…the man who virtually invented the photojournalistic motion picture still.— Popular Photography
Bob Willoughby, whose photographs transformed the images of Hollywood’s biggest stars, is a true pioneer of 20th century photography. He was the first “outside” photographer hired by the major studios to create photographs for the magazines, and was the link between the filmmakers and major magazines of the time, such as Life and Look.
Born June 30th, 1927 in Los Angeles, his parents were divorced by the time he was born and he was raised by his mother. Bob was given an Argus C-3 camera for his twelfth birthday, providing the catalyst for what would become the key to his future.
After high school, he studied cinema at night at the USC Cinema Department and design with Saul Bass at the Kahn Institute of Art. At the same time he apprenticed with a number of Hollywood photographers; Wallace Seawell, Paul Hesse, and Glenn Embree, gleaning technical and business know-how. His first magazine assignments were for Harper’s Bazaar in the early ’50s when famed art director Alexey Brodovitch became aware of his work.
His career took off in 1954 when Warner Bros. asked him to photograph Judy Garland’s final scene on the set of A Star Is Born. His portrait of the freckle-faced star became his first Life cover. From then on his production was phenomenal. His images were in print literally every week for the next twenty years. As the first “special” he covered the making of over 100 films, including the 1960s movies The Graduate, My Fair Lady, Rosemary’s Baby and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
His body of work, documenting this historic era of filmmaking, is unsurpassed. He captured with wonderful perception the most famous actors and directors of the time on and off the set, in unguarded moments of repose, vulnerability and high drama. He had a unique ability to capture what was essential to each film.
Sometimes a filmmaker 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?— Sydney Pollack from the introduction to Bob’s autobiography
Bob also had a remarkable understanding of the needs of each individual magazine; he could be shooting for seven different publications and know exactly what each one needed in terms of editorial content and design layout.
While Willoughby is most famous as the great chronicler of Hollywood, before he began covering film production he had already made an astonishing series of images of jazz musicians. Willoughby had a huge appreciation of jazz both in its technical aspects and its ability to raise the roof in performance. He had a masterful feel for the character of the artists, and he was able to convey it even in the difficult lighting conditions of recording studios and stage.
He was responsible for a number of technical innovations, including the silent blimp for 35mm still cameras, which became common on film sets. He was the only photographer working on films at the time to use radio-controlled cameras, allowing him unprecedented coverage in otherwise impossible situations, and he had special brackets built to hold his still cameras on or over the Panavision cameras.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood honored Willoughby with a major retrospective exhibition of his work. He was awarded the Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Still Photography in New York in 2004. His photographs are in the permanent collections of The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.; The National Portrait Gallery, London; The National Museum of Photography, Bradford, UK; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; The Museum of Modern Art, Film Department, New York; The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Tate Gallery Collection, London; Théâtre de la Photographie et de l’Image, Nice; and Musée de la Photographie, Charleroi, Belgium.
In December 2009, Bob passed away at his home in Vence in the South of France, surrounded by his wife Dorothy and four children.