Hollywood at Play: The History and Use of Publicity Stills, Exclusive Guest Post by Author Mary Mallory

The History and Use of Publicity Stills

In the early decades of the Twentieth Century before the invention of television and the internet, the Hollywood motion picture industry sold itself and its products to the general public through the use of still photographs distributed to magazines and newspapers to entice consumers into buying movie tickets. As film studio photographers Elmer Fryer and Fred Archer described it in a 1928 article about still photography, “The still sells the movies.” Hollywood’s motion picture still photography defined sophisticated style, shaped personas, and created the iconic image of “a movie star” as we know it today.

As a fledgling medium in the early 1900s, the film industry developed all necessary practices as they went along, inventing the hows and whys of each step in the process of motion pictures from production through exhibition and distribution, including publicity. In the beginning, producers merely copied earlier forms of entertainment like the circus, devising eye-catching, colorful posters selling mostly company brand names and offering a bare hint of a story. By the end of the decade, scene stills further elaborated plots and action.

Mabel Normand Hartsook
Mabel Normand Hartsook

Three events around 1910 ushered in the age of publicity photographs and the beginnings of celebrity culture. Newspapers established departments to review films in 1909. After years of moviegoers asking the name of stars appearing on the silver screen, studios finally began crediting actors playing the roles in their films in 1910, with Universal’s Inependent Motion Pictures Company (IMP) the first to name Florence Lawrence as a star. Most importantly, film producer J. Stuart Blackton published the first fan magazine devoted strictly to the art of moving pictures, Motion Picture Story, in 1911.

To take advantage of these new publicity avenues, stars visited important portrait photographers frequented by theatrical performers, such as Albert Witzel, Fred Hartsook, and Nelson Evans in Los Angeles, for portrait sittings. They ordered vast quantities of prints to send to magazines and newspapers for reproduction and in so doing, create name recognition, greater popularity, bountiful box office receipts, all leading to higher salaries.

Classic Movie Posters as PublicityClassic Movie Posters as Publicity

Studios themselves employed portrait stills to build name and studio recognition and hopefully attract movie lovers to theatres. They shot star portraits to be employed as personality posters at film theatres or to sell or give away as fan photos, as well as occasionally making specialty shots requested by fan magazines. They also increased the shooting of scene stills, so that sets of eight images per film title could be employed as window or lobby displays in local movie palaces.

Anita Louise Makes Apple Strudel
Anita Louise Makes Apple Strudel

Photos acted as a recognizable and attractive product appealing to consumers and hopefully therefore to box office revenues. Renowned stillsmen Fred Archer and Elmer Fryer described these uses in an article entitled “Still Photography in Motion Picture Work” in the 1928 issue of Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. “In the advertising field the still picture is used to illustrate and help plant the articles broadcast by the publicity department throughout the periodical world and it is used for lobby displays.”

Betty Furness Shooting Pose
Betty Furness Shooting Pose 

By the late teens, magazines and newspapers became the primary avenue for advertisers to reach consumers, as virtually every person read a daily paper or perused journals. Print outlets searched for photographs to illustrate stories and to fill extra space and pages required to fit in all this advertising, helped by the low cost to reproduce these images. In Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography, Dr. David Shields quotes from the 1938 book Photography and the American Scene regarding their usage. “The half-tone, more than any other factor, has been held responsible for the tremendous circulation of the modern periodical and newspaper. It has, indeed, revolutionized the mechanics of journalism, for it has completed changed methods of advertising.” Motion picture studios quickly recognized the opportunity to fulfill print media’s demands and obtain free publicity in the process, creating a quid pro quo system to fulfill each other’s needs.

To satisfy the heavy demand for publicity stills, studios established full photography departments in the early 1920s to shoot and produce the images. Stillsman Donald Biddle Keyes established the first film photography gallery/studio in the early 1920s at Famous Players Lasky, and virtually every other production company quickly followed. Most photography department heads focused on portraits, while one photographer shot scene stills, another off-camera, candids or special shoots, and the like.

Greta Garbo Stills in Silver Screen 1930Greta Garbo Stills in Silver Screen 1930

Historian John Kobal describes how studio portraiture “was not merely to photograph established celebrities…but to help create something entirely new…a breed of celebrity with the extraordinary power to transfix.” The photographers’ dramatic lighting, dynamic compositions, artful negative retouching, and artistic eyes influenced the American public’s perceptions of celebrities and their personalities. Stars were defined as sexy, glamorous, thoughtful, foreboding, all through the scintillating camerawork of these often unsung and forgotten men.

Studios shot millions of photographs of actors, executives, scenes, and behind-the- scenes action, which they then freely distributed to magazines and newspapers, usually with a snipe (caption) typed on or glued to the back of the print describing the person, film, or event. A letter often accompanied these images, giving further detail on the person or film pictured and even suggesting usage in the edition. The studios required no payment or permission to run the images, just asking for a credit line if they were employed, and none of the images were ever sent to the United States Copyright Office.

Men Stars Cook 1930Men Stars Cook 1930

These images covered the gamut of subjects and departments found in newspapers and magazines so they could easily be plugged into an empty page or section. To hit women’s areas of interest, photos of fashion, home decoration, cooking, pets, religion, and even children were shot. Images of sports, travel, automobiles, and the like catered to men’s interests.

Cheesecake and beefcake images of stars in swimsuits always seemed popular. In an article about short films benefiting local exhibitors in the December 26, 1925 issue of Exhibitors Trade Review, Universal Studios President Carl Laemmle stated, “Editors know their readers like to see pictures of attractive young girls; the next time you submit a publicity still from your feature, include one or two scenes from a Century Comedy with its dozens of cuties – you’ll find the editor not only publishes it, but also gives it preferential space.”

Bob Hope how to carve a turkeyBob Hope, How to Carve a Turkey

Humorous photographs remained a steady staple, while prints illustrating Easter, July 4, Halloween, Christmas, and the like could fill out holiday pages. Karie Bible and I found enough of these stills that we wrote the book Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays just two years ago. Most print editions ran single images, but they could mix and match prints from different studios on the same subject and fill out a full page if so needed.

Over the next 50 years, photographic stills remained the most potent publicity tool of film studios in promoting their new productions and stars. Variety even reported in 1953 that Twentieth Century-Fox distributed 50,000 free stills promoting the blockbuster filmThe Robe shot in the outstanding new Cinemascope format before it opened in theatres.

The House I Live In Frank Sinatra
The House I Live In, Frank Sinatra

As trailers and then television became the main outlets for movie publicity in the 1950s and 1960s, the usage of still photography began declining at film studios. Just like the industry’s early days, stars began hiring their own photographers to shoot portraits or images for periodicals. Marilyn Monroe even formed a company with her favorite photographer Milton Greene.

Gradually new forms of media like TV and later the world wide web served as the main publicity outlets for studios and production companies. The development of social media allowed actors to bypass studio control and directly speak to their fans or promote their own projects. Stars themselves began fashioning their own publicity materials through selfies and promotional items shared on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets, often cutting the studio or production company completely out of the process. in an ironic way, contemporary publicity is returning to the self-promoting days of the early motion picture industry.


–Mary Mallory for Classic Movie Hub

Mary Mallory is a film historian, photograph archivist, and researcher, focusing on Los Angeles and early film history. She is co-author of the book Hollywood at Play: The Lives of the Stars Between Takes (with Stephen X. Sylvester and Donovan Brandt) and writes theatre reviews for The Tolucan Times and blogs for the LA Daily Mirror. Mallory served on Hollywood Heritage, Inc.’s Board of Directors, and acts as a docent for the Hollywood Heritage Museum. You can follow her on twitter at @mallory_mary.

Books by Mary Mallory:



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8 Responses to Hollywood at Play: The History and Use of Publicity Stills, Exclusive Guest Post by Author Mary Mallory

  1. Very interesting. I am fascinating by the way business becomes art and visa versa.

  2. Pingback: A Big Thank You from CMH: “Give a Gift, Get a Gift” Holiday Contest Promotion… | Classic Movie Hub Blog

  3. Brittaney B says:

    Thank goodness for stills which give us such great and lasting images of some of our favorite film stars. Even if they are more staged than real.

  4. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for the look into how stills worked as promo material for films for a certain period. I am always interested in how technology changes things and stuff that seemed forever shifts into something else. What I most appreciated, however, about this post is the information about Sinatra and “The House I Live In”, a song I only knew from Paul Robeson recordings. I can’t wait to share the link for the short with my daughters, who were raised on annual 4th of July playings of Robeson’s rendition.

  5. Sara Stewart says:

    I love movie stills and am fortunate to have started a collection. The one with Bob Hope are so funny, just as I would imagine what carving a turkey with him would be like.

  6. David Hollingsworth says:

    I always appreciate the publicity stills of that era. They make great collectibles. They also made films even more interesting. I love those Garbo stills!

  7. I love old publicity stills – especially those of the old classic horror films. Thanks for this article – it was great learning how they came about.

  8. Loved the classic era, these were the movies and peoples who inspired the whole cinema line.

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