Words - Personality Stories - Bob Willoughby – A creative ‘one-off’ (2004)


Bob Willoughby – A creative ‘one-off’ (2004)

Modesty, ebullience and business acumen, is a useful combination for a world-class photographic journalist. In his 57-year career, Hollywood doyen, Bob Willoughby combined all three, as John Chillingworth has known throughout their 47 year friendship!

A few weeks ago, rising seventy-seven, photographer Bob Willoughby, steeled himself to meet the glitterati of the Cote d’Azur at the opening of his latest one-man-show at the new, beautifully appointed Théâtre de la Photographie et l’Image in Nice.

At the risk of your groaning, “Here we go again,” it was a world away from the time when, at the age of twelve, Willoughby was convinced that his camera, a gift from his father, was going to play an important part in his life.

He was born and bred in Los Angeles, but he was unlikely to have imagined himself as a ‘one-off’, working alongside in the creative whirlwind of the Hollywood ‘dream-machine.

As the trauma of WWII receded into a post-war flush of optimism and creativity in the ‘Sunshine State’, young Willoughby studied art, cinema and design, the latter under the tutelage of the legendary Saul Bass.

However, his photographic odyssey began when, as a young man, he stepped from the shadow of big-name portrait and advertising photographers from whom he learned his craft, to shoot pictures for himself.

He had turned his garage into a darkroom and, because it leaked light, he worked at night, processing his films and printing his growing collection of images of the West Coast jazz and ballet scenes in the early fifties.

Examining his early published work, connoisseurs appreciate his eye for composition and evidence of the now forgotten art of picture story-telling, which he applied to a wide variety of subjects across California.

The turning point
He held his first exhibition at the Cornet Theatre in Los Angeles in 1950. It proved to be a turning point in his early career.

It was there that chance, fate, call it what you will, took a hand when the West Coast director of Globe Photos saw the show and invited Willoughby to join the agency.

There followed assignments for Harpers Bazaar, which enabled him, as a freelance, to shoot pictures of current Hollywood film productions. Amongst the first to be published were images of the Danny Kaye film, ‘Hans Christian Andersen’.

Along with six other magazine assignments, his successful shoot for Harpers Bazaar, of Judy Garland working on the George Cukor directed film, ‘A Star is Born’, was to have life changing consequences for him.

Judy Garland liked him and convinced the Warner Brothers Publicity Department that he should be paid to photograph an additional scene planned for the film. It was the first time that a non-union stills photographer had been allowed on to a Hollywood movie set. As a result of his assignment, elated, he achieved his first ‘Life’ magazine cover.

However, bending to the power of the unions, Warner Brothers had hired a ‘union’ photographer, on a standby fee, for the whole time that Willoughby was on the set.

When they saw the number of magazine pages he had achieved for Warner, one major studio after the other retained him to cover their own productions. As a result, picture magazines across the world snapped up Willoughby’s picture stories, because he had developed an entirely new genre in press coverage of Hollywood movies.

Throughout, the heavily entrenched unions remained immovable. Although they knew that his activities would not encroach on the tasks of the studio stills departments, two decades later, the studios were still paying the union a standby fee on every film, which Willoughby covered.

Despite all the ‘hoo-hah’, Willoughby had become Hollywood’s first ‘special’ photographer; a fact, which he later celebrated in his book, ‘The Hollywood Special’, published in 1993.

Business acumen
From the start, Willoughby had three bites of the cherry. First, the studio retained him (on a breathtakingly large day-rate), to create his picture stories. Then, he sold the images to the magazines for which he had styled his stories and, in the majority of cases, he retained the copyright of his work.

As his global experiences broadened, his image making became more sensitive and his relationship with his subject matter more secure, but his motivation and his talent did not stop there.

To him, it was the design of the image, drawing the eye to the subject, which was the individual ‘marker’ of his style. The legendary director, William Wyler, could often take a week to shoot one scene.

Willoughby, shooting to meet magazine deadlines, didn’t have that luxury, and would synthesise the story line into one or two key shots! Wyler was always interested to see what Willoughby would set up, never saying anything, but always watching.

When the action was filmed a full 360 degrees on sets like ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ his resulting still images were unique. To obtain images when there was no space for him on the set, he had designed a ‘blimp’ for his motor-driven Nikon cameras which were mounted astride the Panavision cameras. They delivered spectacular results, and the offsprings of his first blimp are still being used in film studios around the world.

In the following twenty years and 100 films later, a Willoughby story was seen, every single week, somewhere in the world’s major picture and film fan magazines, but who’s counting?

It was not the volume of his published work, which mattered to him. Willoughby was – and still is an artist, a designer and a perfectionist.

What is more, his business acumen also led him to develop other expert skills alongside his photography, which stood him and his family in good stead in later years.

Walking away
His experiences had made him a citizen of the world. In 1972, he, his wife Dorothy and his growing family shook the dust of California from their well-travelled feet and, having bought a castle in Southern Ireland, they lived to a very different set of values for the next seventeen years.

What he took with him was his independence, his talent and the knowledge that he knew the Hollywood ‘dream machine’, but at no time was he really part of it!

As he watched his children complete their education and, eventually, ‘fly the nest’ Willoughby pursued his creative bent, translating from the Early 9th century Irish, the remarkable nature poetry of the time, (Voices of Ancient Ireland), amongst other absorbing projects.

Today, still a ‘one-off’ and living in the hills above Nice, he works every day, extracting images from his extensive archive, to create a stream of on-going book projects.

How do I know these things? Willoughby and I met on the set of film director, Otto Preminger’s greatest disaster, Saint Joan, in the late 1950’s. Shooting pictures, briefly, for the Globe Photos, I worked in a similar way to Willoughby, invisible to the actors, along with the rest of the sound stage film crew.

I would like to think that we recognised in each other true, dedicated professionalism, with attitudes more down to earth than many of the ‘celebrity’ photographers who perform for their ‘art’.

Our friendship was cemented with the immortal words, “John, you have to go where the money is!” He has been exhorting me to do so, ever since, but what I really value was the modest admission he made only a few weeks ago.

During a delightful lunch, high above the blue Mediterranean we both shot pictures of my wife. On seeing the results, he e-mailed me with the equally immortal words, “Just had a moment to check the digital camera and your shot of Ros & her desert. It is vastly better than mine!”

I never did find the money that he encouraged me to go for, but I’ll cherish that rueful admission from my dear old friend!

Note: Bob Willoughby’s next book is on Elizabeth Taylor. ‘Liz – An Intimate Collection’, will be published by Merrell in the Autumn.

© Copyright John Chillingworth