Stanley Kubrick, “Director Jules Dassin from Naked City” (1947) (image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York / SK Film Archive, LLC)

Before becoming a filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick was a photographer. This is the subject of Through a Different Lens, a long-running exhibit dedicated to Kubrick’s street photography at the Museum of the City of New York. In Kubrick’s eyes, the two disciplines were linked. “If I hadn’t been a photographer, I would have lacked the one essential ingredient you have to have to put anything on film, which is photography,” he said in an interview right after the 1968 release of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It all began on Stanley’s 13th birthday, when his father bought him a Graflex camera in the hope of sparking his son’s interest (indifferent and bored, throughout primary and secondary school, Kubrick received poor grades. He never went to college). The gift did the trick; Kubrick would spend hours in the Bronx, his neighborhood, snapping photos and developing them in his friend Marvin Traub’s bathroom-turned-dark room. Eventually, Look, a general interest biweekly magazine with features and photo essays on post-war America, would buy one of his photos for $25: a precisely framed snap of a forlorn vendor selling newspapers announcing the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In April 1946, at the behest of picture editor Helen O’Brian, who saw potential in the young boy, hired Stanley Kubrick as part of the staff. Soon, he was creating long-form photo essays and shooting photos that would wind up on the cover. He was 17 years old.

Through a Different Lens, curated by Donald Albrecht and Sean Corcoran, highlights the published and unpublished photos Kubrick snapped between 1945 and 1960, including his four-year tenure at Look — a relatively neglected period in Kubrick’s life and work. Located on the museum’s third floor, the exhibit is simple, effective, and direct. It’s an appropriate approach given that Kubrick’s photos are immediate, expressing drama and narrative as straightforwardly as possible. Designed by Marissa Martonyi, the show’s color scheme is black, white, and red (evoking the clichéd riddle about a newspaper, “What’s black and white and red all over?”). Like the coffee table-sized catalogue published by Taschen (which includes an essay by Luc Sante) that accompanies the show, the exhibit presents the photos chronologically. Concise program notes provide necessary historical and biographical context for each set of photos displayed. Since Look destroyed the original prints once an issue was published (although the negatives and contact prints remain), the photos — some of which are blown up — were recently printed. Copies of the original magazine are also showcased, giving the viewer a sense of how Kubrick’s photos were laid out in print.

Stanley Kubrick, from “Life and Love on the New York City Subway” (1947) (image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York / SK Film Archive, LLC)

As Philippe Mather notes in his book, Stanley Kubrick at Look Magazine, Kubrick’s photography techniques — such as freeze framing, inset photographs, the zoom, long shots in which human figures are dwarfed by their surroundings, symmetrical compositions, frames within frames, deep space, and available light — would all come into play and inform his movies. Moreover, just as he shot a plethora of photos while on assignment, on set he was notorious for his countless takes.

The March 4, 1947 issue of Look contained Kubrick’s first long-form essay, a six-page article featuring 29 of his candid and staged photographs showing lovers in intimate embrace, as well as commuters reading and sleeping on the train. Using available light, he surreptitiously snapped photos with a concealed camera, creating imagery that recalls one of his mentors, Weegee (whom Kubrick would go on to hire as a consultant for Dr. Strangelove).

Stanley Kubrick, from “Prizefighter Walter Cartier” (1949) (image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York / SK Film Archive, LLC)

Two years later, on January 18, Look published the essay “Prizefighter,” an important Kubrick work. With their dynamic chiaroscuro lighting, the pictures in the article show his maturation as a photographer and storyteller. The titular prizefighter is Walter Cartier, a 24-year-old middleweight boxer who lived in Greenwich Village (where Stanley also resided at the time with his first wife, Toba Metz). The article follows a day in the life of Cartier as he prepares for a match with his manager and twin brother: eating with his family, training with his manager, praying at church, and more. “Prizefighter” is also a transitional work, for Kubrick would return to Cartier for his first film, the self-financed, 16-minute Day of the Fight (1951). Kubrick would recycle imagery from “Prizefighter” and his article on nightclubs for both the short and his second feature film, Killer’s Kiss (1955). The exhibit includes looped clips from the two films, presenting them with the corresponding photos that Kubrick borrowed from.

Stanley Kubrick, Peter Arno and Joan Sinclair from “Peter Arno . . . Sophisticated Cartoonist” (1949) (image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York / SK Film Archive, LLC)

Although rich in contextualizing the photographs on display, and demonstrating how they lead to Kubrick’s transition to filmmaking, the exhibit does not make any attempt to link the pictures to his films beyond The Killing (1956). (For more on this, read James Naremore’s invaluable On Kubrick.) Still, this is a worthwhile exhibit that sheds light on Kubrick’s first artistic medium. “As the embryonic work of a major film director it offers almost too many clues, both psychological and aesthetic, to what lies ahead,” Luc Sante writes in the catalogue’s essay. At the same time, and as Naremore points out, the pictures contain points of references with art trends and movements of the early and mid-20th century: Ashcan painting, the “New York school” of street photographers, and film noir. Even at the beginning of his career, these photographs, both displaying and transcending influences, show the fully formed style of a visual storyteller.

Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs continues at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, East Harlem, Manhattan) through October 28. 

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Tanner Tafelski

Tanner is a freelance film critic based in New York. You can read his writing archived on his blog, The Mongrel Muse, and you can give him a holler @TTafelski.