Russell Jeffcoat, international award-winning photographer and photography historian, dropped by Columbia Museum of Art last weekend to see “Fame and Fashion: the Photography of John Engstead,” and encountered Columbians Suzi and Sandy Fields, also taking in the new exhibition.
Suzi Fields followed in the footsteps of her father, a professional photographer, by making photography a hobby. Dr. Sandy Fields, retired after a career as a chiropractor, grew up in Detroit enjoying movies starring many of the celebrities photographed by Engstead. For the Fields, seeing the photographed portraits brought back happy memories of television’s golden years. She told Jeffcoat she grew up watching television shows that starred many of the actors and actresses Engstead photographed during his five-decade long career.
Comments about Engstead’s subjects paralleled the couple’s view of the exhibit as they chatted with Jeffcoat.
“Our family never missed ‘I Love Lucy,’” and seeing the portrait of Dick Van Dyke elicited Suzi’s comment that Mary Tyler Moore had been one of her favorite actresses. At the portrait of Pat Boone, she told Jeffcoat that teenage girls she grew up with either were Pat Boone fans or Elvis Presley fans.
Engstead, a California native, worked his way up to a position as Paramount Pictures’ publicity still photographer from his initial job as an office boy; his big break come in 1932 when a photographers’ strike made him in demand and led to a promotion. Cary Grant posed from Engstead’s practice shots. He photographed Bette Davis, Lana Turner, Shirley Temple, Debbie Reynolds and many other glamorous stars of that era. After his stint at Paramount, he began shooting for Harper’s Bazaar and other leading periodicals of the 1940’s.
The exhibition includes album covers and a case in which a vintage Leica camera is displayed. Jeffcoat collects and shoots his portrait subjects and award-winning landscapes with cameras that vintage and older, and also develops his own film. “Leica makes a good camera, but Engstead’s headshots were taken with something else. Celebrity photographers in that era shot large format images – and many still do today, as do I.”
Jeffcoat saw in the exhibition’s photographs evidence of rapport and trust between the subjects and the photographer “which was easy to recognize, knowing Engstead’s studio was the celebrity hang-out place in LA. For him to get the shots he got, his subjects would have to have held their positions for full seconds, not easy to do, and yet he captured them looking comfortable, almost like they were playing to him.”
The chance to see, here in Columbia, the work of such a renowned professional was a pleasure for Jeffcoat.
Although much of the photography world has gone digital, Jeffcoat says: “I still prefer working with film; large format is my usual choice, and I continue to find black and white photography the most rewarding for the kind of shooting I do.” His portrait work is frequently described by jurors as timeless: the photographs could have been shot 80 years ago or yesterday.
The local tie to CMA’s opportunity to show Engstead’s works is Columbian Vic Cain from whom the museum borrowed the works. Cain’s uncle Otto Stubbs was Engstead’s business associate. Stubbs and Engstead met in Los Angeles during WWII when Stubbs was serving in the US Navy. When the war ended, Stubbs returned to LA and began a lifetime partnership, working with Engstead in multiple mediums – from album covers to TV shows promotions, head shots of Hollywood’s most famous faces as well as the svelte silhouettes of top fashion models of the day.
Works selected are part of a larger collection, and the exhibition serves as a corollary to the “Cut! Costume and the Cinema” exhibition, also currently on view through early February 2017.
By Rachel Haynie of Palmetto Artifacts