László Willinger’s task was simple: Make the beautiful people look even more so. Such was the life of a photographer of the stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
If you were a star in the golden era – or you dreamed of becoming one – you were photographed by Willinger. Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, John Barrymore, Rosalind Russell and countless others were photographed by Willinger.
Willinger, who died in 1989 at 83, considered Gable, Crawford and Vivien Leigh his favorite subjects.
“They knew what was expected of them,” he said in one interview. “These stars not only cooperated, they were eager. Some actors didn’t understand this, and you never heard from them again.”
Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1906, Willinger learned photography from his mother and became a professional photographer at 16 when he ran his first studio in Berlin. He managed a portrait studio in Paris and opened his own studio in Vienna at 23, photographing Sigmund Freud, Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker.
Willinger moved to Hollywood in 1937, working exclusively for MGM studios until 1944. Later, he spent 40 years at FPG, a New York photo agency that stocked about 50,000 of his photos.
It was his work in Hollywood during the 1930s and ’40s, however, that cemented his reputation. It was also the era he recalled most fondly. “I don’t think that at any time in history more people so talented on every level had ever come together as in the Hollywood of those decades,” Willinger said.”
Using lighting, costumes and emotion as a movie director might, Willinger photographed as many as four stars every week.
“Even if a star wasn’t working, the publicity machine kept going,” he told a New York Times reporter in 1987. “There were 400 newspapers across the country, each with two pages of shots a day.
“The only thing that was expected of me was to make images that the press would choose to print over everyone else’s,” Willinger said. “To get printed, yours had to be the best.”
Willinger, however, was far less impressed with Hollywood of the 1980s, saying that the era’s stars “all look the same – like unfinished pancakes.”
His original photographs, exhibited in several museums, remain in demand at auction and private sale. Julien’s Auctions recently sold a number of Willinger’s work during a “Golden Era Glamour Photography” event.