The tick of time has almost never failed to vindicate Stanley Kubrick. His films—sometimes plodding, sometimes maddening, always uncompromisingly singular—were popularly derided upon debut for their difficulty. Genius, apparently, is an acquired taste. In any case, each is now considered an indispensable pillar within one of the most celebrated and influential canons of cinematic history.
Lesser known than his motion masterpieces, however, is a small yet prophetic body of photographs the artist took in the years preceding his seminal films. Armed with a Leica III and on assignment for the then groundbreaking publication Look, Kubrick traveled extensively between 1945 and 1950 shooting narratives of human interest. He had been dispatched not as a mere photojournalist, but as an author of photo narratives: the photos themselves were to tell the stories. As a result, this body of images provides a fascinating dissection and foreshadowing of the very particular narrative style featured in Kubrick’s films.
Just over a decade after his death, for the first time anywhere in the world, Milan’s Palazzo della Ragione has curated and dissected a large portion of the work from this landmark step in the director’s career. The exhibition—which includes many previously unpublished and unseen images—is divided into two parts, each with several sections. Among other narratives are a journey through the epic pursuit and arrest of two criminals, shots of students at Columbia University and the campus of Mooseheart in Illinois, a series on Montgomery Clift and several exuberant portraits of shoeshine boys in New York, whose youthful plight obliquely brings to mind Lolita. Of particular interest to his later work in film is the degree to which Kubrick’s taste for the surreal and misanthropic is evident in this set of work, all done by his early 20s.
The artist’s legendary disposition—described incongruously as obdurate, intense and misanthropic, yet penetrating and sensitive—was undoubtedly the source of his films’ energy . His famous antipathy for the generous view of humanity espoused by Rousseau, however, seems slightly harsh in considering these photos. Nowhere is his cynical, half-joking eye more apparent than in the gorgeous, yet subtly ironic shots of Betsy von Furstenberg in her socialite habitat. Moreover, his portraits of Dixie jazz musicians, with their contorted and focused expressions, verge on absurd. So strong is Kubrick’s vision for his subjects, that even when they’re the object of his photojournalism, it’s nearly impossible not to regard them as constructed characters in a grand story.
This collection of photos more clearly reveals that characters were constructed by him (in both films and photos) not only with mild contempt for their humanity but also with utter infatuation of their particularity. In panorama, we may find that his apparent anti-Rousseau leanings can accurately be considered a rejection of the notion that people are merely passive casualties of a corrupt society. Their almost endearing corruption and abject strangeness is, rather, a product of their own devices. Perhaps the tick of time will even thwart the notion of Kubrick as a misanthrope. Perhaps.
The exhibition, curated by Rainier Crone, runs through July 4th at the Palazzo della Ragione, Piazza Mercanti 1, Milan.
Myths of a Paddy Wagon; Personalities of the circus, March 1948
Lead images: A tale of a shoe-shine boy, 1947; Dailies of a rising star: Betsy von Furstenberg, 1950.