In June 1945, a sixteen-year-old Stanley Kubrick published his first photograph in Look magazine: that of a dejected newspaper salesman framed by broadsheets announcing the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Over the next five years, the Bronx native shot thousands of photographs for Look, progressing from kid apprentice to staff photographer. Some 120 of these photos, both published and unpublished, appear in “Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs,” at the Museum of the City of New York through January 6, 2019, revealing a broad-spanning snapshot of post-war New York City, as well as a concentrated look at Kubrick in his formative years as he explored the content, technique, and aesthetics that presage his directorial career.1
Kubrick’s work for Look began in earnest in 1946. These early features were short scenes of New York life: “Bronx Street Scene” appeared in November and “Fun at the Amusement Park” the following June; the cigar-smoking cabbie and stern-faced granny of “People Mugging” went unpublished, as did the young lovers of “Park Benches: Love is Everywhere.” A museum placard notes that for “Park Benches,” Kubrick likely used infrared film and flash to shoot in the dark, an innovative technique he picked up from the street and crime-scene photographer Arthur Fellig, known in the trade as Weegee.
Named after the Ouija Board for the otherworldly speed with which he arrived at crime scenes, Weegee proved more than a technical mentor to young Kubrick. In June 1947, Kubrick shot an unpublished feature on the set of The Naked City, a film inspired by Weegee’s pulpy 1945 photobook of the same name. Kubrick’s early noir films Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956) bear the mark of Weegee’s gritty street style. Kubrick later brought Weegee on as a set photographer for Dr. Strangelove (1964), despite the presence of two such photographers already hired by the studio. Peter Sellers, in an interview on the Steve Allen Show, credited Weegee as the direct inspiration for Dr. Strangelove’s voice.
By 1949, Kubrick’s work at Look grew to include higher profile, character-centric photo-essays centered on celebrities, artists, showgirls, and the like. In these features, one sees Kubrick evolve from crafty observer to deliberate storyteller. In an August 1950 profile of Faye Emerson, for instance, one sees the Hollywood actress sitting perfectly poised for a TV interview, juggling phone calls at her high-rise office, laughing with a reporter in front of the Plaza Hotel, and tying up her hair in an unguarded moment in front of a mirror (the last with Kubrick in frame, bent over his camera). More than a disconnected series of images, these photos constitute a dynamic narrative with Emerson at its center.
Other such subjects of Kubrick’s lens include Leonard Bernstein, the New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, and the knockout king Rocky Graziano. Graziano’s profile was the last of three photo-essays on boxing Kubrick shot for Look, following a 1947 feature on Bobby Ruffin and Willie Beltram and a 1949 profile on Walter Cartier.
This profile, “Prizefighter,” served as the segue between Kubrick’s photography and film careers. Two years after its publication, Kubrick self-financed and directed a short documentary film called Day of the Fight, which also centered on Cartier. Like the photo-essay, this short film tracks the boxer in his rituals and routines leading up to a big fight. According to the MCNY curator Sean Corcoran, the photos of “Prizefighter” served as the storyboard for Day of the Fight.
Kubrick again entered the boxing ring in 1955 for his second full-length feature, Killer’s Kiss, which begins in familiar territory, with fictional welterweight Davey Gordon preparing for a match. Indeed, several photographs in “Through a Different Lens”—which also displays clips from Day of the Fight and Killer’s Kiss—seem to flaunt some foreknowledge of Kubrick’s film career. A 1949 shoot at Columbia University includes a photo of three physicists standing atop a massive particle accelerator, as well as that of a laboratory scientist handling a glowing rod reflected in his dark, circular glasses; neither image is extricable from thoughts of Dr. Strangelove.
The photographs on display at MCNY offer ample room for such projection. One can glimpse Danny Torrance from The Shining (1980) in Mickey the shoe shine boy, just as one can read Jack Torrance into the manic energy of Peter Arno. Rather than engage in such speculation, one can simply take these photos as Kubrick’s training ground, projects through which the young artist honed his eye and narrative skill in preparation for the filmmaking that would become his life’s great pursuit.
The actor Matthew Modine tells a story from the filming of Full Metal Jacket (1987). Aware of Kubrick’s background in photography, Modine showed up on set with an old Rolleiflex camera around his neck, hoping to spark conversation over a shared interest. But when Kubrick spotted the camera, he said, “What are you doing with that old piece of shit?” and issued an order: if Modine was going to take pictures on his set, he had better use a proper camera.
Modine, who starred in the film as Private Joker, might have known better than to approach Kubrick as a hobbyist—Kubrick, who shot Barry Lyndon (1975) on 55mm lenses designed for the Apollo moon landing, who pioneered the use of the Steadicam in The Shining, and whose 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) laid the foundation for much of the special effects work in contemporary cinema. Even as a young photojournalist, as “Through a Different Lens” demonstrates, Stanley Kubrick was neither an amateur nor a hobbyist, but a driven practitioner.