Stanley Kubrick at Look magazine: Authorship and genre in photojournalism and film
By Philippe Mather
Published February 2013
From Chapter 2: Macro-objective analysis: Look magazine’s organisational structure
Kubrick has observed that the four and a half years he spent working for Look magazine represented his college years, adding that “travelling all over America, seeing how things worked and the way people behaved, gave me some useful insights plus important experience in photography” (Walker, 14). He has also referred to his first six months at Look as an apprenticeship, after which he was granted the status of staff photographer (Bernstein 2006, 315). His initial appointment as an apprentice must have been an unusual decision for Look, who clearly did not have a formal programme for high school graduates. Kubrick acknowledges his indebtedness to picture editor Helen O’Brian, who was aware of the youngster’s academic situation, and offered him the apprenticeship, with the approval of managing editor Jack Guenther (LoBrutto, 34). Look was not risking much, given Kubrick’s starting salary of $50 per week, and the opportunity to mould a young, talented photographer into the ideal employee (Panzer 2005b, 410). Look had prospered during the war years, as its advertising revenue almost quintupled between 1940 and 1946, from $1.3 million to $6.4 million (Cooperman, 147). Furthermore, O’Brian has stated that Kubrick “had the highest percentage of acceptances of any free-lance photographer I’ve ever dealt with,” confirming that the staff at Look had become aware of the teenager’s photographic eye (Stagg, 40). Comparing Look’s brand of apprenticeship with formal programmes, which have been developed in the United States and Germany, can provide us with useful information regarding the likely influence the New York photo-magazine had on the young visual storyteller. Moreover, the relative informality of Look magazine’s arrangement with Kubrick both gives an indication of the organization’s flexibility and can serve as a bridge between the macro- and micro-objective levels of social analysis.
O’Brian has stated that Kubrick “had the highest percentage of acceptances of any free-lance photographer I’ve ever dealt with,” confirming that the staff at Look had become aware of the teenager’s photographic eye
Based in part on the photographic archives at the Library of Congress and at the Museum of the City of New York, we can determine that Kubrick’s initial contract with Look magazine likely covered the period from April to October 1946. He would then have signed a new contract as a full member of the photography department, but since Look magazine had a six-week lead time between submitting assignments and publication, Kubrick’s name did not appear on Look’s masthead until the January 7, 1947, issue. Despite his quick promotion to staff photographer, he clearly remained in a learning mode, absorbing each new experience afforded by his official position at Look, effectively extending his six-month apprenticeship by an additional year or so. Formal apprenticeships usually last between two and four years, and apprentices earn between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of the journeyman rate, with wages increasing by 5 per cent every six months (Cantor, 127). Kubrick has stated that his “highest salary was $105 a week,” although Look journalists travelled first class and supplemented their modest income by making creative use of their expense accounts (Ginna, 18).
During the apprenticeship, Kubrick’s street assignments included mothers shopping with their children, Bryant Park in Manhattan, the Palisades Amusement Park, Bronx street scenes and the subway system. Candid camera subjects also included a woman trying on a hat in a clothing store, a dentist’s waiting room and the subway. Kubrick may well have suggested some of these assignments himself, since he already had some familiarity with street photography, but the change in the types of assigned jobs suggests that Look initially wanted their junior photographer to perfect his craft and develop some chops as a professional shutterbug. Understandably, Look may also have wanted to reserve its more prestigious assignments, involving travel and celebrities, for its established staff, leaving young Stanley to demonstrate some creativity in the streets, parks and subway world of New York City (Bolack, 39–40). Look had an experienced group of photographers who had secured their professional reputations in the 1930s with organizations such as the Farm Security Administration, including John Vachon and Arthur Rothstein. It has been argued that “the socialization of news photographers to professional and organizational demands begins in journalism textbooks, which include detailed instructions on how to photograph news events.”
Look was certainly not obliged to hire a college “reject,” but they did nonetheless, and probably not “out of pity”
These facts underscore the exceptional quality of Look’s decision to hire a 17-year-old. Granted, a six-month contract represented no more than a $1200 expenditure for the magazine, but the editors must have seen something in Kubrick to make them overlook the standard presumption of “youthful instability” (S. Hamilton, 24). So what do primary labour market employers look for in job applicants without college degrees, if they consider them at all? Hamilton lists the following worker virtues: punctuality, diligence, responsibility, receptiveness to supervision, “skills in social interaction and the ability to continue learning,” as well as higher order skills such as “curiosity, problem-solving skills, and thoughtfulness” (14–15). This may be a tall order for most teenagers, but Kubrick was clearly passionate about photography, and his perceived talent by Look editors may have proven to be the trump card, which supplemented his other qualities as a worker. Look was certainly not obliged to hire a college “reject,” but they did nonetheless, and probably not “out of pity,” as Kubrick once claimed (Gelmis, 81).