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The glamour shot: Photography a flash point for image-making

Tuesday, October 12, 1999

By Curt Chandler, Post-Gazette associate editor/photography

Hollywood celebrity, still photos and the tabloids have been closely linked for most of the century.

  More than any other image, a movie still from "The Seven-Year Itch" conjures up the mystique of Marilyn Monroe.

This association is explored in the PBS series "American Photography: A Century of Images," airing tomorrow at 8 p.m. on WQED/WQEX.

The show follows the rapid development of the tabloid press. As halftone (dot pattern) photo reproduction gained vogue after the turn of the century, the tabloid Illustrated Daily News (now known as the New York Daily News) became the first paper to be marketed on the basis of photographs. It debuted in 1919.

A year later, Hollywood studios began hiring photographers to create glamour portraits of leading actors and actresses. Photo-driven tabloids began appearing in major cities outside of New York, and fan magazines were popularized.

The PBS series chronicles one of the early beneficiaries of photo publicity, Rudolph Valentino, an average actor who had a stunning presence in publicity photos and on screen. He was a major celebrity when he died in 1926 at the age of only 31. More than 100,000 people, spurred on by heavy tabloid coverage, turned out for his funeral. Riot police on horseback were called out to control the crowd, which was enormous by the standards of the day.

One distraught fan committed suicide by swallowing poison and shooting herself. Her body was discovered atop her Valentino photo collection.

The series also offers a segment on Betty Grable, who was the subject of a pin-up photo that became so popular with soldiers during World War II that it landed her a film role -- in a movie about becoming the pin-up girl.

Marilyn Monroe, of course, was the darling of celebrity photographers. One of the most famous movie stills ever made was of Monroe on a subway grate with her skirt blowing around her. The phenomenon of celebrity, Monroe's in particular, became the subject of Andy Warhol's pop art.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, as captured by today's most famous celebrity photographer, Annie Leibovitz.  

The pre-eminent celebrity photographer today is Annie Leibovitz. She was in town during the recent Mario Lemieux celebrity golf tournament to photograph prominent athletes assembled for the event. Her most noted recent work includes the portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton that appeared on the cover of Vogue last year when the president's wife began raising her public profile prior to announcing her potential candidacy for the U.S. Senate from New York.

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