October 1947. What appears to be Brooklyn. An impossibly towheaded shoeshine boy named Mickey takes a break from his work and leans against a lamppost, eating a hot dog and having an animated conversation with his pal in the Huntz Hall hat. A chainlink-fenced industrial yard containing giant oil tanks—perhaps where Mickey and his friend's fathers work—looms behind them.
March 1948. An aspiring actress who's a dead ringer for Heddy Lamar, positioned and straining just so, to emphasize the claustrophobic confines of her walk-up's cramped kitchen, has her Hollywood moment. In another frame, the struggling starlet is backstage at her bill-paying gig as a scantily clad showgirl, applying makeup with defeated detachment.
The scenes are flawlessly composed and constructed, with fanatical attention to detail. Each looks like it's from a movie. Which makes perfect sense, when you consider that they were made by one of moviedom's most painstakingly "visual" and detail-obsessed filmmakers: Stanley Kubrick, during the days he worked as a staff photographer for Look magazine in the late 1940s, before he began his subsequent career. Kubrick's photos for Look are the focus of "Through a Different Lens," an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, and a lavish, identically titled companion tome published by Taschen Books.
- "Rosemary Williams—Showgirl," 1948
"These photo features were supposed to tell stories, and Kubrick stuck to the script, as it were, when he was creating them," says writer and historian Luc Sante, who penned "Learning to Look," an introductory essay for Through a Different Lens. "It's clear he wasn't intended to remain a photographer. But his photos from that time are important, because they show us a completely lost world."
Kubrick, of course, stands as a cinematic icon, the director of such monolithic, culture-shifting masterpieces as Paths of Glory (1957), Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). But few today are aware of his humble, workaday beginnings as a maker of still images. Born in the Bronx in 1928 to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Kubrick began his initial, photographic phase when his father presented him with a high-end Graflex camera on his 13th birthday.
Look magazine in the 1940s was the perfect print outlet for this budding young lensman. Founded in 1937, it was the biweekly rival to the weekly Life, which, of the two, tended to feature more wholesome content and cover more international topics. Look had those elements as well, but its longer lag time between issues allowed its creators regular opportunities to embed themselves further while cultivating story matter, and much of it came from just outside their Manhattan offices. In 1945, bypassing college, Kubrick became a Look staffer at the astonishing age of 17 and remained at the magazine until 1950. "By the time I was 21," he said later, "I had four years of seeing how things worked in the world."
His photos for the publication cut straight to the seasoned souls of his subjects, uncannily conveying experiences well beyond most the teenager taking their picture would have known himself. Reprinted in Through a Different Lens are Kubrick's mass-market-satisfying pictorials of celebrities like bandleaders Guy Lombardo and Vaughn Monroe and doomed matinee idol Montgomery Clift. But equally impactful as the shots of famous figures—often more so—are the ones of "regular" people, on the sidewalks, in the subways, and in the bygone theaters and dancehalls of New York. Many of these tableaux were cleverly staged for Kubrick's camera.
A marked film-noir feel permeates much of his work here, and this aesthetic clearly found its way into two of his earliest films, the genre gems Killer's Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956), as well as the suffocating settings of Dr. Strangelove (a July 1947 spread on the on-location shooting of Jules Dassin's noir classic The Naked City was certainly a formative assignment for the auteur-to-be). By 1951, though, Kubrick had seen what he'd needed to see at Look. He left the magazine and picked up a different kind of camera. That year, he made his directorial debut with Day of the Fight, a short boxing documentary no doubt informed by his Look pictorials on prizefighters Rocky Graziano and Walter Cartier. After that, he was on his way, launching his fabled feature film career with Fear and Desire in 1953 and finishing it with Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, the year he died.
Historical Reference"All of the houses were newly built and had little driveways, but nobody had a car," says Luc Sante about suburban Verviers, Belgium, where he was born in 1954. "There was only one family with a TV set in the neighborhood. By 1963, though, the 'economic miracle' [postwar European growth] had happened, and everyone had cars and TVs." Despite the period's resurgence, however, there were still glimpses of a Europe that hadn't fully emerged from the 19th century. "My early classrooms featured potbellied stoves and double desks with inkwells, into which we dipped our nibs," Sante recalls in The Factory of Facts, his childhood memoir. Sante is the author of several books, most famously Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, and reams of writings concerned with art, culture, and, especially, history. He traces his fascination with the latter subject to an early interest in the Romans who colonized his homeland in the fourth century, although it was the visual arts that initially sparked his vocational ambitions. "At first, I wanted to be a cartoonist," he says. "[wing-helmeted Franco-Belgian comic strip characters] Asterix and Obelix were around, and I loved them. But I'm colorblind. So that wasn't going to work."
Although the economic miracle benefitted many Europeans, it didn't arrive soon enough to secure Sante's father's position as a foundry foreman. By the time the recovery was settling in, the Santes had settled in New Jersey. There, young Luc resumed his education while learning the language. "Wanting to be a writer came from the act of learning English," he says. "When I was 10, one of my teachers told me I'd be a good writer, although I didn't think much of it at the time." A family trip to Montreal for Expo 67 included a visit to a French-language bookstore where he discovered Rimbaud and the Surrealists, and by age 13 he was devouring everything from the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy to Naked Lunch and Henry Felsen's teen hot rod novels. He also started pitching articles. "I'd buy Writer's Digest and respond to the listings," he says, with a dry smirk. "I submitted all this filler—to boating magazines, whoever was looking for writers—but nothing ever got published."
The pull of poetry and the counterculture led Sante, naturally, to the Lower East Side. By 1968, he'd become a St. Mark's Place habitué, going to concerts at the Fillmore, haunting the record racks at Free Being, and buying egg creams from Gem Spa and $10 bags of pot from surreptitious slots in 10th Street storefronts. A scholarship got him into the exclusive Regis High School on the Upper East Side, and studies under the Pulitzer-winning poet Kenneth Koch at Columbia University came next. But it soon became clear that poetry was not to be his calling. "I could never get into the rhythm [of poetry]," he says. "Line breaks bothered the shit out of me, and you can't be a poet without line breaks." His disinterest resulted in his leaving Columbia in 1976 without a degree. Around this time, though, came other awakenings.
"For the last two years at Columbia, I'd been living in crumbling building on 118th Street," Sante says. "Then I moved into an apartment on the Upper West Side and, eventually, a tenement in the Lower East Side. You'd scrape the paint on the window sills in these places and there'd be layer upon layer of it. I discovered that one of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire had lived in my building on 12th Street, and that Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, had been buried on my block. These buildings were like palimpsests. They made me wonder about the lives of all the people who had lived in them over the years."
One of Sante's roommates was a fellow Columbia/Koch student Jim Jarmusch, then a writer and musician, and, like Sante, a denizen of the embryonic punk scene exploding in and around CBGB. The two hosted public readings of their work, and Jarmusch formed a band, the Del-Byzanteens, for which Sante occasionally wrote lyrics. In 1980, he got a job in the mailroom of the New York Review of Books and eventually became editor Barbara Epstein's assistant and a long-serving staff writer at the magazine. While researching a freelance story, he came across some revelatory nuggets of hidden New York history that included a startling first-person account of the 1863 Draft Riots. The discoveries reinforced his obsession with the city's lost voices. "Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York had been passed around a lot when I was at Columbia, and I'd loved that book," says Sante. "I decided I should write a history of the slums."
Published in 1991, Low Life became a bestseller and stands as a game-changer of historical writing. Within its pages, Sante delves deep into the crime-and-vice-ridden cracks and gutters of Manhattan's paved-over past, vividly conjuring the rough lives of the forgotten and the scenes that swirled around them through text that is poetic, richly detailed, and impossible to not be swept up by. It is, simply, an essential read for anyone who's ever lived in New York, or even visited the city. The success of Low Life led to 1992's Evidence, a compendium of the haunting turn-of-the-century crime photos unearthed during its making.
Teaching positions at Columbia's MFA program and the New School followed, and 1998 brought The Factory of Facts and O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors (coedited with his ex-wife, Melissa Holbrook Pierson). The anthology Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces and Novels in Three Lines, a translation of writings by French anarchist and art critic Felix Feneon, appeared in 2007, and in 2015 came The Other Paris, an epic excavation of the titular city's storied recesses akin to Low Life's archaeology of New York. Sante's photo-oriented efforts include Walker Evans (1999); No Smoking (2004); Folk Photography and Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography (both 2009); and Annie Liebovitz: The Early Years, 1970-1983 (2018). The recipient of a 1992-1993 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 1997 Literature Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and a 1998 Grammy for his essay in the reissued Anthology of American Folk Music, he contributed to last year's Beastie Boys Book and the documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Given his affinity for the previous souls encased in the eaves of the structures he's dwelled in, what does he hope the residents of his rambling 1929 wood-frame house in Midtown Kingston find in his absence?
"Well, I hope there is a world 100 years in the future, and that Kingston keeps it quiet pace and doesn't grow too fast," Sante offers. "And I hope the wiring in here's still good and the plumbing still works."
Through a Different Lens is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through January 6.Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kurbick Photographs is available now from Taschen Books.
Stanley Kubrick Photographs: Through a Different Lens