and sold. He also started working at a local movie theater as a projectionist and found various odd jobs with local printers where he was able to pursue his passionate interest in photo manipulation and retouching.
So how did this young cowboy who liked to refer to himself as the “Rawbone from Montana” eventually end up in the City of Angels shooting celebrity portraits? By 1915 Clarence Sinclair Bull had become increasingly interested in moving pictures and learned to operate a 35 mm camera. While in college, he shot a documentary about campus life and helped shoot a football match for the news. When he left school he decided to set up a small photo studio and film development workshop inside the hardware store where his father now worked. The shop became so lucrative that he started getting orders from all around the country requesting him to develop film, which would be sent and returned by post. One day he received an order from the wife of director Frank Lloyd (The Divine Lady; 1929, Cavalcade; 1933, Mutiny on the Bounty; 1935, etc.) and she was so impressed with the results that she contacted Clarence to thank him for his work. After learning more about the ambitious young man and his interest in moving pictures, Mrs. Lloyd encouraged her husband to offer him a job on his film crew. The director generously asked Clarence to come to Hollywood in 1917 but when the aspiring cameraman arrived there he discovered that Frank Lloyd had decided to finish his next film in New Jersey. Without the means to follow Lloyd to New Jersey, Clarence got a room at the nearby YMCA and with his camera in hand he set out to conquer Hollywood.
He immediately found work as an assistant cameraman for Metro where he developed a lifelong friendship with the celebrated cinematographer John Arnold (The Big Parade; 1925, Show People; 1928, The Broadway Melody; 1929, etc.). In between shoots, Bull would snap informal portraits of the actors and crew on set. He loved the work but his job with Metro only lasted 6 months. After his brief stint with Metro he found work at The Triangle studio in Culver City, which was devoted to shooting authentic westerns at the time. The atmosphere at The Triangle must have reminded Bull of home. He was hired as an assistant cameraman but spent most of time shooting the cowboys on set. 6 months after Bull started working at The Triangle, the studio was taken over by Samuel Goldwyn who was so impressed with Bull’s photos that he put him in charge of the studio’s publicity department and asked him to start shooting official portraits of the stars. The year was 1919 and Motion Picture Magazines such as Photoplay, Screenland and Movie Star Parade were all the rage. According to authors Terrence Pepper & John Kobal, Bull wrote briefly about the period saying “Sam believed in publicity photographs by the thousand. From Sam Goldwyn on down, the emphasis was on getting still photographs of his people and his films in the newspapers and magazines.”
Bull worked exclusively with Goldwyn Studios until 1924 when the company merged with Metro and Louis B. Mayer Productions to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. His future must have seemed uncertain but he was kept in charge of the quickly growing photography department where he now employed 10 other photographers to help him carry out his duties, including Ruth Harriet Louise who I wrote about in 2011. Bull’s photography department had many duties that they were responsible for including the creation of publicity stills, poster art and backgrounds. During this productive period, Bull spent more and more time working on photo retouching, coloring and manipulation. He was quickly becoming a wizard in the darkroom. By the end of the 1920s, Bull was known as a consummate professional and craftsman but his reputation as a great photographer wasn’t set in stone until he was given the opportunity to shoot Greta Garbo in 1929.
Garbo had developed a good working relationship with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer photographer Ruth Harriet Louise but when she left the studio, Garbo was forced to work with another photographer. Bull took up the job and much to their surprise, the two got along famously and Garbo asked him to become her exclusive photographer. Like Garbo, Bull was a man of few words but he was also a great listener and very sensitive to the mood and feelings of his subjects. He was easy to get along with, liked to play music during his shoots and believed in building a trusting relationship with his subjects so they were able to relax in front of his camera.
Following his successful photo shoot with Garbo, Clarence Sinclair Bull was suddenly in huge demand and every actor working at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio wanted to work with him. Many actors such as Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor returned to pose for him again and again throughout their careers so he was able to capture their youthful innocence as well as their blossoming beauty. Bull also developed friendships with many of his subjects. He gave dating advice to Taylor, career advice to Ava Gardner and marriage advice to Vivien Leigh while spending his weekends hunting with Clark Gable or relaxing on Johnny Weissmuller’s yacht.
To be fair, his relationships with actors weren’t always great. Bull once told Marlene Dietrich that she was “no Garbo.” He also complained that Joan Crawford wore too much lipstick to photo shoots and had to make allowances for Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, W.C. Fields and John Barrymore because they all liked to drink and could only be successfully photographed in the early morning hours.
For the next 30 years (roughly between 1929-1959) Bull would become one of the most highly sought after photographers in Hollywood before he finally retired. His ability to masterfully manipulate images, creatively control lighting and create flawless portraits of Hollywood royalty made him one of tinsel town’s best kept secrets until his death in 1979. Today we’re still enjoying his work although it usually goes unaccredited. Below is a small selection of his incredible photographs.
Greta Garbo (1931)
Gary Cooper (1934)
Eleanor Powell & Fred Astaire (1940)
Judy Garland (1936)
Elizabeth Taylor (1948)
Clark Gable & Vivien Leigh (1939)
Robert Mitchum (1946)
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