Artist, Activist & Star-Maker: Photographer Eliot Elisofon

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Kim Novak & Eliot Elisofon (self-portrait; 1958)

When I first started writing about Hollywood glamor photography here at the Movie Morlocks one of the photographers I was particularly keen on featuring was Eliot Elisofon. His captivating images of numerous Hollywood stars have mesmerized me for decades but back in 2010 there was very little information about the man available online. This year that changed significantly thanks to the Smithsonian museum, which launched the first retrospective of Elisofon’s photography at the National Museum of African Art. The exhibit is titled “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” and it features an extensive selection of photographs Elisofon took for Life Magazine between 1947 and 1972 as well as pieces from his African art collection that were donated to the museum after his death in 1973 at age 61. The exhibition comes to an end on November 16th but since its debut nearly a year ago it’s received extensive media attention and sparked a renewed interest in Elisofon and his work. In an effort to keep interest in Eliot Elisofon alive I thought I’d finally delve into his fascinating career in Hollywood where he helped make Marlon Brando and Kim Novak household names and worked on a number of films including MOULIN ROUGE (1952), BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) and KHARTOUM (1966).

Eliot Elisofon was born in 1911 and raised in New York. His family emigrated there from Latvia at the turn of the century and they set up home in the poverty stricken Lower East Side of the city. He was forced to work as a child to help support his family but it also allowed him to save enough money to attend Fordham University where Elisofon planned to study medicine while pursuing his photography hobby that he’d developed in high-school. After completing his first four years at college, Elisopon found himself in the middle the Great Depression and he was forced to go back to work in order to support himself.

While he was working at a dead-end clerical job in 1935, a high-school friend who knew Elisofon was a talented photographer contacted him and asked if he’d be interested in forming a commercial photo studio. Elisofon jumped at the opportunity and spent gfx10the next five years honing his craft and finding his focus. During this period he became keenly aware of the power of photography and used his skills to document the poverty he witnessed in New York at the time as well as campaign against it. While merging his artistic ambitions with his social activism, Elisofon took on many challenging photography projects including documenting coal mining in Pennsylvania and the bleak education system in Georgia. By 1940, Elisofon had become the president of New York’s prestigious Photo League organization, which believed that photography could be a serious tool for social change as well as artistic experimentation. Elisofon’s talent also caught the attention of Life Magazine.

Life editors offered him a number of freelance projects until they finally decided to hire him as a full time staff photographer in 1942. His new job allowed him to travel around the world and his globetrotting adventures had a profound impact on his artistic ambitions as well as his world view. Many of his early assignments for Life were related to WW2, which was devastating Europe and Elisofon gained world-wide recognition for his daring war photographs including an impressive shot of General George S. Patton that appeared on the first full-color cover of Life in 1941. It was during this period that General Patton nicknamed Elisofon ‘Hellzapoppin’ because no one could pronounce his Latvian last name. The name stuck and Elisofon’s friends began to use it as well.

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Life Magazine also started sending Eliot ‘Hellzapoppon’ Elisofon to Hollywood where he had the opportunity to photograph many glamorous stars and starlets. His early photographs demonstrate an interest in surrealism that had begun to flourish in New York after WW2 and his creative use of bold colors and dramatic shadows made directors as well as studio executives take notice. One of the earliest directors Elisofon worked with was Alfred Hitchcock. The two combined they’re talents for Life Magazine in a photo essay called “Have You Heard?” that discouraged civilians from sharing secrets and rumors during war time. The photographer was also assigned to shoot many Broadway plays, included A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE during its 1947 stage debut. When Life Magazine published Elisofon’s suggestive photos from the play, which captured the primal beauty of a young Marlon Brando, readers were intrigued and wanted to know more about the talented newcomer in a tight t-shirt who could easily cart Jessica Tandy off stage.

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One of Elisofon’s first cover photos for Life features Carol Bruce (1940)

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Gene Tierney (1942)

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Alexis Smith (1942)

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Ann Sheridan (1942)

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Rita Hayworth (1942)

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Lana Turner (1942)

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Veronica Lake (1942)

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Brenda Marshall (1942)

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Greer Garson (1942)

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John Barrymore (1942)

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June Clyde (1942)

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Gary Cooper (1942)

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Jane Russell (1942)

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Lucille Ball (1943)

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Lizabeth Scott (1946)

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Esther Williams (1946)

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Hedy Lamarr (1946)

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Ginger Rogers (1946)

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Ingrid Bergman (1947)

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Lauren Bacall (1948)

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Elisabeth Taylor (1953)

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Doris Day (1953)

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Audrey Hepburn (1953)

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Cyd Charisse (1953)

In 1950 a big opportunity presented itself when Life assigned Elisofon to follow John Huston and his cast and crew into the Congo to shoot THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951). Elisofon had developed a deep love for Africa and its people as well as African art during his time as a staff photographer for Life and many of his shooting assignments were spent on the Dark Continent so he was the perfect candidate for the job. While there, Elisofon took hundreds of candid photos capturing the making of Huston’s Oscar winning film and his photos must have impressed the director who eventually hired Elisofon to work on his next movie, MOULIN ROUGE (1952). The New York photographer brought a lifetime of experience to the project where he used his expert understanding of color to help transform MOULIN ROUGE  into a genuine feast for the eye. Afterward Elisofon lent his talents to the making of BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), where he developed camaraderie with the film’s female star, Kim Novak, who appreciated the way Elisofon had photographed her. Novak’s a lovely woman but she looks absolutely stunning in BELL BOOK AND CANDLE and she apparently felt that much of that was due to Elisofon’s eye for composition and color manipulation.

A few years later when Kim Novak was asked to appear in Life Magazine the actress requested that Elisofon photograph her, which he did a number of times allowing him to capture Novak’s natural star appeal. Other films would follow including THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965), KHARTOUM (1966) and THE WAR LORD (1965) but Elisofon’s real passion was in photo journalism and this was evident throughout his career.

One of the best examples of his journalism talent can be found in the pictures he took at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have A Dream Speech.” During the march, Elisofon focused his camera on the celebrities in attendance and was undoubtedly aware that they’d have a huge impact on public opinion. Elisofon eventually returned to Africa where he spent his last years documenting the country and its people before a sudden cerebral hemorrhage ended his life in 1972.

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On the set of the AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

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On the set of the AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

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On the set of the AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

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On the set of the AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

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On the set of the AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

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On the set of the MOULIN ROUGE (1952)

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On the set of the MOULIN ROUGE (1952)

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On the set of the BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958)

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On the set of the BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958)

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Tyrone Power (1958)

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Roddy McDowall (1958)

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Anthony Perkins (1958)

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Gloria Swanson (1960)

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Warren Beatty & Natalie Wood (1961)

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James Baldwin, Charlton Heston & director Joseph Mankiewicz
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963)

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Charlton Heston, James Garner, Harry Belafonte & Sidney Poitier
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963)

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James Garner & Diahann Carroll
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963)

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Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin & Marlon Brando
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963)

Eliot ‘Hellzapoppin’ Elisofon’s career in Hollywood may have been brief but he made a big impact. His photographs showcase the renowned beauty of some of our greatest actors and have undoubtedly had a hand in defining their public personas. And his impressive color techniques helped make MOULIN ROUGE and BELL BOOK AND CANDLE two of the best looking films produced in the 1950s. His fascinating life is well worth exploring further so I highly recommend visiting the links below to learn more about the man and his impressive contributions to art and anthropology.

Further reading:
- Meet the Real “Most Interesting Man in the World”
- Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon
- “To Help The World To See” – An Eliot Elisofon Retrospective

 

4 Responses Artist, Activist & Star-Maker: Photographer Eliot Elisofon
Posted By doug n : November 14, 2014 4:19 am

Amazing photos from a man who, from your background profile, must have seen about all that life had to offer. Thanks!

Posted By kingrat : November 14, 2014 5:44 pm

Kimberly, thank you for a wonderful article and those great photos! The shot of Gloria Swanson in the ruins of the theater was the inspiration for FOLLIES. Harold Prince had seen that photo and never forgot it.

Posted By AL : November 14, 2014 10:54 pm

This was a TotalKnockout! thank you, Kimberly…

Posted By swac44 : November 18, 2014 9:24 pm

Although I’m a Heston fan, I’ve never seen The War Lord, I need to correct that oversight pronto!

Having recently watched Bell Book & Candle on blu-ray, I agree that Elisofon and director of photography James Wong Howe certainly worked their own kind of magic together. It’s a shame he didn’t work on more films, but it’s not like he didn’t have plenty of other important things to keep him busy.

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