Light and Illusion

By Tom Zimmerman

Published by Balcony Press

120 pages, 1998


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Master of Illusion

Reviewed by David Middleton


When we think of Hollywood we think of movie stars; of fame and fortune. Sometimes we see the images of our favorite actors and think "if only life could be that glamorous; if only we could look that good." We don't often think of the myriad of people who were behind the John Waynes or the Greta Garbos. The people who developed these well-known images and who helped them become celebrities.

One such behind-the-scenes person was Ray Jones: photographer to the stars. From 1931 to 1961, Jones helped the Hollywood propaganda machine churn out irresistible screen icons. It was his job to make them look as glamourous and desirable as photographically possible -- often with some major help from the retouching department.

Light and Illusion covers Jones' life as a Hollywood photographer shooting such stars as Jean Harlow in the 1930s, Marlene Dietrich in the 40s, to Jimmy Stewart in the 50s. There were very few of the greats that Jones didn't photograph. In the early days of the "Golden Age of Hollywood" the image of an onscreen personality was everything. The studio system demanded that actors and actresses were to be swooned over; flawless and perfect and radiating demi-god like brilliance. As head of the portrait department at Universal Studios Ray Jones made sure all of this came true.

Ray Jones approach to portraits evolved over his career. The Depression driven 1930s called for larger-than-life perfection in the depiction of the stars. The glamour portraits of the 1930s and 40s were intended as fantasies; golden fantasies of perfect people created by the imagination of the great studio photographers and their army of retouchers. The democratizing of World War II and the leveling of the 50s gradually brought a less dramatic, more straightforward view of the stars. Jones' aim was always to work with the Publicity Department to promote the star or film in the prevailing portrait style. As Jones noted, "Glamour photos are a business. Let's face it, they're made for only one purpose: to sell movies."

Jones' photographs were so popular and did such a good job of fantasizing the lives of the Hollywood elite that one of his portraits was found on the bedroom wall were Anne Frank had hidden herself during World War II. Put there along with pictures of Royalty and other film stars by Anne to help make her confined space, "...look much more cheerful."

One of Jones' best friends, actor Robert Stack, gives us a bit of an insiders view of the politics of 1930s Hollywood.

"It was a time when the boy or girl next door was not the answer. People were glamourized, made to look better than they actually were. A larger-than-life image was projected. The job of those masters in the stills gallery was to make the product better than it actually was. They had to sell the stars."

The delight of the book itself is, of course, the black and white photos of the actors. The stars in all their haloed and soft focus glamour never looked so good. Even by today's standards these photographs are technical masterpieces and hold up as prime examples of Ray Jones' skill and inventiveness with the medium. A coy and demure Jean Harlow, a suave Vincent Price, sultry and bedroom-eyed Ava Gardner, rugged and outdoorsy Rock Hudson, even a country and western Marlene Dietrich. Also interesting are the standards of taste for the time, with an example given by the head of the Paramount stills department in a satiric 1940 "photo memo" stating that, among other things, drinking, lace lingerie, dead men and an exposed bosom were definite no-nos.

Light and Illusion offers us a glimpse into the life and work of one of Hollywood's masters of the art of portraiture and the evolution of the celebrity image. Jones' work is both beautiful and breathtaking in his use of light and shadow. This is a fascinating look at one of the unsung heroes of Hollywood. | June 1999


David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine. Also an accomplished and widely published photographer, his author portraits add much to the celebration of authors on the Web.