Ruth Harriet Louise (1903-1940), First Female Staff Photographer in Hollywood
- Helped set tone for glamour photography of the 1920s
Born Ruth Goldstein in New York City, Ruth Harriet Louise was the daughter of a rabbi. The family lived in a few different locations in Manhattan before settling in New Jersey.
Louise started taking photographs while still living at home. She soon gravitated to the studio of society photographer Nickolas Muray who had come to New York from Europe before the outbreak of World War I. He was working as a color printer and photo engraver in Brooklyn when he decided to open his own portrait studio in his apartment in Greenwich Village. He was getting regular work from Harper’s Bazaar when Ruth began apprenticing for him.
Some of her family—a cousin who was a silent film actress and Ruth’s brother —had already moved to Los Angeles, and they encouraged Ruth to join them on the West Coast. She was 22, and young women of the day could not just rent an apartment on their own and be viewed well. She needed to find someone respectable with whom she could live.
Her brother Mark Sandrich, who went on to direct movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, had recently married, so Louise was able to move in with them. (The original family name in Europe was Sendreich; their father changed it to Goldstein on coming to the U.S. Mark reverted to an anglicized version of the family name; Ruth took ‘Ruth Harriet Louise’ as a professional name at about that time.)
Ruth opened a small portrait studio near Hollywood and Vine, but her work soon was seen by Louis Mayer who hired her to set up her portrait studio at his new film company, MGM. They were hiring and promoting new stars (Greta Garbo among them), and Ruth Harriet Louise became an important part of the team.
Film studios of that day relied heavily on still photography. Budding stars were not sent for screen tests; they were sent to the portrait studio to see what image they would project in the glamor photos that would be used to promote them. This was long before the paparazzi could snag quick candid shots, and as a result, the studio could tightly control the images they sent out to promote a star or a movie. Fan clubs were to become big, and they, too, relied on the still photographs that could be sent to their members. The movies and publicity machine that these photographs supported shaped the basic notions of stardom, glamour, and fashion in the 1920s.
Movie stars and photographers developed working relationships, and once a bond was established with a staff photographer, the studio’s stars were quick to request that they only be photographed by “their” photographer. Among those who favored Louise were Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford and Marion Davies.
Shortly after Herbert Hoover was elected, Louise was selected as the right photographer to capture the president-elect at his home in Palo Alto. In 1929 she was the photographer in
charge of shooting Nina Mae McKinney, known as the Black Garbo. She was to star in the first all- African-American film by a major studio.
By 1930 the world of portrait photography was changing. Rising star Norma Shearer selected George Hurrell to be her personal photographer as she liked the sexy glamour shots he produced. Louise’s elegant photos were not as desirable as they once were, and her contract was not renewed.
In 1927 Louise had married the writer and director Leigh Jason, so having a family became her priority. She gave birth to a son in 1932 and a daughter a few years later. Tragically, their son died of leukemia while still young, and when Louise got pregnant again in 1940, she and the baby both died of complications during a premature birth.
Robert Dance has collected images from the silver screen for many years, and he and Bruce Roberston have co-authored a beautiful book about Louise’s life: Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography.