You might not be familiar with her name but you’re probably familiar with her work. Ruth Harriet Louise’s glamorous photos of classic movie stars have graced countless magazines and book covers. Her photos helped launch the careers of many beloved actors and they offered fans an intimate look at some of Hollywood’s most celebrated icons. Her impressive portfolio is still in circulation today and if you take a quick look around the TCM website you’re bound to come across one or two of Louise’s famous portraits staring back at you.
During Mark’s early years in Hollywood, his sister Ruth was establishing herself as a photographer at home. Ruth had originally wanted to be a painter but after she had her portrait snapped by the famed photographer Nicolas Muray during a visit to New York, she became fascinated with the artistic possibilities of the camera and enrolled in a local photography school. Ruth didn’t stay in school long and dropped out rather quickly to become Nicolas Muray’s apprentice. After honing her skills and developing her style, she decided to set up her own photography studio in New Brunswick. Under the assumed name of Ruth Harriet Louise, she began her career as a professional portrait photographer.
Ruth’s relatively quiet existence was turned upside down when her brother Mark, now going by the name Mark Sandrich, returned to New Jersey to marry his sweetheart Freda in 1925. Mark must have filled Ruth’s head with fabulous stories about Hollywood and the motion picture industry because soon after he returned to Los Angeles, Ruth decided to follow him there.
Ruth closed her New Brunswick studio and set up a new studio in Hollywood under the watchful eye of her older brother. Her career got its biggest boost after their cousin, the actress Carmel Myers, asked Ruth to photograph her wearing a lavish costume from the set of Ben-Hur (1925). Afterward, Myers showed the photos to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer who was very impressed. MGM was a relatively new studio eager to hire a qualified photographer to shoot publicity photos of their stars and Louis B. Meyer thought Ruth might be perfect for the job. But before he could offer Ruth a contract with MGM he had to convince the other studio bosses that a 22-year-old woman was capable of working in a field that was dominated by men.
Female costume designers and scriptwriters were one thing but a woman photographer was practically unheard of in 1925 and they wondered if she had the technical capabilities and skill to manage the job. With help from her supportive family and the assistance of Louis B. Meyer, Ruth Harriet Louise became MGM’s chief portrait photographer and the first woman to hold that position at a major Hollywood studio.
“Good photographs, like good books, or a resonant mellow old violin, possess a soul . . . A violin sings to you, a book holds a mental séance with you and makes you think. Even so a photograph can talk to you. If it is the better type of photograph it not only talks to you, but it strikes you between the eyes and makes you gasp for breath.”
– Ruth Harriet Louise
Top: Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, Lily Damita and Don Alvarado
Bottom: Loretta Young and Lon Chaney, Robert Montgomery and Joan Crawford
Between 1925 and 1930, Ruth Harriet Louise snapped thousands of pictures of Hollywood royalty. During those 5 years, Ruth used her natural charm, good looks and youth to put celebrities at ease in front of her camera. Although she was hired to produce glamorous and flattering photographs of MGM stars, she managed to bring out the personalities of her subjects in unexpected ways.
One of her most celebrated tricks was to shoot all of her subjects in full body and at a distance. But after the shoot was over Ruth would crop her pictures and create evocative headshots that often seemed more honest and animated than the still shots produced by other photographers using more conventional means. Her portraits of Hollywood screen couples seem particularly sensitive to their subjects and there’s a wistfulness about them that is romantic as well as tender. Ruth also enjoyed playing with shadows and complex backgrounds that seem especially bold and inventive today.
Glamour photos were supposed to represent the stars at their very best and most beautiful but Ruth often treated her subjects like they were part of the creative process instead of just models taking marching orders from the studio. Some of the most creative examples of her work are her silhouette portraits of Great Garbo and Ramon Novarro. Without actually seeing their faces fans knew exactly who they were looking at. Studio heads must have balked at Ruth’s beautiful portrait of Garbo’s graceful silhouette but today it seems like one of the most honest photos that we have of this elusive actress.
Top: Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro
Bottom: Joan Crawford and Anna May Wong
Garbo was so impressed with Ruth’s photos that she selected Ruth to become her exclusive portrait photographer until 1929. The two women developed a close working relationship possibly due to their similar ages and devotion to their work. The young photographer enjoyed her job but she was always interested in going beyond the glamorous façade that Hollywood had envisioned for their actors. Ruth wanted to capture their personalities, their moods and their very essence with her camera. For a brief time, Garbo may have admired Ruth’s independent nature as well as her ability to bypass Hollywood standards and incorporate her fine art background into her work.
“Miss Garbo has such a many-sided nature, and is so full of moods, that I have to photograph her in a dozen ways, and in a dozen poses, without attempting to reproduce the real Greta in one picture, as one can do with most people. All the tragedy of the world seems hidden in her brooding heavy-lidded eyes. I only wish I could capture it through my camera.”
– Ruth Harriet Louise
Ruth’s new portrait studio at MGM was made up of multiple rooms that sat atop a three-story building where she could make good use of the natural light. During shooting sessions, her clients could move more freely and she encouraged her subjects to strike dramatic poses that incorporated their acting skills and accentuated their extravagant costumes.
One of her favorite subjects was the “Man of a Thousand Faces.” Lon Chaney’s animated expressions and domineering screen personality captured Ruth’s imagination and her devotion to the actor can be seen in every portrait and candid shot that she snapped. Chaney literally comes to life in her photos and we can thank Ruth Harriet Louise for providing us with an intimate and unforgettable look at one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars.
“One of the stars I find most interesting to photograph is Lon Chaney. He is never the same, and yet I know that I have not succeeded, yet, in penetrating to the real Lon Chaney. He is an enigma . . . He is helpful, because he knows his work so well. He can produce any mood, any expression, in an instant. He acts as vividly for me and my camera as he does on the sets.”
– Ruth Harriet Louise
In 1930 MGM was changing and they decided they could only afford one studio photographer so Ruth Harriet Louise was let go and famed photographer George Hurrell took over MGM’s portrait studio. Hurrell got the job after he shot some provocative portraits of actress Norma Shearer, which she promptly showed to her husband, the powerful producer Irving Thalberg. Shearer wanted to be portrayed more seductively in her promotional shots and Hurrell’s work impressed Thalberg. Unlike Ruth Harriet Louise who was always trying to capture the personality of the people she photographed as well as their beauty, George Hurrell seemed more eager and able to participate in the illusion of pure glamour and controlled decadence that Hollywood wanted to create.
After leaving MGM Ruth Harriet Louise occasionally worked as a freelance photographer until her unfortunate early death in 1940. Ruth had married director Leigh Jason (Bubbling Over; 1934, Wise Girl; 1937, The Mad Miss Manton; 1938, Lady for a Night; 1942, Lost Honeymoon; 1947) in 1927 and the couple had two children together but in 1938 their eldest son died of leukemia at age six. Afterward, Ruth became pregnant again but there were complications during childbirth and Ruth and her unborn baby both died on October 12, 1940.
Today her brother, director Mark Sandrich, is the most well-known member of her family. His much-beloved musicals such as The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Shall We Dance (1937) and Holiday Inn (1942) are still celebrated today by movie fans around the world. But we shouldn’t let his accomplishments overshadow the accomplishments of his little sister.
For a brief time, Ruth Harriet Louise was one of the most powerful and successful women in Hollywood. She could make and break careers with a single photograph and she paved the way for other women to follow in her footsteps. She proved that a beautiful woman could be just as successful behind the camera as she could be in front of it. She also had a hand in developing a more natural and unfettered beauty within celebrity portraiture that we commonly see today.
If you’d like to learn more about this Hollywood pioneer I highly recommend picking up a copy of Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography by Robert Dance and Bruce Robertson. It’s a beautiful coffee table volume and it contains a wealth of fascinating information about Ruth Harriet Louise’s career and working methods.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published on TCM.com in March 2011.