By Bill Dobbins
Any photographer is aware that some faces are more photogenic than others. Some that look great to the eye simply doesn’t register very well in two-dimensional photographs. There are those that come across in movies but not in still photographs – and vice versa.
With some others, excellent portraits can result if only a lot of care is taken as to things like angle and lighting. Some people have “good sides” that are much more photogenic. For example, director Josef von Sternberg discovered early on that actress Marlene Dietrich had something of a round, “fat” face that could be made more sculptural when photographed with a key light above her to the front which resulted in enhanced cheekbones and stronger jaw line.
But there is one famous movie actress who seems to have had a “perfect face,” that is one that looked good no matter the angle or the lighting – Greta Garbo.
Garbo began her movie career with a role in the 1924 Swedish film The Saga of Gosta Berling. Her performance in that film caught the attention of Louis B. Mayer and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), and she was brought to Hollywood in 1925. She attracted attention with her first silent film, Torrent, released in 1926. She became an international star a year later with her performance in Flesh and the Devil, her third movie.
Garbo was an accomplished actress and her deep, smokey voice, allowed her to successfully make the transition when sound came to the movies. Her persona on film tended to be dramatic, serious and highly romantic. But in one of her best films, the comedy Ninotchka in 1939, she plays with her established image as a very serious and rigid Soviet communist character who gradually warms up and unbends – resulting in promotion based around “Garbo Laughs.”
Greta Garbo’s last movie was Two-Faced Woman in 1941. She was unhappy with the reviews of this film and since much of her fan base was international she was not as much in demand during World War II. She was also aging and had been working in the movies for close to 20 years. In addition, Garbo was a very private person, did not like publicity or public attention, so although she was sought after by Hollywood to make more movies she decided not to return to film acting. She became something of a recluse, living in an apartment on New York’s upper east side and avoiding public recognition and photographers as much as she could.
Note: I used to know a model named Anna Maria Garbo, who lived right across the street from Greta Garbo in New York. Their mail frequently got mixed up and they would have to meet to exchange letters and packages.
Looking at Garbo’s image on the screen and in her still photos, and reading the opinions of photographers and cinematographers who worked with her, it is clear that there was something very special about how photogenic she was. This not only came about because of the structure and symmetry of her features, but due to her ability to so easily project her inner emotions with facial expressions. This last ability is virtually universal among major movie stars and it is often noted that many great stars don’t seem to be doing anything when you watch them being filmed – only to be amazed and what you see when scenes are projected on screen.
This idea of being able to register emotion when photographed is probably best exemplified by Marilyn Monroe. Photographers have noted that is was almost impossible to shoot the same photo of Marilyn twice. Her expressions change so quickly from serious to smiling to pouting to shy to seductive that shooters had to work hard in order to keep up.
Greta Garbo was not this kind of chameleon. But the sculptural qualities of her face were so balanced and aesthetic that it seemed to be impossible to shoot a bad photo of her. Photographers shooting portraits rarely have this kind of face to deal with and a lot of care and technique are needed to get the required results.
If all women looked like Greta Garbo our jobs would be that much easier.
Bill Dobbins is a is a veteran photographer and videographer, based in Los Angeles, who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries, and published eight books, including two fine art photo books: