Exhibition Review: Glamour of the Gods, Hollywood Portraits

Clara Bow by Nikolas Murray, 1925

Who doesn’t love pictures from old Hollywood? For fashion and costume aficionados, (and legions of tumblr mavens), there is no greater source for seductive and informative fashion images. The National Portrait Gallery’s current special exhibition Glamour of the Gods pays homage to these great photos with an exhibition of 70 images from the collection of historian and photo archivist John Kobal. The photographs are all from the period between 1920 and 1970, and feature familiar faces such as Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Many of these pictures have been previously published in Kobal’s collections of images, such as Hollywood Glamor Portraits: 145 Portraits of Stars, 1926-49, but seeing framed prints from original 8×10 negatives in a gallery setting made for a true experience of immersion in the glory of celluloid style.

Louise Brooks by ER Richee, 1929

The exhibition was crowded during my visit, with spectators of all ages admiring the photographs in a worshipful manner.  The deep indigo and pale blue walls and dramatic lighting added to luminosity of the photographs and their subjects, arranged chronologically by decade around the perimeter of the gallery. Among the converastions of visitors were excited comments of recognition and favourite films, stars and of course, costumes.

Clarence Sinclair Bull photographing Clarke Gable and Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind, 1939 by Fred Parrish

The information panels accompanying the images all included two distinct texts, one regarding the sitter and film which it was taken to promote, and one explicating the photographer’s work and relation to the subject. These texts were truly enlightening in that they provided background information about the the careers of the stars, and in many cases noted the costume and production designers as integral to Hollywood image-making.

In addition to the photographs themselves, the exihibition displayed some of Kobal’s books, as well as a showcase of photographer’s proofs with notes for retouching.  I was particularly pleased at this inclusion was significant in showing that behind all the seeming perfection and beauty, there was then, as now, technical intervention to help beauty along.

A video slideshow of the photographers at work was also a fascinating element of the exhibition, providing behind the scenes glimpses of the theatricality of the process as well as the product of the sessions.

Marilyn Monroe By Ernest A. Bachrach Modern platinum print from the original negative, 1952

By the conclusion of the exhibition my eyes were bleary with the haze of glamour – and having been a visitor to the pantheon of Hollywood stars and characters that were and continue to be, truly divine.

The exhibition runs until October 23, and a series of events and a photographic competition have taken place in conjunction with the show. Online, a wealth of material is available regarding the exhibition and a full image list is downloadable. For even more engagement with Hollywood glamour, the National Portrait Gallery has devised an interactive site where you can upload your own photographs and give them the star treatment by adding period frames, effects and even your own celebrity autograph!


Related Articles

1 Comment

  • Halley | Clothing Tags September 30, 2011 01.13 am

    Marilyn Monroe just looks so glamorous in this shot. It’s sexy and there’s also a sense elegance to it, brought by the color.


Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.