Before the Paparazzi: See Celebrity Portraits by Hollywood's Original Photographers at the National Portrait Gallery

"Elizabeth Taylor, 1948" by Clarence Sinclair Bull
(© John Kobal Foundation, 2011)

Before today's Internet-induced era of celebrity overexposure, paparazzi abundance, and tabloid proliferation, there was a time when film studios controlled the public's perception of their actors and actresses through the use of in-house portrait photographers. London's National Portrait Gallery pays tribute to that period with "Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits," an exhibition of 70 vintage photographs from 1920 to 1960, on view until October 23.

Most of the prints come from the archive of the John Kobal Foundation, founded by the eponymous collector who began tracking down the photographers behind the glossy images in the 1950s and '60s, just as corporate takeovers of the big Hollywood studios began phasing out the promotional practice. He continued to collect the photos until his death in 1991.

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"When he became interested in the men behind the images, almost all of them were still alive and reachable," said film and art critic John Russell Taylor about Kobal. "It was John who realized their importance, at a time when no one else gave a damn about them."

Studios used to send the commissioned portraits to fans and the media in efforts to spread word about the features. Eugene Roberts captured a 1929 black-and-white photograph of Louise Brooks that elegantly resembles the era's fashion illustrations. Other highlights of the exhibition include a 1950 portrait of a hunky Marlon Brando used to promote "A Streetcar Named Desire," and a disheveled Vivian Leigh in a 1939 shot from "Gone With the Wind." Striking images of Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, Grace Kelly, and Clark Gable are also on view.

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Clickon the photo gallery at left to view images from "Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits."