Hollywood photography has changed as the media has changed; I would say it’s for the worst. There’s something about staring at beautifully composed portraits of glamorous celebrities (regardless of black and white or color) that we lose today with paparazzi photos and Instagram. A year or so ago I reviewed a book about the history of production stills during the Golden Era, and I always run out to buy photography books on old Hollywood. David S. Shields’ latest book, Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography, is the perfect photo book for fans of silent cinema. A dense compendium including hundred of breathtaking photos as well as an intricate, and rich history of motion picture photography during the silent era. Although a ponderous read at times, Still is a must-own for silent film aficionados.
In over 300 pages, Shields remarks on every infinitesimal element you could wish to know on silent era photography. Starting with the birth of the professional beauty, he explores how the stage brought about the first silent era thespians, and how several prominent motion picture photographers got their start on the stage. He details why photographers entered into becoming cinematographers, and the advantage certain stars had on those they photographed. As the story unfolds, you discover the mechanics within setting up shots, the difference ways women and men were photographed, and the ability for photographers to wait for the perfect moment to get their shot. Shields isn’t writing for the casual fan, and his vocabulary can become somewhat cumbersome to the uninitiated.
Fans of photography will want to know about the pictures, and that’s where the light of the book shines brightest. All the pictures are works of art, and it’s easy to understand when Shields describes them as “palpable.” There’s a tactile feel to them, almost as if you could reach out and touch the leading man or lady within. Shields shies away from devoting large chapters to particular stars, so if you’re hoping that a particular silent film actress will be spotlighted, you’re in for disappointment. The only star given her own chapter is Lillian Gish, and the photos are quite breathtaking. The ethereal, angelic quality to the photos of her are fantastic. Shields also includes quite a few long-shots of sets (such as the silent version of Ben-Hur) which does a lot to emphasize the scope and practical set-up required for these movies.
I wouldn’t consider Still to be a coffee table book, although it’s placement there would be appropriate. You’ll want to go back and look at the beautiful pictures within time and again, and now and then you’ll want to read the stories that went in to capturing the great work. As with most pictures of coffee table size, reading the chapters can be daunting (a few are over 40 pages with very small print). Regardless, if you’re a fan of motion picture photography, no matter the era, then pick up Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography.
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