Bob Willoughby: The Photographer Who Was as Great as the Stars He Shot

Audrey Hepburn and George Cukor on the Covent Garden set of “My Fair Lady”, 1963
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
It could capture the essence of an entire movie in a shot. And the emotions and thoughts of an actor during the making of his art. It could also sell a film. Bob Willoughby’s photography did all that. He was Hollywood’s first behind the scenes photographer, hired specifically by movie studios to take on-set promotional “stills”. He made the movie stars human. A pioneer of 20th century photography, Bob Willoughby introduced photojournalism to a previously highly staged field and captured some of the most famous and best actors in the history of cinema not posing for the camera, not only during a take as it was unfolding, not only in character for the roles they played, but with their guard down, in moments of repose, pensiveness or intimacy – and this, somehow, made them even more fascinating in the eyes of the audience. Generations on, and his photography still does that. Now, when we are inundated by images on social media with their even more growing lack of ability to hold our attention for long, Bob Willoughby’s photography still has the power to appeal to the imagination and make a visual impact.

He would roam the set freely, mingle with directors and actors, invent the remote-camera, hide behind the crew, find, and if necessary create, the right angle and light, become part of the decor – spontaneous moments look best on film, always, and, in that regard, a good photographer is the one you don’t even get to see. He seized the moment, he knew when he had seen something remarkable, and granted the public unprecedented, unedited access behind the closed doors of Hollywood. He watched and recorded as a world was being made, by filmmakers and actors and the entire crew, and he let his personal creativity to create a world of his own, too. He was not after perfection, not after the star image but after personality, a feeling, he was not after selling an image but about communicating emotion. His photographs offered beauty and insight into the world of each of his subjects. Bob Willoughby, who studied film at the University of South California and design with renowned graphic designer Saul Bass at the Kahn Institute of Art, loved the big screen and those on it, and it just shows that his work stemmed from passion for and understanding of cinema, and art, and of the human kind.

I have recently had the great pleasure to talk to Christopher Willoughby, Bob’s son, about his father’s legendary work, Bob’s special friendship with Audrey Hepburn, the moments he met Hitchcock and Marilyn, the many other greats that he photographed and the one that got away, and why he moved his family away from Hollywood.
 

Frank Sinatra. Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
I would like to start with those words of Sydney Pollack about your father’s work: “Sometimes a film-maker 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?.” Do you know which photograph he was referring to, and what do you think was your father’s secret in his ability to recognise the soul of the story through his camera?

Hi, Ada. Thank you for your interest in my father’s work.

The Sydney Pollack quote is part of an amazing foreword Sydney wrote for the book The Star Makers (Merrell). I’m not sure he was speaking about a specific image, but we could puzzle it out I think. There are a couple of iconic shots.

Sydney and Dad spoke at length about the visual resolution of the film. Something wasn’t quite gelling for my father – and Sydney, because of these conversations, ended up shooting an extra scene for the end of the film.

What does it take to recognise the soul of a story and transform that into a photograph? First, there has to be a soul. If there was something there, as there was in Horses, Bob would find it. And if there wasn’t, he would create one. There were plenty of filmmakers who wished their movie looked like Bob’s photographs of their movie.

Often my father had a genuine admiration for the director or actors he was working with and real connections were made. He and Audrey Hepburn were great friends and worked together over many years.

I believe a strong contributing factor to what made my father’s work special was his deep understanding and love of art, his ability to recognise a beautiful piece of art from any culture or period and know what made it important. He was a tremendous collector and he brought that mental catalogue onto the set every day. You can see those influences in his compositions and use of light.
 

Jane Fonda on the set of “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” 1969
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
Was there any piece of art from his collection he was particularly fond of? Any artists he drew constant inspiration from?

He had such an eclectic collection, it would be difficult to put my finger on just one, so sorry Dad if I’m getting this wrong – I think Degas would be someone he appreciated for his unique perspectives and figure placement.

Was there any other director he had such a collaborative approach with, as in the case of Sydney Pollack? Any film he developed a special bond with?

We heard more about the directors he didn’t get on with, or who made his job more difficult than it already was. He did seem to have a unique relationship with Otto Preminger who yelled at everyone on set, but never had a harsh word for Dad. I think there was some sense of mentoring, and certainly mutual respect.

My father was a big fan of Mike Nichols and was impressed by his intellectual flexibility, his ability to change direction on set; getting the cast to play a serious scene for laughs for instance.
 

Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman on a specially constructed set at Paramount during filming “The Graduate”, 1967.
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
There are some iconic images from the set of The Graduate: Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman running from the church, Dustin Hoffman hiding in his room, and that striking shot of Anne Bancroft in close up and Hoffman in the back.

When dad started on the film, he was introduced to the cast, including Dustin Hoffman, a young New York actor doing his first film, but he looked familiar. As they were shaking hands, dad asked if his mother’s name was Lillian and his father’s was Harry – and Hoffman said “Yes”. “Dusty! I used to babysit you and your brother Ronald a hundred years ago on Orange Drive”.
 
 

”I guess he [Frank Sinatra] thought dad was the best!
He called him Bobby.”

 
 
Bob Willoughby is considered Hollywood’s first behind the scenes photographer, the first “unit photographer”. His job was to capture the moments of a performance live, during a take as it was unfolding, and also between takes, watching everything as the world was being made. Was he on the set every day when he was working on a film? Did he also read the script? What was his creative process like?

Bob’s job was to create a story for his clients – they usually had a specific angle, but because he had multiple assignments for each film, there was a lot of crossover coverage. Often film production would overlap and he would move from one film to another.

He always read the script and the shooting schedule and would research the film – was it to be on location, were there historical aspects to the script he could incorporate? He needed to figure out the most productive times to be present on set, but sometimes the studio hired him for the entire film. When that happened, he would bring the family along and we’d get to live in France or Ireland for the length of the production.

He wasn’t a unit photographer actually. A unit photographer is a union photographer traditionally hired by the studio and is part of the film crew – and when they’re done, they hand over all the work to the studio. Bob was referred to as a special and retained ownership of his work. The images were licensed to magazines and other clients, including the studios, for publication. Bob was never out of print for over twenty years.
 

Humphrey Bogart, one of the most memorable faces in the history of cinema, portrayed as Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny”,
Columbia Studios, 1953. Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
Shooting during an actual take could be a problem, because sound was being recorded. Camera sounds would be picked up by the microphones. One solution was shooting rehearsals. This had it’s own set of problems with actors not in costume yet, or unfinished sets. Bob developed a number of technologies to shoot during sound takes; The Sound Blimp to sound proof the camera, and radio controlled motor drives (used very successfully on They Shoot Horses and The Great Race) to photograph where you would be seen or it was unsafe.

It makes perfect sense what you say, that he wasn’t actually a unit photographer. Bob’s work seems to transcend the film he was shooting and his photographs can stand alone as individual works. How did he start working in the movie industry? What sparked his interest in cinema?

In 1951, he was noticed by Charles Block at Globe Photos who introduced his work to Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. Since he was in Hollywood, he would often get assignments to grab a shot of an actor on set. By 1954, when he went to cover Judy Garland on A Star Is Born, he had assignments from seven different magazines. Judy was seemingly making life difficult for everyone, but Dad and Judy got on swimmingly. When Warner Bros decided to shoot an additional dance number, she requested him by name. This resulted in his first Life Magazine cover and, from that moment on, things got very busy.
 
 

”Bob’s work broke with the traditional, staid
Hollywood portrait. He created images of intimacy
that showed the vulnerabilities of his subjects.”

 
 

Montgomery Clift. Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

Katharine Hepburn on set of “The Lion in Winter” at Ardmore Studios, Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland, 1967.
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
What is your most beautiful recollection of those times spent during the production of a film abroad?

We got out of school! My dad had roaring arguments with Mother Celine, the principal at our grade school – He wasn’t going to let school get in the way of a good education!

I have a memory of dinner near Pompeii during Goodbye Mr Chips with mom and dad, Peter O’Toole and Petulia Clark and others from the production. They were drinking a red wine made from grapes grown on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius and, when they opened the bottle, it foamed pink.

Building wooden forts out of logs in our house in Fontvieille near Arles during The Lion In Winter.

Watching the Apollo 11 moon landing in our sitting room in Ireland.

Going down into town in the morning to buy bread by ourselves in St Maxime. I have many wonderful memories.

With his portraits of actors, he captured the humanity in each subject, but he made them memorable, too. He brought his own creative instincts and abilities in. Is good set photography both creative and witnessing?

Bob’s work broke with the traditional, staid Hollywood portrait. He created images of intimacy that showed the vulnerabilities of his subjects. Some are full of bravado and playfulness, others reveal shyness and insecurity. There is a documentary aspect to his work, so yes, witnessing played a part, but that was not the primary focus.

Bob always came up with a solution to get what he needed – if he had to, he would set up his own shoots next to the film production. He created his own parade on location for Dr. Dolittle when the director was being uncooperative – “What are you going to do, come back without the shot?” But, most importantly, he cared about the people he was photographing. His images are human and trusting. He always wanted them at their best, even in their unguarded moments and his subjects knew this and trusted him.
 

Steve McQueen on location for “Junior Bonner”, Prescott Arizona 1971
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
He also seemed unfazed about celebrity and lacking in pretension himself, a great professional who wanted to do his job. Did that also help in putting the stars at ease around him?

I think most professionals in Hollywood can’t really be taken up with celebrity and get any work done. Dad treated the actors, directors and whoever he was shooting as fellow professionals. He also had a pretty solid sense of his own worth. He told Barbra Streisand once, when she was being a little difficult, that he was at least as good a photographer as she was a singer – and could we just get to work.

Dad worked hard to keep his family separate from the Hollywood lifestyle. Most of my parents’ close friends were not part of the business and, ultimately, he moved his family to Ireland where he thought we had a better chance of growing up safely.

Looking back now, do you feel you grew up safely?

We definitely grew up safely – my parents felt Los Angeles was becoming less safe, and so, by the time I was 13, they had moved the family to Ireland, and rural Ireland at that. A much more relaxed lifestyle.
 

Rock Hudson in his trailer, on location in Grado, Italy for “A Farewell to Arms”, 1957.
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
Did you grow up thinking that people in Hollywood are like everyone else? It’s easy to see why one might think otherwise, especially when you see an image like Rock Hudson behind his typewriter in his trailer and his admirers gathered at the window.

We had limited exposure and really we were too young to be impressed by actors. Although it’s funny now to see pictures of us kids climbing all over Tony Curtis in our living room.

 
 

”As Marilyn came towards him, he looked down into
the camera and felt the hair on the back of his neck rising.
He said he realised then what all the shouting was about.”

 
 
He photographed Hitchcock in 1964, on the set of Marnie, that great shot of the filmmaker’s famous profile. How was that experience?

Dad was impressed with Hitchcock. During a lull in filming, he was asking the director some questions about the script and, to dad’s delight, Hitchcock took the time to run through his whole vision of Marnie with him. Hitchcock was famously bored with aspects of filming – he could see the whole film in his head, he found the actual shooting anti-climatic.
 

Alfred Hitchcock on the Universal Studios set of “Marnie”, 1964.
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
I am returning to Audrey Hepburn, to a shot of her, I think it is from the set of My Fair Lady, when she is chatting with George Cukor. I think that extraordinary shot simply captures the scale of a film set you are working on, evoking the feeling that you inhabit a silent world where you are on your own just watching. And I think that just shows how special his job was, but how good a photographer he was, too.

That shot of Audrey and Cukor was on the Covent Garden set on a Warner Bros soundstage in Burbank for My Fair Lady. It was after the first day of shooting, Dad was packing up his gear when Audrey came out and sat down to discuss the day with George Cukor. It is a wonderful image that, I think besides being beautiful, conveys the scale of the movies, the magic of the movies and the dedication of cast and crew.

Your father also published a book with his photographs of Audrey Hepburn. Was Audrey your father’s favourite subject? What was his favourite memory of Audrey?

Taschen published a wonderful book of my father’s images of Audrey. I think Audrey and dad hit it off the first day they met and over the years worked together on half a dozen films. Both Audrey and my mother were pregnant at the same time; her son Sean’s birthday is two days after mine, and there are fun shots of us crawling around the house and having birthdays together.
 

Marilyn Monroe on the set of “Let’s Make Love”, 1960
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
There is a shot of Marilyn Monroe on the set of Let’s Make Love. Did he impart with you any views about Marilyn from the set of that film?

Wistful and vulnerable sometimes and able to turn on a very potent sexuality when she was being photographed. The first time he photographed Marilyn was at a Photo Op at Fox Studio, not really dad’s sort of thing. He managed to find a spot away from the other photographers which, out of sheer luck, was the right spot. As Marilyn came towards him, he looked down into the camera and felt the hair on the back of his neck rising. He said he realised then what all the shouting was about.
 

Jean Seberg during filming “Bonjour Tristesse” in France, 1957.
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
He shot Jean Seberg during Bonjour Tristesse. About Seberg in this film, Truffaut had said that her “wide-open blue eyes” had “a glint of boyish malice” and “when Jean Seberg is on screen you can’t look at anything else. Her every movement is graceful, each glance is precise.” Bob seems to have captured that piercing look, and then some, in his photographs. You said he got along great with Preminger. What was his collaboration with Seberg like?

Before Bonjour Tristesse, dad worked with Otto and Jean on Saint Joan in 1957 – Otto had hired Bob for an earlier film, Carmen Jones, and seemed to like Bob right off the bat, I think they had similar interests in art and culture.

Jean was a seventeen year old Iowa schoolgirl who emerged as Saint Joan after a massive publicity based talent search. During production in London, Jean was young and out of her depth and on set Otto was emotionally brutal with her, trying to get the performance he wanted. Dad and Jean became good friends and spent a lot of time together. I believe Otto was relieved Jean was being chaperoned around and that he didn’t have to do it.

By the time Bonjour Tristesse went into production, they were old chums. Here again I feel trust and affection is the collaboration and played a huge part in creating those beautiful images.
 

James Dean goes over his script on the set of “Rebel Without a Cause”, Warner Bros. 1955
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
Two of my absolute favourite photographs of Bob Willoughby are the ones of James Dean from the set of Rebel Without a Cause, between takes looking over a script with a cigarette in his hand, and that of Montgomery Clift on the set of Raintree County.

Dad was working on the Warner lot when his agent called and asked him to go over and get a few shots on the set of a little film called Rebel Without a Cause. He mentioned there was a new actor from Broadway playing opposite Natalie Wood, and it might be good to have a few shots of him. And that was James Dean.

During production on Raintree County, Montgomery Clift was in a serious car accident coming home from a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s and the lower part of his face was badly damaged. It delayed the production for months, Monty never really got over it and became increasingly eccentric. My father was very impressed with how maternal and caring Elizabeth was towards him.
 

Montgomery Clift on the set of “Raintree County”, 1953.
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 

Elizabeth Taylor on the set of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, 1965
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
 
And he also photographed Frank Sinatra, who had the reputation of having only the best photograph him, or let come near him. What was Bob’s relationship with Sinatra like?

It was great! – I guess he thought dad was the best! He called him Bobby.

Did he ever think “I could have taken a better shot”?

Nope.

Is there anyone he wished he had photographed and didn’t have the chance to?

I’m sure there was, but he went where the job dictated. There are certainly a few holes in the collection – I know he liked Robert Redford, for instance, and we don’t have anything on him. It’s also interesting to see who it was assumed would be a big deal and who would be a flash in the pan – and turned out wrong.

And something like that happened with…

Hmmm – Geoffrey Horne in Bonjour Tristesse springs to mind, or maybe Christopher Jones in Ryan’s Daughter?
 

Peter O’Toole. Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 
Towards the end of his career, photographer Terry O’Neill said: “I’m not really interested in photography anymore. I’ve semi-retired; there’s nobody I want to photograph now. Nobody as great as all the people I used to photograph. Standards have fallen where photography is concerned. Now when you go to a film premiere, the photographers look at their pictures as they take them and when they have ‘the shot’, they just stop shooting.” How did Bob feel about that? Did he think the quality of stardom had been absolutely debased in time?

He didn’t feel that way at all, he loved photography – He photographed until the very end of his life and was always working on his own projects. O’Neill is talking about paparazzi and that isn’t the type of work my father did, it was always a collaboration with the actors and the studios. And there are still great faces out there.

That’s actually reinforcing to hear. Before he became known as the great chronicler of Hollywood stars, Bob Willoughby produced an astonishing series of photographs of pivotal jazz musicians. Why did he stop photographing musicians?

Time, mostly, I’d say. He loved jazz, it was always playing in his office while he worked. I think his shooting schedule was taken up almost entirely with movies and he didn’t have time to go to shows. And record labels didn’t have the budget to compete with the film studios either.
 

Marcus Roberts listening in the wings at Jazz Gipfel in Liederhalle, Stuttgart, 1992.
Photograph by Bob Willoughby. © The Bob Willoughby Estate

 

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