BOB WILLOUGHBY (1927-2009)

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AUDREY HEPBURN, 1962 by BOB WILLOUGHBY (1927-2009) - photograph for sale from Beetles & Huxley





Early Years

Born on 30 June 1927 in Los Angeles, Bob Willoughby was brought up by his mother, his parents having divorced before his birth. An interest in photography was sparked when his father gave him an Argus C-3 camera for his 12th birthday and he gained an opportunity when a neighbour allowed him to use his darkroom in exchange for babysitting his children. Willoughby took evening courses at the University of Southern California Cinema Department and did apprenticeships with photographers including Wallace Seawell, Paul Hesse and Glenn Embree. He also studied graphic design at the Kann Art Institute. Willoughby's professional career received its first major stimulus when, whilst exhibiting his photographs on La Cienega Boulevard one day, a representative of the Globe Photo Agency saw the young photographer's images and took his portfolio to Harper's Bazaar in New York. Taken on by the magazine, Willoughby began photographing theatre and cultural events in LA. Gaining renown for his commercial work, through the 1950s he worked for Collier's, This Week, American Weekly, Look, Life and The New York Times.

Willoughby and the Jazz Scene

Alongside the magazine work through which he made his living as a young professional, Willoughby exploited the full range of his creativity by photographing the Californian jazz scene. He started photographing stars of the LA jazz pack when he was still at high school and was soon enraptured by the exhilarating live performances. Photographing the likes of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, Willoughby captured both the frenetic energy of performances and the exhausted calm backstage. Recalling a time when he photographed Miles Davies, he said, "standing backstage, while looking through my camera, I heard the sound of an emotion so pure, so honest, that it made it totally impossible for me to concentrate on anything but listening to what Miles was doing on stage". Willoughby's portraits of the musicians are full of the reverence and respect he felt towards their technical skill and emotive force. He would work in his garage darkroom at night to avoid the interference of daylight with the radio sounding the musicians he had photographed.

One of the most astonishing photographs from Willoughby's jazz series, Big Jay McNeely (1951), came out of a late-night jazz concert at the Olympic Auditorium in LA. Willoughby heard about the gig on the radio and by the time he arrived, well past midnight, the audience were on their feet screaming as the saxophonist put on the show of his life. "To this day I have never seen or heard anything to match it", Willoughby reminisced, "Big Jay stood in the middle of what normally would be a fight ring, playing his heart out, and the crowd was exploding around him. I was so caught up in the excitement that I just climbed right up on the stage without thinking. Big Jay was strutting up and down playing chord after riff after riff on his sax, hooking his way through 45 minutes of pulsating, explosive, rhythm. He knelt, he sat, he laid flat on his back, playing into the faces of orgasmic girls. He appeared away on some kind of space flight, perspiring until his clothes were soaked. He tore off his wet jacket without even missing a beat. And the near-hysterical crowd just kept screaming, Go! Go! Go! ." Willoughby deftly recorded the electrifying atmosphere that night as the saxophonist lay with his back on the stage, the audience hanging on every note.

Hollywood's First Stills Photographer

In 1954 Willoughby's career changed course when Warner Brothers asked him to photograph Judy Garland on the set of A Star Is Born (1954). Life magazine ran a feature with over a dozen of the photographs of Garland working on set, using a close-up photograph of her for the cover. This was the starting point for a long and illustrious career as the first ever stills photographer employed on Hollywood film sets. Willoughby went on to photograph a huge spectrum of acting elite Frank Sinatra on set for Can-Can (1959), Blake Edwards throwing a custard pie at Natalie Wood in The Great Race (1965), and Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross running from the church in The Graduate (1967). These moments of cinematic history were documented with the empathetic but photojournalistic eye for which Willoughby gained his reputation. He struck up a particularly long and fruitful association with Audrey Hepburn who he photographed on her first trip to Hollywood, in the studio and at her home.

In order to surmount the challenges of working on film sets, Willoughby became a technical innovator, inventing the silent blimp for 35mm still cameras so that he could photograph silently on set. He would embroil himself with the film crew and use remote control cameras to achieve the most naturalistic images of the actors and directors at work. Willoughby's spontaneous approach broke with the traditional, staid Hollywood portrait and produced images of a rare intimacy that lay bare the vulnerabilities of the stars. Whilst some are full of bravado and playfulness, others are flecked with shyness and anxiety. "You can't be disinterested and do anything", he explained, "you need passion, enthusiasm, and concentration. Basically, I like people, and if you like people, you are not going to go out and put them down. When I'm watching and looking on a film set, I have a good feeling for the person I'm photographing, and I think my pictures reflect that feeling." In many ways Willoughby invented the celebrity portrait as it exists today, casting the candid eye of the camera across the most famous faces to imbue them with renewed vitality. Hugely influential, this approach was emulated subsequently by the likes of Terry O'Neill and Terence Donovan.

After falling in love with Ireland on one of his many trips abroad, Willoughby bought Coolmaine Castle in Cork, Ireland and moved there with his wife, Dorothy, and four children. He lived in Ireland for 17 years, dividing his time between the family home and film sets in LA where he continued to work. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honoured Willoughby in 1998 with a major retrospective and he won the Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Still Photography in 2004. He died of cancer on 18 December 2009 in Vence, France. Willoughby's photography has been published and exhibited extensively. His photographs are held in major collections worldwide including the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Portrait Gallery, London; the Tate Collection, London; and the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

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