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July 14, 2016

The Man Who Shot Garbo: Stunning Black and White Portraits of Swedish Film Star Greta Garbo Taken by Clarence Bull

“Clarence Bull was one of the greats – I was thrilled when I went to MGM to know that he was going to photograph me. I was terrified. Was I interesting enough? He had done Garbo for years. The pictures were extraordinary. Her head, his lighting, they combined into something unique.” –– Katharine Hepburn

Clarence Sinclair Bull (1896-1979) was born in Michigan but spent most of his life in Hollywood where he died in 1979. He was hired by movie mogul Sam Goldwyn in 1920 to photograph publicity stills of the studio’s stars. Four years later, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was founded, Bull was appointed as the head of their stills department where he remained throughout his career. During that time he took portraits of the most celebrated Hollywood film stars, however, he is particularly known for his photographs for Garbo who was almost exclusively photographed by Bull from 1926 to 1941.

From The Kiss until Two-Faced Woman in 1941, Bull was to take all Garbo’s portraits with the exception of one film in 1930, Romance. George Hurrell, who came to MGM in that year, took these portraits. Bull was the ideal collaborator for this sensitive soul, Garbo. Their first set of proofs showed it, a portfolio of accomplished images that would be printed, published, reprinted, and seen all over the world.

Bull’s first significant session with Garbo was when he came to shoot the portraits for her last silent film The Kiss in 1929. “I recall that first morning the great Garbo walked into my portrait gallery looking like a frightened schoolgirl.” Garbo, a creature of extreme habit, suddenly found herself confronted with a new photographer having been photographed for the past three years by Ruth Harriet Louise. Most film stars considered their gallery sessions the most uncomfortable and exposing part of their work.

Garbo was no different, and was unique in Hollywood in that she only ever posed in character for her role in whatever film she was making, and this may account for her reaction to their first session as Bull recalled it. Though, as he points out, “What she didn’t know was that I was just as scared. For three hours I photographed her in every pose and emotion that beautiful face could mirror. At the end of the sitting, which had been without a single break, she said ‘I’ll do better next time Mr. Bull. I was quite nervous.’ I patted her hand and replied, ‘So will I’.”


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