Friday, July 29, 2016


A set of exquisite portrait photographs and production stills from MGM's infamous FREAKS (1932, Tod Browning) has been circulating around the Web (see series below). They are stark, provocative and suggestively perverse; in other words, every bit like the movie itself.

The images range from portraits of the actors and actresses who portrayed the circus freaks, portraits of the leading "big people" in the movie, as well as production shots of the cast either posing for the camera or in action.

A closer examination reveals the clarity and detail that was commonly seen in these types of Hollywood photographs of the 1930s, where a number of unit and studio photographers plied their trade and would later become world-famous for their work.

I did a little digging on this set of stills and found that they had been a part of a series from an 2012-2013 exhibit of the Musee de l'Elysee called "Freaks, The Monstrous Parade". The selection of about 50 of these photographs were from the collection of Zurich-based Enrico Praloran. What struck me, though, was that in all my (admittedly terse) on-line research, I never once came upon the name of the photographer who took the pictures.

I know that legendary photographers like George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull had worked for MGM, and, since they were both noted for their glamour shots, both had taken portraits of Leila Hyams in the early 1930s. But Hurrell left MGM in 1932 and Bull is known for only a limited amount of horror actors as his subjects (ex. Lugosi, Lorre), which would most likely leave both of them out. Which leaves the cameramen (also unlikely), or an as yet (or undiscovered so far by me) identified person. There is one more possibility -- and a probable longshot at that -- is Tod Browning himself.

Even one of the more authoritative sources on Browning, the duo of David Skal and Elias Sevada fail to mention a unit photographer in the excerpt from their book, "Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre" concerning the making of FREAKS (FILMFAX #52 Sept/Oct 1995),

So, unless I've missed something or if the information is unearthed in new research, it looks like the photographer of these very unusual, but artful photographs will remain unnamed.

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