Stanley Kubrick’s Early-Career Magazine Photographs Chart the Birth of an Uncanny Aesthetic


It’s the fiftieth anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Stanley Kubrick business is booming. A Christopher Nolan–supervised 70mm print (coming to the Museum of the Moving Image in July) premiered last month at Cannes, the theatrical rollout of which had the highest per-screen average of any film over Memorial Day weekend ($32,604). There’s a new book on the film, Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, as well as a fresh documentary, Filmworker, about the director’s longtime right-hand man, Leon Vitali. This is not to be cynical, just to note the tie-in context behind the timing of “Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs,” on display through October at the Museum of the City of New York. Get your ticket and ascend to the third floor; walk in the opposite direction from the “Beyond Suffrage” exhibition on feminist activism in the Seventies and through the hallway selection of “King in New York” photos of MLK. (That an exhibit on one of the — great, but still — white male auteurs pulls you away from these two topics seems almost like a perverse space planning/curatorial commentary.)

Between 1945 (when he was only seventeen!) and 1950, Kubrick was first a contributor to, then an apprentice at, and finally staff photographer for Look magazine, a scrappier variant of Life. Kubrick’s first photo for them was of a dejected newspaper vendor surrounded by headlines about FDR’s death; it was staged, the subject asked to look more depressed than he was. Presented in linear order, the exhibit tracks Kubrick from mere technical precociousness to the development of a distinct Weegee-inflected, noir-oriented style that led directly to Fear and Desire, Killer’s Kiss, and The Killing, and whose increasingly obvious compositional principles and eccentricities informed everything to come after. The exhibit’s opening text lays out this groping toward a personal style as one of four themes informing his early work. The others: “looking” (i.e., that Kubrick had a “fascination with human relationships,” which is not how most people would describe the primary emphasis of his films); “mastering the system” (Kubrick as anatomist of institutions, which seems plausible); and “media savvy” (given that he spent hours watching and enthusing about the narrative efficiency of beer commercials, also plausible).

There’s a fifth, tacit goal: to reclaim Kubrick as both NYC native son and one of its great chroniclers. He was indeed Bronx-born and -bred, but he shot only one film here (1955’s Killer’s Kiss). You could (maybe) argue that he never got over his formative years, given the insanely large and strangely convincing London-soundstage version of New York City he built for Eyes Wide Shut. That career-long trajectory — from necessity-driven location-bound shooting to elaborate artificial environments that are both incredibly real-looking while speaking to a consistent aesthetic — is micro-mirrored in the selection of photos, which move, if not precisely from outdoors to indoors, into progressively more constricted and constructed setups. This is not just a question of overt staging (which Kubrick embraced over time, and which the magazine noted in its captions) but of composition. Whether inside or out, the aesthetic mutates from relatively open and unconstrained to strong diagonals or other guide lines; the contours of every space are directly ascertainable, their restrictions clear. Every interior starts to look loomingly huge: Even a simple photo of Guy Lombardo and his dogs feels like a study for the Overlook Hotel.

I primarily associate motion, not static framing, with Kubrick’s films: the elegant drifting of 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon’s slow zooms, the Steadicam years from The Shining to Eyes Wide Shut. That variable removed, you can still clearly see “Kubrick” emerging in these photos. The early years are fine, technically proficient, on trend for the time but not quite so personally distinct: telephoto street snaps of couples, packed laundromats, all in observational mode. There is a noticeable tendency toward the sardonic, grotesque, or generally less-than-cheery, which the magazine’s captions tried to mitigate: a particularly grim shot of miserable-looking diners at a lunch counter rests underneath the headline “Whatever you want — food, clothing or house furnishings — the 5 and 10 has it.” You couldn’t write better heavy-handed anti-capitalism critique on purpose. I suspect the author of that copy knew exactly what they were doing, and that they could get away with it because nobody would pick up on it.

Seeing Kubrick’s increasingly un-American-ly eccentric photos (a significant number of those on display the magazine did not publish) juxtaposed against wholesome Fifties-anticipating ads for Philco and The Farmer’s Daughter is hilarious. There’s a smiling photo of Eisenhower himself, openinga 1948 spread on Columbia University, where Kubrick’s aesthetic as a photographer pops into focus. A photo of an atomic scientist holding a glowing core is uncanny, directly anticipating similar lighting of Dr. Strangelove from underneath in one of that 1964 film’s most-circulated images. What lingers most from the exhibit is a staged shot of a teenage girl: back to the camera, head crumpled into her arm, resting against a wall whose lipsticked graffiti reads “I HATE LOVE!” From the captured to the created: “Through a Different Lens” does ultimately make the case that it depicts a visual thinker arriving at the first iteration of a consistent aesthetic moving gradually inward, toward the entirely controllable and potentially corrosive.

‘Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs’
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
Through October 28