Curated by Graham Howe
Using a Leica and his insider advantage as the close friend and confident of Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, John Swope (1908-1979) documented Hollywood not as an idealized landscape but as a working town full of struggle, hope, and success. He saw the men and women who make the movies as regular folk, be they Fonda, Stewart or the would-be actors and film grips waiting for their unemployment checks. Hollywood was a town in the very real business of creating the unreal “elsewhere.”
Like Robert Frank's classic view of the disquiet beneath the American post-war prosperity in The Americans, Swope shows us Hollywood's underbelly. His formal agility is akin to that of Frank, albeit in a body of work made about a dozen years earlier. The small camera is used to its greatest advantage in gaining unusual vantage points, taking pictures of unsuspecting subjects and fixing their fleeting expressions all on the fly. He shows cinematographer giant James Wong Howe dwarfed beneath his camera rig, seemingly more at its mercy than of its command. John Barrymore motors by, the celebrity of a Hollywood Shriners parade, only to be shown in Swope’s view as a disembodied carnival clown being wheeled past the public dais. Swope also shows us moments of genuine tenderness. Jimmy Stewart and Olivia de Havilland are supine and napping on the grass in the late day sun, a portable gramophone providing background music to their simple outdoor pleasure. What we see is more like a rehearsal for It's A Wonderful Life than behind-the-scenes Hollywood. Reality is fugitive in this town.
Hollywood sets are seen more from their backside than their façade. An extra sleeps on the grass between takes with his whisky bottle, actors play poker as they wait for the next shoot, an actress washes her laundry in the sink of her tiny apartment. John Swope shows us the Hollywood of labor as well as glamour, the stars and the ever-hopeful. Temporalities and geographies merge into the gritty whole of Hollywood, as the illusions of show business become hopes for success and what is behind the scenes becomes hard living for those in Hollywood.
Heralded as a masterwork of behind-the-scenes documentary, Camera Over Hollywood was first published by Random House in 1939. Its republication is commemorated with the exhibition tour of this important and until recently forgotten body of work.
NUMBER OF WORKS:
63 vintage photographs
June 2000 - November 2001
Camera Over Hollywood (Art Publishers, 1999)
Santa Barbara Museum of Art | Santa Barbara, CA
(June 10 - August 20, 2000)
Presentation House Gallery | Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
(September 2 - October 28, 2000)
Walter Greer Gallery | Self Family Arts Center | Hilton Head Island, SC
(June 14 - July 21, 2001)
Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County | Charlotte, NC
(July 28 - September 9, 2001)
Fresno Metropolitan Museum | Fresno, CA
(October 4 - November 18, 2001)