More than 6,000 Hollywood photographs have entered the collection of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The images span the history of Hollywood from 1916 to the 1970s and include film production stills, portraits, and publicity shots. They previously belonged to John Kobal, a film historian who wrote over 30 books on movies and movie photography; built an unrivaled collection of Hollywood portrait photography; and curated some of the first major exhibitions on the era.
Some of the images in the acquisition are by unknown photographers, while others are by figures such as Ernst Haas and Arthur F. Kales. Highlights include an atmospheric photograph attributed to Milton Brown depicting Lillian Gish shoveling sand in The Wind (1928), which was among the last silent films released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and John Engstead’s portrait of Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire, taken in 1950. The collection also includes Ernest A. Bachrach’s 1940 photo of French actress Michèle Morgan donning a chic getup and holding two canine sculptures by a leash.
Kobal was born in 1940 in Linz, Austria, and emigrated to Ottowa as a 10-year-old. Living in England as an adult, he had a brief stint as an actor and began collecting film memorabilia, photographs, and ephemera. He established himself as a film journalist, becoming BBC’s US film correspondent in New York in 1964. At that time, Hollywood was on the brink of a major transition. The influence of European art cinema, avant-garde film, and television made the old studio system appear staid, and new releases that might have been hits a decade prior were generating little revenue with an emerging youth market.
Amid the advent of “New Hollywood,” a period characterized by more experimental director-driven films, Kobal collected the remnants of Old Hollywood. He salvaged discarded publicity materials, including the numerous 11-by-14 portraits and “behind the scenes” photographs that studios sent to movie fan magazines to promote their films. Kobal’s subsequent writings, which included an important history of the American film musical Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance (1971), brought attention to forgotten photographers such as Laszlo Willinger, Clarence Sinclair Bull, and Ruth Harriet Louise, the first woman staff photographer in Hollywood in the ’20s and early ’30s. In the ’70s and ’80s, Kobal even united some Hollywood photographers with their original negatives, asking them to make new prints for inclusion in the exhibitions that he curated.
Kobal died at the age of 51 in 1991 from AIDS-related complications. Before he died, he created an eponymous charitable foundation to house his archives and promote the art of portrait photography. With the sale of thousands of photographs to the Hood Museum — a transaction that has been in the works since 2019 — the foundation will be able to support a new artist’s fellowship, which will be awarded every two years to a UK-based photographer.
Mary Desjardins, Professor of Media and Film Studies at Dartmouth, plans to use the archive in her teaching. In a statement, she explained: “The collection is exciting as a pedagogical tool because it allows the historian-teacher to chart the history of twentieth-century American culture through the fantasies of and ideals created out of Hollywood films and their stars.”
A selection of photographs from the acquisition will be on view at the Hood Museum in winter and spring 2022. It’s not the first time that the museum has displayed work from Kobal’s Hollywood photography archives; the Hood first staged a show on the topic in 2010.