Over 6,000 photographs of old Hollywood acquired by the Hood Museum


Over 6,000 Hollywood photographs have entered the collection of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The images cover Hollywood history from 1916 to the 1970s and include stills from film production, portraits and advertising shots. They were previously owned by John Kobal, a film historian who has written over 30 books on film and cinematic photography; built an unrivaled collection of Hollywood portrait photographs; and organized some of the first major exhibitions of the time.

Some of the images in the acquisition are from unknown photographers, while others are from such figures as Ernst Haas and Arthur F. Kales. Highlights include an atmospheric photograph attributed to Milton Brown of Lillian Gish shoveling sand in Wind (1928), which was among the last silent films released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and John Engstead’s Portrait of Marlon Brando for A tram named Désir, taken in 1950. The collection also includes Ernest A. Bachrach’s 1940 photo of French actress Michèle Morgan wearing a chic outfit and holding two canine sculptures on a leash.

Attributed to Milton Brown, Lillian Gish of Wind (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1927), platinum print. (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: The John Kobal Foundation Collection: Purchased through the Mrs. Harvey P. Hood W’18 Fund. Photo of the object by Jeffrey Nintzel.)

Kobal was born in 1940 in Linz, Austria, and emigrated to Ottowa at the age of 10. Living in England as an adult, he had a brief stint as an actor and began collecting movie memorabilia, photographs and ephemera. He established himself as a film reporter, becoming the BBC’s correspondent for American films in New York in 1964. By this time, Hollywood was on the brink of a major transition. The influence of European art cinema, avant-garde cinema and television made the old studio system look staid, and new releases that might have been successful a decade earlier generated little revenue with a market of emerging young people.

In the midst of the advent of “New Hollywood”, a period characterized by more experimental films directed by directors, Kobal gathered the remnants of Old Hollywood. He recovered abandoned publicity material, including the many 11 by 14 portraits and ‘behind the scenes’ photographs that studios sent to movie buffs to promote their films. Kobal’s later writings, which included an important history of the American musical I have to sing, I have to dance (1971), drew attention to forgotten photographers such as Laszlo Willinger, Clarence Sinclair Bull and Ruth Harriet Louise, the first female photographer in Hollywood in the 1920s and early 1930s. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kobal even gathered some Hollywood photographers together with their original negatives, asking them to make new prints to include in the exhibitions he organized.

Kobal died at the age of 51 in 1991 from complications from AIDS. Before his death, he created an eponymous charitable foundation to house his archives and promote the art of portrait photography. With the sale of thousands of photographs to the Hood Museum – an ongoing transaction since 2019 – the foundation will be able to support a new artist grant, which will be awarded every two years to a UK-based photographer.

Attributed to James Manatt, Buster Keaton for Go west (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1925), gelatin silver print. (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: The John Kobal Foundation Collection: Purchased through the Mrs. Harvey P. Hood W’18 Fund. Photo of the object by Jeffrey Nintzel.)

Mary Desjardins, a professor of media and film studies at Dartmouth, plans to use the archives in her teaching. In a statement, she explained, “The collection is exciting as an educational tool because it allows the historian-teacher to trace the history of 20th century American culture through the fantasies and ideals created from Hollywood movies and their stars.

A selection of photographs from the acquisition will be on display at the Hood Museum in the winter and spring of 2022. This is not the first time that the museum has exhibited works from the Kobal Hollywood Photographic Archive; the Hood first put on a show on the subject in 2010.

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