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Still photography at the age of 17, honed the skills of the cinema genius Stanley Kubrick, writes Khalid Mohamed

Still photography could well be the kick-off point towards videography, and who knows? ..even cinematography. Take Wim Wenders, Spike Jonze, Abbas Kiarostami and Andrei Tarkovsky, who have  all shot on still cameras and Polaroids, before or in the midst of masterly filmmaking.

There is the instance, above all of Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), the matchless American auteur. Of his 13 features, arguably his most famously revered films are Spartacus, Paths of Glory, Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket.

At age of 16, in June 1945,  Kubrick  born in Bronx, New York, published his first photograph depicting a downcast  vendor selling newspapers,  announcing the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The image was partly manipulated, the newspaper vendor was requested to look extra-morose.

Kubrick was recruited right away by the widely-circulated bi-weekly Look magazine , becoming its youngest staff photographer at the age of 17. For the record, the magazine packed up in 1971.

As an on-the-go, intrepid photo-journalist, various Internet sources  and the book Through a Different Lens (publishers, Taschen) reveal that  for five years after 1945, he had clicked over 13,000 monochromatic photographs, 900 of which were published.

Kubrick’s father, a professional physician and amateur photographer had introduced his son to photography at the age of 13, buying him a Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic. Apparently, Arthur Wellig’s images for the PM Daily of New York’s underbelly photos were a major influence.

Although, his parents wanted him to become a doctor,  on graduating from school with a dismal grade, the future visionary filmmaker wouldn’t be admitted by any medical college. At Look, his highest salary was $105 a week. The upside was that he could still travel on a lean budget to Europe where he studied the behaviour of people on the streets minutely.


At the Look magazine,  Kubrick  focused  on nightclubs, street life, and sporting events. Besides this he had set up a session with a young man trying to woo a woman in the next seat at a cinema auditorium. The woman was directed to slap the man for his unwanted advances. The man was unaware, his shock reaction came off as real. The clicks culminated in the photo-essay A Short, Short in a Movie Balcony (1946). Clearly the still photographer was picking up on the art of directing his subjects.

And the subjects even included monkeys in a zoo. And with a hidden camera, he created the photo-essay, Life and Love on a New York Subway  (1947), which took a fortnight to get right.

The next year, he was assigned to click boxer Walter Cartier. The boxer was followed between two fights as well as to his home where the pugilist was resting, playing with his nephew, watching a ‘live’ baseball game to ultimately kayoing his opponent in the ring.

Other subjects included VVIP personalities such as President Eisenhower, actors Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and actress  Faye Emerson.

In an interview Kubrick had stated, “It was tremendous fun for me at that age but eventually, it began to wear thin, especially since my ultimate ambition had always been to make movies. The subject matter of my Look assignments was generally pretty dumb. I would do stories like: Is an Athlete Stronger Than a Baby?, photographing a college football player emulating the ‘cute’ positions an 18-month-old child would get into.”

“Occasionally, I had a chance to do an interesting personality story,” he had elaborated. “One of these was about Montgomery Clift, who was at the start of his brilliant career. Photography certainly gave me the first step up to movies -- to make a film entirely by yourself, which initially I did. You may not have to know very much about anything else, but you must know about photography.”

His stint  with Look taught a young Stanley the importance of story and how to form a narrative with images. He also learned how to work and collaborate with colleagues, whether writers, picture editors or managing editors to create concise features. These experiences along with learning how to light and understanding composition laid the foundations for his move to motion pictures.

By 1950, Stanley Kubrick was ready to start his first film project by investing all his savings. Kubrick made his directorial debut in 1951 with two documentary shorts Day of the Flight, and Flying Padre.

In 1953, he directed his first feature Fear and Desire, an anti-war allegory. Followed the film noir pictures Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956). The latter has been acknowledged as his first mature achievement.

Moral of the story for the aspiring filmmakers of the new millennial generation: Quit fooling around with Artificial Intelligence. There’s nothing like the still camera, even if digital, to get going.


Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, film producer & film director.

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