Many photographs that we see today of celebrities or Hollywood life are glamorized and Photoshopped. We rarely see them as they naturally are: as regular people. But Bob Willoughby, a phenomenal photographer, was able to do just that. The pictures he took of classic Hollywood celebrities and how they acted behind stage when the camera wasn’t rolling are nothing short of astounding. Willoughby captured hundreds of moments in which celebrities, musicians, directors, and stage crew were caught unaware. His documentation had a journalistic touch rather than a posed, portrait look. But rather than catching celebrities in unflattering ways, like a paparazzi, he was able to accent the natural charm of their character, whether they were acting or taking a break. He not only photographed celebrities, but became close friends with a good portion of them, such as Audrey Hepburn and Tony Curtis. They all described Bob in a familiar and pleasant fashion. The first of his kind, once he stepped with a camera in hand onto the backstage of a studio set, it was never the same.
Robert ‘Bob’ Willoughby was born in 1927 in the suburbs of Southern California, Los Angeles, the same year as fellow jazz photographer, William Claxton. His single mother, Nettie, raised him after she divorced his father. At the age of 12, he received his first camera, an Argus C-3 (“Biography”). From then on, young Bob was enthralled by the world of photography. He started taking classes at USC in the film department and studied under Saul Bass at the Kahn University for Art (Willoughby, Remembering, pg. 26).
He assisted several respected Hollywood photographer of the time, such as Wallace Seawell. Having a passionate interest in jazz and music, Bob’s exhibits of jazz musicians caught the eye of Globe Photos and magazine Harper’s Bazaar’s art director, Alex Brodovitch (“Biography”). From this point on, his career started to take off. His early assignments were of young starlets and, if he was lucky, actresses. However, he didn’t let Harper’s Bazaar hold him down. Since he hadn’t signed an exclusive contract, Willoughby’s pictures were featured in several magazines as well, such as Look and the Saturday Evening Post. It was at this point, in 1954, that he met and photographed, rising actresses, Judy Garland. His first Life magazine cover was a picture he captured of Garland while she was shooting her final scene for the movie, A Star Is Born. In fact, Warner Brothers requested that he cover a big production number for the magazines, saying they’d pay him (The Hollywood). This was a first in the history of photography, so of course, Willoughby accepted. And that’s how he became the Hollywood “special”.
Around this time, Willoughby developed a special photographic relationship with actress Audrey Hepburn, best known for her roles in My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He was immediately charmed by her smile upon their first meeting, and said fondly that she was his “muse”. Indeed, Willoughby produced beautiful pictures of Hepburn, caching all her different moods and faces. He often would go to her house with his son and wife; that’s how close they were. It is not something that occurs often between photographers and their subjects. But Willoughby just had that charm that made his subjects, even difficult celebrities, open up.
Willoughby’s style was inspired by Henri-Cartier Bresson, Irving Pen, and W. Eugene Smith (“Getting Started”). He stated that he while he loved the composition of Bresson, he preferred the emotional depth of Smith.
Cartier-Bresson has an amazing eye for composition, and his use of space is unique. Edgar Degas, the painter, had influenced my composition, by the unique way he placed the weight of the images on his canvas. I find Cartier-Bresson’s photographic images have this same tension. W. Eugene Smith touched me emotionally where Cartier-Bresson did not. Smith obviously felt things very deeply, and sought the human element in his images. The things that Smith did for Life have still, to my mind, never been topped by any photojournalist. (“Getting Started”)
What we can see when we look at Willoughby’s pictures is that they often capture a ‘decisive moment’, like Bresson, but tend to also to have that vital human element, like Smith. Willoughby’s photographs possess that unique combination of portrait and journalism. He caught moments with such a professional quality that they appeared posed and vice versa. The viewer would be led to wonder whether he set up the shot or if it had just happened at the right moment. Such is the professional mastery Willoughby had of photography. His command of lighting, tone, and composition, leaves a powerful and lovely impression of an historic era of filmmaking and the celebrities involved in it.
As Life Books claims, “His pictures were never out of print for a week during his two decades in the movie business” (Remembering, pg. 27) Willoughby photographed many films over the period of his long career, including many Hollywood classics, such as From Here to Eternity, The Graduate, and My Fair Lady. The magazine, Popular Photography, claimed that Willoughby was the man “who virtually invented the photojournalistic motion-picture still” (Remembering, pg. 27). He tagged along with film crews on movie sets for a long time. He actually created, in 1936, two different accessories to aid in his picture-taking that would be used from then after: the remote-controlled camera and the still-camera sound blimp (Remembering, pg. 27) However, in 1972, he wanted a change and moved to Ireland with his wife and children. There he continued to photograph, but also published books and pursued other artistic venues. After a long, successful life, he passed away quietly in Venice in December of 2009 at the age of 82 (“Biography”).
Bob Willoughby forever changed photography and the way movie stars were captured. He paved the way for future, celebrity-oriented photographers, such as Annie Leibovitz. Huxley-Parlour emphasizes this, saying: “He opened the door, which turned into a flood, for a new type of celebrity imagery that offered a new level of access” (qtd. by Yeung) Sydney Pollack, a director who worked with Willoughby, also praises the legend, writing:
“Sometimes a film-maker gets a look at a photograph taken on his own set and sees the ‘soul’ of his film in one still photograph. It’s rare, but it happens. It happened to me in 1969, the first time I looked at the work of Bob Willoughby during the filming of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (qtd. by Yeung)
Bob Willoughby contributed so much to the world of photography and to the careers of many celebrities. Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland were just amateurs, before Willoughby’s pictures helped them take a spot in the limelight. Willoughby’s pictures will not soon be forgotten as he serves to inspire future generations of photographers.