NEW YORK — Starting in 1945, when he was 17 and living in the Bronx, Stanley Kubrick worked as a New York-based photographer for Look magazine. He joined the staff full time in October 1946, and he quit in August 1950. “By the time I was 21 I had four years of seeing how things worked in the world,” Kubrick told an interviewer in 1972. “I think if I had gone to college I would never have been a director.”
The postwar years were the heyday of the popular American pictorial magazines, with Life and Look leading the charge. Life was the classier of the two, adopting an international scope and employing a heady lineup of photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith. Look, which went out of business in 1971, was more provincial, focusing most of its attention on American pursuits and problems, and hiring photographers who were highly professional but rarely inspired.
The Look archive resides at the Museum of the City of New York, where an exhibition titled “Stanley Kubrick: Through a Different Lens” opens on May 3. The show and an accompanying catalog published by Taschen look at what is essentially Kubrick before he became Kubrick.
Unless they were recording news events, photographers for the picture magazines were hobbled by a crippling constraint. Their photos were illustrating a preconceived story that had been formulated by the editors. The possibilities for discovery were limited.
The topics Kubrick explored are chestnuts so old that they smell a little moldy. Lovers embracing on a park bench as their neighbors gaze ostentatiously elsewhere. Patients anxiously awaiting doctors appointments. Boxing hopefuls in the ring. Celebrities at home. Pampered dogs in the city. It probably helped that Stan Kubrick, as he was known at that time, was just a kid, so instead of inducing yawns, these magazine perennials struck him as novelties, and he in turn brought something fresh to them.
Knowing what career path he would follow, we look for foreshadowing of his future greatness. In the rueful grimace of a mother on the subway, her hands enfolding a blond boy who could be a grumpy fallen angel, the strength of the expression and gesture convey an individual temperament. The diagonals of ropes, legs, and arms in the portrait of boxer Walter Cartier between rounds in the ring, along with the dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, remind us of the many black-and-white films that depict prizefighters, including Kubrick’s “Killer’s Kiss.” (Kubrick’s first film as a director, the short newsreel-format “Day of the Fight,” in 1951, featured Cartier and his twin brother, Vincent.)
A striking shot at the piano of Peter Arno, the New Yorker cartoonist and bon vivant, with eyes shut and mouth open, an ashtray holding down the sheet music, is composed with masterly precision. So is a humorous picture of a man at the track grappling with a windblown newspaper (probably Racing Form).
Other photographs that emphasize the mise-en-scène could be movie stills: a shouting circus executive who takes up the right side of the foreground while aerialists rehearse in the middle distance, a boy climbing to a roof with the city tenements surrounding him, a subway car filled with sleeping passengers. Looking at these pictures, you want to know what comes next.
Kubrick, who died in 1999, was an excellent magazine photographer. His pictures fall short, though, in one crucial way. They hardly ever surprise. When he said that he would not have become a movie director without his apprenticeship at Look, he might have meant, in part, that after four years of depicting stories that were handed to him, he was ready to start writing his own scripts.