The Work of Ruth Harriet Louise: Breaking Ground for Women in Photography

Ruth Harriet Louise, self portrait.

When one thinks of classic Hollywood glamour photography, there are a select few names that come to mind immediately. George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull are two of the most recognizable photographers of the era, and their work stands out as an exquisite capturing of what classic Hollywood means. But there is a name that is often egregiously overlooked, one that deserves to stand on equal footing with the immortal Hurrell and Bull–and that is Ruth Harriet Louise, MGM studio photographer from 1925-1930 and the first major female photographer in Hollywood.

Though her Hollywood career lasted only 5 years, Louise’s photographic technique set the stage for what Hurrell would make famous–and indeed, many of her photographs have the angelic, ethereal quality that is the hallmark of Hurrell. Others, however, are sweetly playful, capturing the essence of her subjects in diverse and versatile ways.

Greta Garbo, by Ruth Harriet Louise.

Joan Crawford, 1928.

Born Ruth Goldstein, a rabbi’s daughter, in 1903, she began taking photographs as a child and was soon spotted by New York photographer Nickolas Muray for whom she began an apprenticeship. At age 22, she moved to Los Angeles to live with her brother (Mark Sandrich, future director of several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies) and opened up a portrait studio of her own near Hollywood and Vine. But shortly thereafter, her work was spotted by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios in Culver City, who asked her to come work as a professional portrait photographer at MGM, where she became an integral part of the photography department and one of the most sought-after photographers on the lot.

Marion Davies, 1927.

In  an era when bonds between a star and a photographer were cherished, Louise thrived as the favored photographer of many of the MGM stars. She got a great deal of work from stars who specifically requested her–stars like Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Buster Keaton, and Greta Garbo–and her own star in the photographic world shone brightly for the 5 years she was on the MGM lot.

Hollywood at this time was very much controlled by male talent behind the scenes. Excepting a handful of extremely talented women–such as Louise and directors Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber–Hollywood history in the 1920s was dominated by men. In an industry that valued women primarily as objects, working in what was considered a “man’s role” was fickle. It was in this vein that in 1930, when Ruth Harriet Louise’s contract at MGM expired, it was not renewed. Louis B. Mayer cited the fact that Norma Shearer, the top star at the time, preferred the work of George Hurrell, who had also been hired at MGM and subsequently became the head of the department.

Retirement was, however, already on the horizon for Louise. She married director Leigh Jason shortly thereafter, and the couple had two children. When they tried for a third in 1940, it was disastrous–the labor came too fast and too soon, and the hospital was helpless. The baby died…and Louise died of complications. A sad and sudden end to a remarkable short life.

Ruth Harriet Louise’s photographic legacy lives on in her magnificent portraits of some of the most iconic early MGM stars. Here are a few of my favorite portraits of hers.

See you next time!

Buster Keaton, 1929.

Joan Crawford, 1928.

Greta Garbo, 1929.

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7 responses to “The Work of Ruth Harriet Louise: Breaking Ground for Women in Photography

  1. What beautiful pictures, Thank You so much for sharing such a treasure.

  2. There is something so dreamy about her photographs. They’re so soft and ethereal and they capture the subject’s mood and personality perfectly. Great write-up!

  3. This is fascinating. I’d never heard of Ruth Harriet Louise before this. I don’t think that clown pic. is of Lon Chaney though. The hairline and color is wrong. It looks like Buster Keaton. I know he was at MGM in 1929. Chaney’s face was much more beat up at that point too. Poor guy.

  4. Oops! You know what–you’re right. I’m changing it now! Thanks!

  5. Lara,
    Thanks for the nice write up on RHL and her stunning photographs. You know how much I love glam portraits and she certainly was talented, able to hold her own with the best like Hurrell and Bull.
    Have a great weekend!
    Page

  6. Such an interesting article, I was not familiar with her work or her life. Thanks for enlightening me.

  7. There is something magical (if not timeless) about a B&W print, even the process from camera to framed print is a classic endeavor. With very few exceptions just about any subject shows better in B&W. Just saying.

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