In the archives of...
Life, Carl Mydans
Photograph by Carl Mydans, © 1936 Time Inc. Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at movie premiere
Fresh from working with Roy Stryker at the Department of the Interior's Resettlement Administration, gentlemanly Carl Mydans found himself in Hollywood, covering the movie industry with new, precision made 35mm cameras and taking pictures off-the-cuff. He struck fear in the hearts of producers and stars.
Carl Mydans: In 1937 I was the first Life photographer in Hollywood. In those days when they finished shooting a scene, someone would shout, ‘Stills!’ and the studio still photographer would come with his 8x10 inch camera on a big wooden tripod, and he’d make a picture on a big negative and a very sharp contact print from it. I did not take pictures of these carefully produced, frozen scenes. I took pictures behind the production with my little 35-millimeter Contax, and that worried them. Word spread that this new man from Life has been sent out from New York to destroy the Hollywood illusions their papier-mâché scenes were creating.
There was a hostility to me on many of the lots. The word went out also that I was breaking the rules by making pictures without joining the union. I told New York about this, and they said, “Join the union.” Some friends on the Paramount lot took me aside and said, “Look, Carl, you can't join the union until the books open.”
I said, “The law says that the books must open once a year, so sometime I will have the chance to apply to join.”
Another friend took me aside and said, “Let me tell you something. The books do open once a year, but they open in somebody's basement, somewhere in Hollywood. Try to find out where.” Finally this was ironed out with an understanding. The union agreed to let Life make pictures on studio lots, provided a union man was present. He might sit in the corner and smoke a cigar and read a newspaper, just so long as we paid for his presence. That rule began with me, and it's still the same rule today.
I had other problems in Hollywood. At first the actors and actresses there supported the union photographers. The first time I went to photograph Carole Lombard, she said, “I hope you understand my rule here. If anybody photographs me, all pictures must be shown to me. I will decide what can be used, and those pictures that I do not want used, I will tear the corners off.”
I brought her my first batch of pictures. She received me rather coldly, and she sat with the pictures and looked at them. Then without raising her head to me, she tore the four corners off of each print. I went out of her studio office feeling awful. But some weeks later, I was invited to come back and photograph her again. I don't know what went on behind the scenes, but she received me very nicely. I photographed her, and I brought back to her all the prints that I made. And she okayed all of them.”
[Interview dated January 9, 1992, John Loengard, was printed in full in the Bullfinch Press book, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, published in 1998. The photograph, by Carl Mydans © 1936 Time Inc., is courtesy The LIFE Gallery of Photography.]