NEW YORK — All artists were young once, and the greater the artist the more of a shock it is to realize they weren’t always what they would become. There’s something geological about greatness: It’s there, it’s enduring, it’s . . . constant? Of course not, but that’s how it can seem from the outside looking in.
It’s not entirely clear that Stanley Kubrick was a great artist. A phenomenal technician, certainly. A filmmaker of nearly unrivaled ambition, no question. But great art requires in some measure great humanity. The inexorability of human behavior in his films subjugates feeling to technique. From the reptilian staff officers in “Paths of Glory” (1957) to Humbert Humbert in Kubrick’s adaptation of “Lolita” (1962) to Alex the Droog in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) to Jack Torrance in “The Shining” (1980) to . . . well, you get the idea. The issue isn’t that Kubrick’s vision of existence is so dark, which it is, or even that it’s so unredeemed. It’s that it’s so reductive.
He is the artist as engineer of human souls. Even cyber souls: Surely the most memorable “character” in Kubrick’s 13 feature films is HAL, the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). “Nothing human is alien to me,” the Roman playwright Terence declared. Let’s just say that he and Kubrick would not have seen eye to eye — or “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999).
So “Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs” comes as a double revelation. Yes, Kubrick was young once. At 17 and still in high school, he sold his first photograph to Look magazine, second only to Life as an outlet for photojournalists in mid-century America. That was 1945. Over the next five years, he would expose 12,000 negatives on assignment for the magazine. Notoriously deliberate as a filmmaker, he was anything but as a photographer.
The show includes more than 130 photographs, many of them previously unpublished, as well as numerous vintage copies of Look. It runs through Oct. 28 at the Museum of the City of New York.
Young Stanley did not lack for chutzpah. For a photo essay called “Teacher Puts Ham in Hamlet,” he used his English teacher at William Howard Taft High School. Maybe it got him a better grade? The couple of times Kubrick can be seen in one of his pictures he looks slightly overfed and charmingly lugubrious. More than just a young man in a hurry, he’d jumped the queue and landed in another borough. Look hired him as an apprentice in 1946. He debuted as a full-fledged staff photographer on the masthead of the Jan. 7, 1947, issue. Soon enough, his colleagues formed the Bringing Up Stanley Club. The grandmaster in waiting remained a bit of a little boy lost, misplacing keys, glasses, and the like.
Almost as surprising as Kubrick’s precocity are the products of it. Was he an outstanding photojournalist? No, but he was already a good one, with a notable eye and excellent taste in influences. Rodchenko would have approved of the Constructivist canting of the photograph of a carnival test-your-strength contestant. The deadpan slyness of a “Howdy Doody” cast portrait — lit by Kubrick in such a way that the puppets look more real than the people do — would have delighted Man Ray and his fellow Surrealists. A photograph of circus owner John Ringling North includes aerialists doing their high-wire thing in the background. The use of multiple picture planes is wondrously offhand.
Notice the subjects: a carnival, a children’s television show, a circus. Here’s the second revelation the show has to offer. At Look, Kubrick specialized in what might best be described as human-interest stories. That fine eye was trained on subjects very different from those in his film career. Partly, this was owing to Look’s commercial sensibility and the dictates of its biweekly publication schedule, which made it less news oriented than Life. Partly, this was owing to the kid from the Bronx getting slotted as the magazine’s specialist in New Yorkiana. That was hardly a limitation, even for so hungry and avid a talent. These were the years when Gotham was emerging as capital of the world, and for Kubrick the great big city was a wondrous toy, just made for a camera-carrying boy.
He photographed swanky nightclubs, the bandleader Guy Lombardo, a shoeshine boy, Leonard Bernstein. Photo essays had such titles as “Dentist’s Office: Americans Are Dutiful But Nervous Dentist Patients,” “The 5 and 10: It Attracts All Types and Ages,” and “A Dog’s Life in the Big City.” Which is more remarkable: that Kubrick accepted these assignments or that he managed to produce such interesting results with them?
At least two of the photo essays unwittingly align with the work of other photographers. In so doing, they show the young Kubrick’s limitations. “How a Monkey Looks to People . . . and How People Look to a Monkey” anticipates that lover of zoos Garry Winogrand , an even hungrier, more avid son of the Bronx. Who knows, it might even distantly — very distantly — hint at the opening of “2001.” ”Life and Love on the New York Subway,” Kubrick’s first published photo essay, draws an inevitable latter-day comparison to Walker Evans’s subway portraits of a few years earlier. Kubrick could not have known about them, of course, since they weren’t published until the 1960s. That’s just as well, since there’s a quality of scrutiny Evans brings to bear that’s as yet beyond Kubrick.
More generally, the presence of Weegee can be felt throughout. Tellingly, that goblin-king of the New York night gets softened and sanitized. Kubrick makes the interior of a police patrol wagon, for example, look surprisingly cheery. He’s Weegee without tears (or other bodily fluids).
Kubrick’s photojournalism has one area of consistent, if oblique, darkness: boxing. It intersects with the third revelation “Through a Different Lens” provides: foreshadowings of the filmmaker to come. There are several photo essays on the sport, one of which inspired his second documentary short, “Day of the Fight,” about a middleweight contender. The film can be seen at the end of the exhibition. And the hero of Kubrick’s second feature, “Killer’s Kiss” (1955), is a boxer.
In a nicely indirect overlap with Weegee, there’s a photo essay on the filming of “The Naked City,” the 1948 movie that shares a title with the photographer’s most famous book. A 1947 photo essay on Aqueduct Racetrack conjures up Kubrick’s first fully mature film, “The Killing” (1955). A coolly observed 1949 photo essay on Montgomery Clift shows not just an interest in movie stardom but a knack for directing it. Most striking of all is an image from a 1948 photo essay about Columbia University. A spooky-looking scientist wears sunglasses as he holds a glowing tube. Even without knowing the Kubrick connection, it’s hard not to think of “Dr. Strangelove” (1964). Knowing the Kubrick connection, it’s hard not to think, “Mein Führer, I can photograph!”
THROUGH A DIFFERENT LENS: Stanley Kubrick Photographs
At Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave., New York, through Oct. 28. 212-534-1672, www.mcny.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.