Now open in London is Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at the Design Museum and includes never-before-seen material from the director’s personal archives including more than 500 objects, projections and interviews. Guests are welcomed with a replica carpet from The Shining before entering a ‘one-point perspective’ corridor mirroring Kubrick’s famous camera technique. With so much on display, it is easy to be overwhelmed and while the exhibition focuses on Kubrick’s work as a director, there’s much to take away as a photographer.

It is well known Kubrick started his career as a photographer and thus it is interesting to see, separate to the exhibition, photographs he took as a young man before he became a director, on display in the museum’s atrium. Given his first camera, a Graflex, by his father at aged fourteen, his professional career as a photographer started aged 21 with Look magazine after selling them an image for $25 ($350 today) showing a newspaper vendor selling an edition of the Daily Mirror announcing the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Shortly thereafter he became the youngest staff photographer at the magazine and stayed at Look until 1951. Photographs on display include boxer Rocky Graziano during fight with Sonny Horne, Frank Sinatra signing autographs, actor Montgomery Clift and other various shots. 

To the exhibition itself; it is worth noting the first image of Kubrick on entering the exhibition is on the set of Spartacus in Spain, film camera in hand, with extras filling the frame behind him. Later on there is a fascinating, large sized image, from the famous ‘I’m Spartacus’ scene with each extra identifiable with a number so Kubrick could direct them individually. 

This year is the 20th anniversary of Kubrick’s death, and an oft repeated adjective displayed throughout the exhibition is obsessive. It is well known how meticulous Kubrick was, often shooting huge numbers of takes and often exasperating those he worked with, but the exhibition shows how vast and detailed the director himself was in his pursuit of perfection for his vision to be as accurate as possible. 

From The Shining, there is the typed box full of the proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. The box is just one out of five, sitting adjacent to boxes full of the equivalent proverb in German, French, Italian and Spanish for those language versions of the film. And research for a never made Napoleon movie (financial backers pulled out following the flop of an alternative Napoleon film) includes a card index detailing Napoleon’s life down to his meals and the weather. “I try to visualize it and I try to work out every conceivable variation of ideas…”

For those interested in the technical aspects of Kubrick’s work, there are numerous lenses on display, including a Zeiss Planar 50mm f0.7 (only 25 were ever produced) used to shoot Barry Lyndon. Originally made for NASA for space photography to be used on a Hasselblad 6x6 medium format, the lens was used by Kubrick so he could shoot in daylight and candlelight as he was unimpressed by artificial light to light the movie, set in a time period before the invention of electricity. The lens had to be rebuilt by Cinema Products Inc for use on the Mitchell BNC 35mm camera; the iris shutter was removed and the lens put onto new focusing gear to allow precise change of focus. Finally, as the lens was only available in 50mm, a wide angle adaptor from Kollmorgen Optical Company was added to allow wide angle shots at a local length of 35mm. One of the benefits of the lens included, “You don’t have to worry about shooting into your lighting equipment.”

In addition to displays devoted to his films, there is a small area dedicated to Kubrick’s post production and editing. And while the following quotes refer to film editing, there is much a stills photographer can learn from him;

“I think I enjoy editing the most. It’s the nearest thing to some reasonable environment in which to do creative work.”

“Is it good or bad? Is it necessary? Can I get rid of it? Does it work?”

“… and have everything done exactly the way I want it”

“When you’re editing, you want to get rid of everything that isn’t essential.”

What is clear is the level of control Kubrick wanted and exerted over his work following his experience with Spartacus where lead actor Kirk Douglas fell out with original director Anthony Mann, with Kubrick being hired as replacement. “It was the only one of my films over which I did not have complete control…” and “It’s the only picture I’ve worked on where I was employed- and in a situation like that the director has no real rights, except the right of persuasion… and I’ve found that’s the wrong end of the lever to be on.”

However focusing on the level of control would ignore the time, effort, and dedication he poured into each of his films. There is an argument that it is possible to view each frame of his films as a stills image and indeed almost every scene in Barry Lyndon is an evocation of a well known work of art from the period. Kubrick’s location research archives for the film included over 120 boxes filled with images from books, magazines etc as reference. 

I’ll leave the final word to British director Mike Leigh, “In a dozen or so films [Kubrick] demonstrates his remarkable adventurous versatility, endlessly inspiring us to realize that you can be widely varied in form and content, without ever losing your vision and style, or descending into mere eclecticism.”

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is now open at the Design Museum, London, from 26th April to 15th September

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