Stanley Kubrick: The Lens of the Young Stanley Kubrick

By Xi Lei, translated by Ke Lingxiang, Image Courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York

Stanley Kubrick: Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs 

The Museum of the City of New York / New York

3 May - 28 October 2018

That Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) moved to the United Kingdom in his early 30s due to the demand of a film project whereafter he lived there until his death and that he disliked the Hollywood production system and could not bear the high crime rate in New York often make people forget his identity as a native New Yorker and his first job as a photographer that helped him later become a visual master. The exhibition, Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs, shown at the Museum of the City of New York from May 3 to October 28, 2018, includes over 120 photographs by Kubrick, either published or unpublished, from the Museum’s Look Magazine archive, together with the particular issues containing these photographs. Such a collection of photographs that the young Kubrick took in five years as a staff photographer at the Look magazine have already evinced his talent for picture narrative and visual language before he was an auteur. Kubrick once said in an interview in 1972: “By the time I was 21, I had had four years of seeing how things worked in the real world. I think if I had gone to college, I would never have become a director.”

Kubrick had received a Graflex camera from his father for his thirteenth birthday and later shared the same passion for photography with his neighbour who had his own darkroom. In 1945 when he was still a high school student at the age of 17, Kubrick successfully sold to the Look magazine his first photograph, in which a depressed newspaper salesman with his face propped on his left hand is surrounded by various newspapers whose titles announce the American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. However, Kubrick later admitted that the man’s pose in the photograph was under his request and direction.

After the Look magazine bought several photos of Kubrick in 1946, the picture editor suggested to recruit the 17-year-old Kubrick and offered him an exceptional position as apprentice photographer with a very decent salary: 50 dollars a week. At that time, Kubrick had already graduated from high school, but his dislike of the orthodox education at school and his frequent absences from class had resulted in poor test scores that prevented him from entering the university, which had greatly disappointed his father. Thus, the young Kubrick became a full member of the photographic staff at the Look magazine.

It is necessary to mention the management and style of the Look magazine at that time. As one of the two photo magazine giants in the United States, Look was established in 1937, one year later than the other giant, Life, and it focused on the lower and more general market while its rival was an international magazine. Moreover, Look was a bi-weekly magazine characteristic of the freer choice of contents and subjects while the weekly magazine, Life, also needed to track news and current affairs. What is even more crucial is that, compared to the financially sound and well-organised Life, Look must be open and flexible. Sometimes the subjects of the magazine were assigned, sometimes the staff of the magazine or freelance reporters suggested a large number of subjects that would eventually be selected and decided by the editor-in-chief. Each time, Kubrick and his colleagues contrived to shoot excessive amounts of photographs on a variety of subjects so as to broaden the topic coverage. Apart from the free and relaxed work environment, Kubrick’s colleagues formed “The Bringing Up Stanley Club” so as to not only professionally teach him how to make the long picture narrative by assigning him specific shooting tasks but also personally help their youngest colleague adapt to the work environment and daily life in the adult world.

Many early photographs of Kubrick throw light on his fascination with Hollywood black films at that time as the light and composition of the photographs deliberately mimic the dark brooding style of the films. Such an angle to observe life without any emotion is also the main feature that Kubrick later has created in his film work. Kubrick was adept at observing and grasping some individual characters and scenes and his technique of using photographs to suggest the complex mental state had increasingly been developed when he created the long narrative through photographs at the Look magazine. Whilst doing the assignment, What Teenagers Should Know About Love (1950), Kubrick assembled a group of high school students to perform various scenes, which exactly resemble the way of making movie storyboards or sub-shots. Such an approach became Kubrick’s habit when he later became the film director.

Kubrick had constantly studied photographic and cinematic theories by himself though without college education. The documentary photographer, Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985), was at that time the director of photography at the Look magazine and Kubrick often went to the library to read his articles, take notes, and study documentary photography. Who also had a profound influence on Kubrick was Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), the pioneer in the theory and practice of montage. Kubrick was also very sensitive to the new technology in photography and able to immediately practice it, for example, he was one of the few magazine photojournalists who used infrared film in photography and some of his highly private infrared photographs were shot in the manner of entertainment journalists.

The largest number of the unpublished photographs is a series of more than 700 photographs that Kubrick took for a model and actress, which is characteristic of various visual styles and technical diversity, attempting to restore a contrasting personal life through three sorts of records: daily life, stage roles, and backstage. The extremely open and straightforward themes of these photographs and the pioneering style of recording the actress might be the reasons why they were not published.

The exhibition ends with Kubrick’s first short documentary film, Day of the Fight (1951), and a scene of his Killers Kiss (1955). To trace Kubrick’s career whilst knowing all his background is just like looking for evidence with the conclusion. Nevertheless, we may feel a kind of urgency for him if we see his 1950 photographs in chronological order. In this final year at the Look magazine, Kubrick had photographed many celebrities and created some remarkable themes and he often stayed with his protagonists in the studios or on the scene. He did not realise at that time that the movie business, close at hand, was beckoning to him, but as the spectator, we do know. The Day of the Fight, though as the fruit of his self-study of the black film style, was so mature and skilful that Kubrick had earned 100 dollars, which gave him enough confidence to resign from his job as a photographer and devote himself to film.

The five-year work at the Look magazine, both directly and indirectly, helped Kubrick complete the transition from photographer to auteur. To examine human behaviours through visual language and to narrate human relations with visual language are exactly what Kubrick is good at.


Stanley Kubrick, from “Life and Love on the New York City Subway”, 1947


Stanley Kubrick, from unpublished assignment “Shoeshine Boy,” 1949


Stanley Kubrick, from “Shoeshine Boy”, 1947


Stanley Kubrick, from “Rosemary Williams - Showgirl”, 1948


Stanley Kubrick, from “Paddy Wagon,” 1949