“It is a one of a kind,” said Hood Museum of Art director John Stomberg in a recent Zoom interview. He was referring to the Kobal Foundation Collection, which the Dartmouth College museum acquired last month. The collection consists of more than 6,000 photographs: film stills, publicity portraits, production shots. They span six decades of movie history, from the Silent Era into the 1970s. They include some of the most beautiful photographs of some of the most beautiful faces of the 20th century.
The famous names associated with the collection don’t just belong to movie stars. Among photographers with work in the collection are Ernst Haas, Margaret Bourke-White, Edward S. Curtis, and Yousuf Karsh. Especially well represented are the masters of Hollywood glamour George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull.
Asked if he had a favorite photographer among the many represented in the collection, Stomberg nodded. “I know I’m supposed to say, ‘Oh, they’re like my children and I love them all equally.’” Then he smiled. “I do have a favorite, though: Bull.”
Bull was head of MGM’s stills department for nearly 40 years. The quality of his work is as notable as the length of his career. His artistic relationship with Greta Garbo was as important in forging her image — and legend — as the one she had with the cinematographer William Daniels.
Kobal, who died in 1991, started collecting the photographs in the 1960s. He first sought them out in junk shops and flea markets. His career as an arts journalist gave him access to movie studios and photographers, many of them now retired or at the end of their careers. At the time, little or no value was placed on these photographs. Studios were happy to give away prints and even negatives. That saved them the cost of storage — or the bother of throwing them out. And the photographers were flattered by Kobal’s interest. (The Hood purchase doesn’t include negatives. Those the foundation retains.) Kobal, who would go on to write more than 30 books on movie history, helped organize the first museum exhibition devoted to Hollywood photography, in 1974, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the collection is how it straddles high and low. It’s like the movies that way. A Eugene Robert Richee portrait of Louise Brooks, from 1929, could have been taken by an avant-garde Surrealist contemporary in Paris. Black dominates: her dress, the background, and, of course, the famous helmet-cut of hair. The darkness contrasts strikingly with the paleness of her face and hands and a long, long strand of pearls. They almost seem to float in space.
So there are works of great, even innovative artistry, but also more workaday photographs. Looking at them offers a revealing window on customs, attitudes, and American society generally. “The collection will be drawn on as a teaching tool by multiple disciplines,” Stomberg said.
Geographically, Hanover, N.H., is a long way from Hollywood. Yet there’s a longstanding connection between Dartmouth and the movies. Alums include the novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, the producer Walter Wanger, the actor Robert Ryan, and screenwriter-actor Buck Henry. Another alum was the blacklisted screenwriter Maury Rapf, who later taught at Dartmouth, as did the celebrated film historian David Thomson.
Did the association play a role in the collection coming to the Hood?
“That had something to do with it,” Stomberg said. “One of our ‘angels’ was very much aware of the connection and thought this would help further it.”
How much did Dartmouth pay for the collection?
“I’m not at liberty to answer that,” Stomberg said. “But I will say this: What we paid was about a quarter of what the collection in its entirety might have gotten on the market — and who knows how much more if broken up and sold as individual items. The foundation was very much aware of the teaching and research element in selling to Dartmouth, and that was an important factor.”
An extensive selection from the collection is available on the Hood website. The museum plans to mount an exhibition of photographs from the collection in early 2022.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.