Life in New York: discovering a young Stanley Kubrick’s formative photography

The master director honed his observational skills through a series of revealing monochrome portraits

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In a photograph from Life and Love in the New York City Subway (1947), Stanley Kubrick captured lovers in a sleepy embrace, eyes shut, drowned in a dark light and wrapped in thick winter garments. This suspended moment in time, stolen on an everyday commute, suggests the couple's rich inner world, a lifetime of intimate encounters.

Before he directed films that disturbed and shook with singular imagination, the young Kubrick obsessively documented characters and scenes in his native city.

A 17-year-old New Yorker

The Museum of the City of New York has presented a new reading of the work of one of the 20th century's great masters of storytelling by displaying, for the first time, a photographic archive of more than 120 stills shot by Kubrick for the general interest magazine Look from 1945 – when he was a 17-year-old high-school graduate from the Bronx – to 1950.

The commissioned stories range from profiles of celebrities such as Montgomery Clift to photo essays on urban life, such as A Day in the Life of a Shoeshine Boy. A new book published by Taschen accompanies the exhibition, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of Kubrick's cult science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“It was a discovery that there was all this work by Kubrick in there, and we thought it was interesting because he was a 17-year-old New Yorker,” says Sean Corcoran, the mus­eum’s curator of prints and photographs. “We could see a connection to the artist he became. We discuss connections between the photography and the work as a director.”

Kubrick was drawn to the odd, to the eccentrics and the forgotten characters of city life, following the footsteps of photographers Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange of the Farm Security Administration, who documented the Great Depression. He was also strongly influenced by Weegee’s provocative images of New York’s underbelly.

"We find his ability to see and look at people and understand the best way to capture their inner person, to understand the human psyche through the camera," Corcoran says.

Drawing from film noir, Kubrick lit these figures dramatically, alluding to imagined stories and hidden truths.

The exhibition juxtaposes clips from the director's first efforts, such as the short film Killer's Kiss, with these stills. "Some of the lighting is dramatic, almost chiaroscuro-like," the curator says, "with low camera angles, and use of telephoto angles to bring faraway items close ... a series of different ways of using the camera, which he then uses as a director. They are building blocks to becoming a filmmaker.

“This is his education on how to frame and light but also narrative storytelling – public and private persona of celebrities or everyday characters.”

'His viewpoint is unique'

These uncanny snaps were often disturbing to post-war, conservative America. "Kubrick's photos tend to be slightly off kilter for the taste of post-war America," Corcoran says. "For example, the assignment covering the circus consists of typical pictures of acrobats and animals practising their tricks.

“But there was also a very direct portrait of a tattooed man that had never been published. At the time, the public expected family-­friendly images and social norms. Outsiders weren’t really accepted. It was really about conformity in the United States.”

The young Kubrick’s experience of the city challenged those saccharine cliches, revealing darker truths. “His viewpoint is unique,” Corcoran says. “He manages to show New York life in its everyday – the quirkiness of New York; the experience of going to the laundromat and being bored; people wearing sandwich-board advertisements on the streets and the public’s reaction to them. At the same time, his celebrity profiles address the glamour – the high-low of New York.”

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Through those assignments, Kubrick honed an eye for psychologically charged scenes, original compositions and intense lighting that later grew into a full cinematic aesthetic.

“Photography gave him all the tools to carry out his vision as a filmmaker,” Corcoran says. “He was able to follow his vision by having those technical tools, but also by keeping an independent spirit. He had his own way of seeing the world.

"Something that captures the universal and the specific; we can see the world as it is and we can see the voice of the photographer, because ultimately all photographs are subjective. Over five years you see the development of an eye and mind that becomes a singular way of seeing."

Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs is at the Museum of the City of New York until October 28, 2018. Entrance is free