September 22, 1909 – John Engstead
Born in Los Angeles, John Engstead was hired as an office boy by Paramount Pictures’ head of studio publicity, Harold Harley, in 1926, and a world-class career began. You know his work, even if you think you might not.
The visual history of filmmaking is contained in still photography. Every aspect of making a movie was caught by this medium and there are a variety of genres, many are highly collectible today.
Preproduction included photography of rehearsals, of sets being built, of costumes being made. These photographs created a visual history of the studios’ product. Stills were also used to test costumes, hair, make-up and to capture an image of a set once it was finished and decorated.
“Scene stills” recorded every scene filmed in order to have a photo narrative of the screenplay. Once the last take was completed the cast and crew spent several minutes recreating the scene for the “stills”.
As a film was being shot, photographers would snap images of the process to show directors and production staff hard at work.
The studio produced publicity photographs that had actors, in a photo studio setting, posing for images that could be used for the ad art and for promoting the film. This genre included actors being photographed both as themselves and in character to promote clothing lines and a variety of merchandise. The shots were used to capture a movie star’s role or to simply promote that star. The stars were rarely left alone, and a photographer was often available to capture them at home, so their social lives were always the subject of the still camera.
Most photographs from the Golden Age are on double weight paper, glossy or matte finish nitrate silver prints printed from negatives the size of the print. They were coded with studio and production information and many bear the ink stamps of the studio, the photographer and date of the film release.
Hollywood’s photography studios, usually right on the studio lots, were busy with portraiture, glamour and pin-up-style photography of all the stars. Here is where some of the most famous photographers of the day worked, including George Hurrell, Cecil Beaton, and Engstead, who was the pioneer.
In 1927, Engstead bluffed his way into a photo assignment shooting Clara Bow, the studio’s top star. He pleased his boss by having photographer Otto Dyer use an outdoor garden setting which was unusual at that time. The resulting photographs were hailed by Harley as “Clara Bow’s best sitting.”
In 1928, in response to fan magazine requests, Engstead was appointed by Paramount as the Creative Director of Photographs, with a contract that stipulated that he wear a suit and tie every day. His creative direction for a shoot of Louise Brooks led to a promotion to Art Supervisor, where he oversaw the entire production of Paramount’s stills.
In 1932, there was a general strike by studio photographers, and Engstead was given the new position of Studio Portrait Photographer, despite having never previously photographed anyone. His close friend Cary Grant posed for his practice shots. But, he returned to his job as Art Supervisor after the strike was resolved.
In 1941, Paramount fired Engstead, and Harper’s Bazaar hired him for freelance advertising and portrait photography assignments. From 1941 to 1949, he took fashion photography assignments from other magazines including: Collier’s, Esquire, House Beautiful, LIFE, Look, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, and Vogue.
In the 1940s, Engstead photographed many Hollywood stars, including: Judy Garland,Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Maureen O’Hara and Shirley Temple. Unlike most photographers, he shot his subjects at home or outdoors. During this decade, he built a studio in Los Angeles that became a gathering place for celebrities.
Engstead spoke at film class when I was studying at a Los Angeles university, and he had some juicy stories to tell. Marlene Dietrich, to whom he later became her official photographer for her celebrated cabaret act, recalled that for Paramount’s The Devil Is A Woman (1935), her last film with Josef von Sternberg, the studio designer Travis Baton and Dietrich produced an enormous Spanish comb which supported a large mantilla. The comb was anchored to Dietrich’s head with wire cutters, and Dietrich fell forward, arms and head resting on her dressing table, exhausted from pain. When she came up, tears were running down her face.
Engstead said that his favorite male star was Gary Copper, and he supervised Cooper’s sessions when they were both at Paramount and he photographed him a great deal in Cooper’s later years. He said of Cooper:
“Cooper knew more about how to be photographed than any other man I know. The way he handled his face and his six-toot-three-inch frame led me to surmise that he must have done considerable homework…. He moved with the grace of a panther. I don’t think he either liked or disliked photographic sessions, but he endured them because he realized that they were part of his business… One thing that made it easy for Cooper to make stills was his appreciation that cameras photograph the mind…. Cooper carried this professionalism to the care of his body, which he kept in top physical condition until his last illness.”
Carole Lombard purchased most of her clothing with the still camera in mind, and Engstead said she was a delight. She approached each sitting with the same care as a screen role. She would meet with him a week before each session to discuss the type of photographs that would be taken, the backgrounds, and the wardrobe she should buy or borrow for it. In her eight years at Paramount the studio released more 1700 photographs of her, not counting all the other types of stills and portraits taken when she was on loan-out to the other studios. Engstead adored Lombard and loved working with her, praised her contribution to the success of her portraits:
“Lombard always gave her complete cooperation. She loved good photographs, knew about lighting and how to pose and she had no inhibitions about being photographed, so it was possible to shoot her any way you wanted and she gave all the time it needed.”
From 1942 to 1954, he photographed celebrity clients outdoors, an innovation in fashion photography. He photographed the annual spring and fall collections for gay MGM designer Adrian, who was credited onscreen with “Gowns by Adrian”. When Adrian created Adrian, he established Adrian, Ltd., a boutique in Beverly Hills. Adrian’s fashion line filled the gap left by Paris, which could not export during the German occupation.
Engstead continued to photograph movie stars and other celebrities through the 1950s and 1960s. He produced promotional material for Lauren Bacall, Janet Gaynor, Mary Martin, Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Joanne Woodward, Marilyn Monroe, Donna Reed, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and sons, Eve Arden, and Lucille Ball. He also shot album covers for Vikki Carr, Peggy Lee, Connie Francis, Rosemary Clooney and Cher. He shot First Ladies Pat Nixon and Nancy Reagan.
In his memoir Star Shots: Fifty Years Of Pictures And Stories (1978), Engstead writes that during his long, friendly association with Doris Day that he always over-lit the shots and used a filtered lens to ease her worries about her freckles and slight crow’s feet around her eyes. When old Hollywood glamour was being ushered out and replaced by the more raw and real style of filmmaking in the late-1960s, Universal Studios instructed Engstead to stop using the glamour treatment in order to achieve a more natural look in Day’s portraits. He warned the publicity department that Day wouldn’t be happy about it, but he did as he was told. When he turned in the portraits to the studio, Day rejected them all. Left with the erroneous impression that Engstead was losing his touch behind the camera, Day decided to never work with him again.
Engstead closed his studio in 1970, but retirement didn’t take, so he continued to accept special portrait and television assignments until he left this world, putting down the camera for good in 1983 at 73 years old. Not really discreet about his gayness, but lived without a scandal or list of lovers. Otto Stubbs was Engstead’s business associate and longtime partner. Stubbs and Engstead met in Los Angeles during World War II when Stubbs was serving in the US Navy. When the war ended, Stubbs returned to Los Angeles and began a lifetime of working beside Engstead. The men lived in Beverly Hills. Stubbs died exactly a year after after Engstead,