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Clarence Sinclair Bull
- The man who shot Garbo -


Clarence Sinclair Bull (1896-1979) was born in Michigan but spent most of his life in Hollywood where he died in 1979. He was hired by movie mogul Sam Goldwyn in 1920 to photograph publicity stills of the studio's stars. Four years later, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was founded, Bull was appointed as the head of their stills department where he remained throughout his career. During that time he took portraits of the most celebrated Hollywood film stars, however, he is particularly known for his photographs for Garbo who was almost exclusively photographed by Bull from 1926 to 1941.

From The Kiss until Two-Faced Woman in 1941, Bull was to take all Garbo's portraits with the exception of one film in 1930, Romance. George Hurrell, who came to MGM in that year, took these portraits. Bull was the ideal collaborator for this sensitive soul, Garbo. Their first set of proofs showed it, aportfolio of accomplished images that would be printed, published, reprinted, and seen all over the world.

Bull and Garbo

Bull's first significant session with Garbo was when he came to shoot the portraits for her last silent film The Kiss in 1929. "I recall that first morning the great Garbo walked into my portrait gallery looking like a frightened schoolgirl". Garbo, a creature of extreme habit, suddenly found herself confronted with a new photographer having been photographed for the past three years by Ruth Harriet Louise. Most film stars considered their gallery sessions the most uncomfortable and exposing part of their work.

Garbo was no different, and was unique in Hollywood in that she only ever posed in character for her role in whatever film she was making, and this may account for her reaction to their first session as Bull recalled it. Though, as he points out, "What she didn't know was that I was just as scared. For three hours I photographed her in every pose and emotion that beautiful face could mirror. At the end of the sitting, which had been without a single break, she said ‘I'll do better next time Mr Bull. I was quite nervous.' I patted her hand and replied, ‘So will I".

Flesh and the Devil

By 1929 Garbo was one of the major stars of MGM. It was the year of the crash on the New York Stock Exchange and a time of uncertainty. Most of the studios had converted to sound but MGM was apprehensive about their Swedish star, wondering whether or not she would make a smooth transition to talking pictures. Their top male star John Gilbert had made a disastrous sound debut and they postponed Garbo's talking debut until the last moment.

It was important that Bull's portraits promoting the silent film she was making should be sensational. In Faces of Hollywood, Bull records that he took some set portraits on Flesh and the Devil, though the best-known stills for this film are the portraits taken by Louise and the publicity and advertising shots by Bert Longworth.


Portraits for Flesh and the Devil

Bull's first  portrait of Garbo was a costume study for Flesh and the Devil. Photographed on September 1926.


More  HERE!


Bull's outdoor soft focus pictorial studies of Garbo alone under a tree and posed with Gilbert on the set of Love (1927) do survive. Since so many stills were not credited in publications, the question of authorship occasionally remains problematic.

One of Bull's many useful innovations was to devise and patent a negative numbering procedure. He set up a system whereby the name of the photographer, the date of the photograph, and the department for which it was taken would be recorded on the side of each 10" x 8" negative.

Love was the first major Garbo sitting Bull records. Greta first walked into his gallery looking like “a frightened schoolgirl,” he wrote. “What she didn't know was that I was just as scared as she.” Over a three-hour period he shot her “in every pose and emotion that beautiful face could mirror,” expecting that she would speak up when she'd had too much. She never said anything. Finally he ran out of film. “I was quite nervous,” Garbo apologized as she prepared to leave . “I'll do better next time.” Bull patted her hand. “So will I.” As did he.


Photos of Garbo on the Love set

Garbo on the set of Love, photographed by Bull. Photographed on June/July 1926.

More  HERE!


The Kiss

Bull's portraits for The Kiss are suffused with an elegaic softness and allure. Garbo's outstanding facial characteristics were her eyes with their unusually long lashes. Bull realized the importance of Garbo's eyes to her appeal and for one pose concentrated his lighting to portray only a close-up of her face floating on a darkened background. Garbo's face is further framed above her brow by the curved line of her beret.

Her face appears softly modelled in a rapt and engaging expression which communicates directly with the viewer. Compared with most of Louise's studies, which show her eyes averted, Bull's more purposefully frontal approach both in this study and in another where she holds her hands behind her head creates an effect which is equally mesmeric and haunting. The result preserves the ‘inner mood' he sought to capture. The darkness of the setting from which Garbo emerges adds to the bewitching spell the pictures create. The potency of the beret photograph was such that it came to be used for the film poster.


Portraits for The Kiss

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits for the film on August 27, 1929


More  HERE!


Anna Christie

For her first talkie, Anna Christie (1930), Bull did what the film camera at this stage could not do – he created dramatic close-ups of Garbo illuminated by the glow of a kerosene lamp. Garbo's rapt and attentive expression conveys the doubt and uncertainty she faced as the character in the film. Fifty years later it is Garbo in close-up in Bull's portraits that survives the test of time rather than the film with its creaky settings and unrealistic storm-tossed sequences.

Bull's close-ups provided the intensity which the film lacked but which the public, already prepared by his photographs, remembered and brought with them when they saw the film.


Portraits for Anna Christie

Bull created dramatic close-ups of Garbo.


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The essential Part of an Actress Job

C. S. Bull believed that as an actress, Garbo actually worked harder in front of his camera than anywhere else. She considered it an essential part of her job. “She comes in bounding – but with the air of a martyr. A sort of ‘oh-how-I hate- to-do-this-but-let's-get-it-going!' air. Not surly, merely resigned,” a profile suggested. "It's always ‘Mr. Bull' and ‘Miss Garbo'; never ‘Clarence' or ‘Greta' ...”

With a single session producing as many as three hundred portraits, Garbo teamed to make herself at ease in the photographer's presence. She liked to play popular music on the radio or phonograph, and walked about the studio with such noiseless ease that he often wasn't aware of her. On one occasion, as Bull's assistant Virgil Apger was adjusting a baby spot, the light slipped and missed her by a few hair-raising inches.


Anna Christie Photomontage

Clarence Bull designed this photomontage for Anna Christie in 1930.


Garbo's Eyelashes

“There has never been anything false between Greta Garbo and me,” he once said. But he was curious, as many were, about her famous eyelashes. “At the end of one long sitting ... I thought I heard myself say, ‘Are they real?' A slow smile drifted across her mouth ... the lashes fluttered ... a throaty giggle. ‘What are you talking about, Mr. Bull?' Are your lashes real?' ‘Pull them and find out.'” So he did – and the y were.


Non-Film Portraits and for the German Anna Christie Version

On August 18, 1930, Garbo and Clarence Bull collaborated on a portrait sitting that was not thematically connected to her latest film. MGM needed to meet increased demands from photo editors all over the world.  The photos were used to promote the German language version of Anna Christie.


More  HERE!


Garbo only wanted ‘Bull'

A 1931, while Garbo was making portraits for Romance, a news cutting about Garbo, then at work on her last film, by John Chapman for the New York Sunday News, relates how an anonymous photographer was assigned to photograph Garbo: " He was a twittery artistic type. He started hopping around and crawling on the studio floor looking for ‘angles'. After two shots, Garbo ran out of the studio. ‘There's a crazy man in there'," she said.

George Hurrell himself admitted that it had soon been obvious that he and Garbo were not compatible although the results of their one session produced enough good portraits for the publicity department to promote her new film, and show a surprisingly corporeal Garbo.

Hurrell made the portraits for the film, in late May–early June 1930. Hurrell's technique was the opposite of Bull's. He gabbed incessantly, hopped about and crawled around the floor looking for angles. After a few shots, Garbo came out of the studio and said , "There's a crazy man in there." Garbo informed the studio that there was only one man she wanted to shoot her portraits.....Bull.


Portraits for Anna Christie (German Version)

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits for the film on August 18, 1930


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The famous Sphinx Collage

Garbo's un-American desire for privacy and her refusal to give interviews led to her being dubbed with many nicknames, but the one that stuck was ‘The Swedish Sphinx'. Bull could claim credit for this. A somber portrait from Inspiration superimposed on the face of the Sphinx put a picture where there had only been words.

In 1931 he decided to experiment in the darkroom. Taking a vignette close-up study of Garbo's face he re-exposed it over a photograph of the Cairo Sphinx, having previously airbrushed out its face. When photographer Bull showed the results of his experiment to Garbo, he was afraid that she might be offended.

But Greta “roared with laughter and then begged my pardon, thinking she had offended me,” he said. The composite was approved, much to the delight of the Metro publicity department.The studio was thril­led. The picture was distributed throughout the world and became one of the most widely reproduced of her images.

The “Swedish Sphinx” neatly capsulated the Garbo persona, becoming one of the most recognizable images in the world. “The more mask-like the face, the deeper the mystery,” one fan magazine stated. When Bull superimposed Garbo's face on the head of the Sphinx he was documenting, not creating, a twentieth-century icon.


The famous Sphinx Collage

Made in 1931.


His Working Methods

Bull gave many interviews about his sessions with Garbo which are interesting for his working methods. Garbo would arrive at his studio punctually at 9 a.m., and worked through till a prompt ending at 5 p.m., the same routine which she observed when filming. Bull bemoaned the fact that none of his other subjects could be relied on to be so prompt and businesslike.

Many had to be cajoled, or would arrive late, and need, as he termed it, ‘relaxers', in the form of a martini or two before they started work. Virgil Apger, Bull's assistant, recorded how Garbo would often walk barefoot around the gallery in a totally noiseless manner so that at times, after a break, they would not be aware of her.


Portraits for Inspiration

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits for the film on December 12, 1930.


More  HERE!


Garbo Moved Freely in his Gallery

With each sitting Bull discussed his plans in advance. Garbo was to "move freely in the gallery. When the pose was to my liking I quickly adjusted the lights and made the picture. Miss Garbo read my face out of the corner of her eye and when she saw that I liked an expression there was no need to say 'Stilt'. Or, ‘Hold It...' All I did was to light the face and wait. And watch" .


Portraits for Susan Lennox

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits for the film on July 8, 1931.


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Mata Hari

Garbo never posed strictly as herself. His mood and costume studies for Mata Hari are rightly celebrated. Cecil Beaton in his book Glass of Fashion copies in a line drawing one of these as the essence of the Garbo appeal, her hair starkly pulled back, her hand to her face, and her eyes looking downwards.

It is perhaps Bull's most emblematic composition. Garbo was unlike any other star in the film firmament and Bull's photographs serve to reinforce the difference. The best of them convey a remoteness and intelligence of a woman in charge and aware of her attraction though not certain of her destiny.


Portraits for Mata Hari

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits for the film on November 19, 1931.


More  HERE!


Garbo was his best subject

Garbo was his " best subject... The easiest of all stars to photograph ... having no bad side and no bad angles. Her rapport with the camera was such that, she seems to feel the emotion for each pose as part of her personality. Garbo was the most cooperative star I ever worked with, always willing to try the unusual; lighting effects and expressions of inner feelings and conflicts. She never seems to tire of posing. I have known her to hold a pose, either in glaring lights or by the dimmest ones, for more than a minute and a half."

This ability enabled him to take several exposures of one set-up. What made this quality so rare is that most people's expressions, even when they are not smiling, tend to freeze and become unnatural.

For studies such as this, using minimal lighting to achieve extraordinary effects, Bull first experimented alone in his studio with a plaster bust, investigating ways in which different light sources could be juxtaposed to create tableaux reminiscent of the paintings of Georges de la Tour and Caravaggio.


Mata Hari Photomontage

Clarence Bull designed this photomontage for Mata Hari in 1932.


No Portraits with the ‘New Garbo'

Later, some time after she had left Paramount , Dietrich herself made a private appointment: "When she saw my proofs, she threw me that enigmatic smile and said, ‘You're better than they say'. I smiled, ‘And you're no Garbo." ' Bull concludes the anecdote "She thanked me for that".


Portraits for Grand Hotel

Garbo's portraits for Grand Hotel were taken by Clarence Sinclair Bull on April 13, 1932. Garbo's portraits for Grand Hotel were taken by Clarence Sinclair Bull on April 13, 1932, during the session for As You Desire Me.


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When Garbo arrived

Garbo used to arrive at the gallery with her hairdresser and her maid, already made up. She liked to have music playing on the gramophone, popular tunes such as ‘Broadway Rhythm' rather than the classical records Bull imagined she would prefer. He worked with his assistant and an electrician on standby for the lights.


The Grand Hotel Photomontage

Clarence Bull designed this photomontage for Grand Hotel in 1932.

Clarence Bull designed this photomontage to illustrate the concept of Hollywood 's first all-star film, M-G-M's Grand Hotel, which was released in April 1932. Greta Garbo is at center; clockwise from top are Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Joan Crawford.


Garbo's Appeal

With each successive film Bull's lighting of Garbo for their studio sessions shows a different approach from that which he adopted for the other stars. It was generally more subtle and sophisticated and showed signs of the extra care that he was inspired to take. The overall darkness and changing highlights he selected for illumination continued to add to the mystery of his subject and sense of other-worldliness that became part of Garbo's appeal.

It should be pointed out that from the time Bull started to photograph Garbo the actress had virtually ceased to pose for any generic photographs, a privilege no other star of her generation was able to command.


Portraits for Grand Hotel / As You Desire Me

In her Grand Hotel hairstyle, Greta poses for Clarence Sinclair Bull in an As You Desire Me costume. Due to Greta's desire to leave as soon as possible, a single portrait session was scheduled to accommodate both films.


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Bull's Last Sitting with Garbo?

Bull worked harder on this sitting than on any previous one, partly because of the increased number of costumes, but mostly because he thought he might never again have an opportunity to focus his camera on this unique visage.

By the end of the double session, he was tired. Garbo was suddenly cheerful, as if school had been let out. “Well, that's that!” she announced. “Thank you, Mr. Bull. I hope some of them will be all right.” And then she and her helpers were gone, with just three days left on the film.


Portraits for As You Desire Me

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits of Garbo for the film on April 13, 1932.


More  HERE!


No one else but Bull

In the mid-thirties, after ten years as chief portrait photographer, the publicity department was considering promoting Bull out of the gallery into a more senior administrative role which would have put an end to his photography but, as Virgil Apger told historian John Kobal, Garbo insisted that no one else could take her portraits, and as the studio's most prestigious property, even though by this time she was making only one film every 18 months, her wishes were respected.


Portraits for Queen Christina

For his study of her as Queen Christina Bull made a ten second exposure so that Garbo was illuminated almost solely by the light of the three candles at which she gazed. The soft, subtle light and the length of the exposure combined to create a three-dimensional and spell-binding portrait.


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Three Hundred eight by ten inch Negatives

Each session would produce two to three hundred eight by ten inch negatives and Garbo would insist on going through all the proofs as they laid them out on the floor. She was quick and decisive as to what she approved and generally ninety per cent of the exposures were passed on to the publicity department which in turn would use them all. Such was the rarity and demand for her photographs. And Bull took them all.


Portraits for The Painted Veil

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits of Garbo for the film on September 12, 1934.


More  HERE!


Portraits for Anna Karenina

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits of Garbo for the film on May 17, 1935.


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Garbo's succession of costume roles from the mid-thirties onward, in films like Queen Christina, Anna Karenina, Camille and Conquest, her wardrobe designed by Adrian, allowed Bull a tremendous opportunity to create visions of luxury and opulence.

His Camille pictures are the kind of magical studies of which Winterhalter would have been proud. "Garbo actually works harder when posing for portraits than she does before the motion picture camera... She considers the posing as part of her screen work and feels absolute concentration is necessary to get emotion over to the still camera".


Portraits for Camille

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits of Garbo for the film. The session was made in November 23, 1936. Bull made another special session with Garbo, likely in December 1936.


More  HERE!


Garbo in Color

This is the first picture that showed Garbo in colour. It wasn't plan ned at all. During a photo session for Camille in 1936, photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull suggested a colour photo shot to Garbo.


The Color Portrait

Making such a photo was hard work and Greta had to sit still for a couple of minutes but the result was a sensation. The world could finally see Garbo's pale blue eyes.


Garbo's Gift for Comedy

Most of Garbo's roles were intensely serious and it was not until Ninotchka that she was finally able to show her gift for comedy. This was an aspect of her character that she regretted not showing more often in her films, though there exist many wonderful earlier studies of her laughing and smiling for Bull's camera. But clearly, making a film in which she could laugh, without regret, affected her. Bull noted how as a change from music on the gramophone she switched to radio comedy programmes.


Portraits for Conquest

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits of Garbo for the film, on September 2, 1937.


More  HERE!



Bull's obsession with candle power reaches far back to his early days in Hollywood, and is shown in his portrait of the actor Alec B. Francis which was one of the series he did of male and female stars. At the end of the 1930s he was photographing Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, in near darkness, in a half-lit evocative two-shot study, which was almost a silhouette.


Portraits for Ninotchka

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits of Garbo for the film. He made two sessions. The first between May–early June 1939, and the second (costume studies) on August 9, 1939.


More  HERE!


The Eclipse Lighting Study

With Hedy Lamarr, the exotic European recruited from Vienna , Bull's close-up profile and eyelash studies continue his further exploration on this theme, which reaches its apogee with his singular eclipse lighting study of Garbo for Ninotchka.

Her face and the background are almost totally invisible but the subject is unmistakably Garbo, her features delineated by the light that etches the contour of her face and neck. Such a picture only works with a subject as recognizable as Garbo. This technique enabled Bull to create a photographic tour de force predating the strobe-lit effects of the 1950s, with which Gjon Mili recorded the creation of Picasso paintings.


The "Eclipse" Portrait

Bull used “eclipse lighting” to make this famous portrait of Garbo for Ninotchka.


Two Faced Woman

In the 1940s, after Garbo's last film, Two Faced Woman (1941), Bull spent less time on studio portraiture and more on administration, studio public relations and supervising a new group of younger photographers. In 1942 he was put in charge of emergency courses training soldiers in the signal and Marine Corps in the use of photography for reconnaissance and other military purposes, at the United States government's request, as part of the Motion Picture Industry's contribution to the war effort.


Portraits for Two-Faced Woman

Clarence Sinclair Bull made the portraits of Garbo for the film on October 3, 1941.


More  HERE!


Their Last Sitting

After she finished the film, Garbo went to Clarence Bull's gallery for a portrait sitting. The photographer also sensed a difference in the woman he had not seen in two and a half years. He shot many poses of her with her head leaning across the arm of a chair or over the edge of a bench. This angle pulled the skin of the face tight, acting as a temporary face-lift.

Garbo was not up to shooting as many poses as she had for Ninotchka, and she wore only one outfit in the sitting. The sweater and gold bracelet she wore were her own. Bull had a feeling that he might not photograph her again. When she put a scarf on her head to leave, he asked for one last shot. She patiently came back and sat down as he squeezed the bulb and released the shutter in front of Greta Garbo for the last time ever.


The Un-retouched Portrait

Garbo's thirteenth and last portrait sitting with Clarence Bull. This unretouched proof shows what she would have seen before the negative was retouched. This portrait wasn't released in 1941/42.


Bull's Reputation

Bull, with his reputation as Garbo's portraitist, was still much in demand as a photographer of the bright new younger generation of stars of the 1940s. In the 1930s Paramount approached MGM about the possibility of lending out Bull for a series of photographs of their star Marlene Dietrich whom they wished to build up as a second Garbo by photographing her in the same way. "I refused", Bull records in an undated magazine article.


The Color Portrait

Making such a photo was hard work.


Again Color

The second time Garbo was shot in colour was for the Two-Faced Woman photo session on October 3 ,1941. This session was Greta's last photo session for MGM. Photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull asked Garbo to do another photo in colour after the success of the color portrait of Camille.


The Unpublished Portrait

This was a previously unpublished Two-Faced Woman portrait was Clarence Bull's interpretation of the title.

It was published in early 2000.


Bull's Garbo Portraits Rediscovered

In 1979, in the last few months of his life, Bull was at work producing a limited edition portfolio of his Garbo prints which had been rediscovered by a new discerning type of collector. One of the first auctions ever held of photographs took place in Sotheby's Los Angeles in the early months of 1979. One of the star lots was a Bull portrait of Garbo.

Subsequent sales and exhibitions have confirmed the value put on Bull's work and his status as a photographer of importance in the history of photography. The man who shot Garbo today ranks as one of the great portrait photographers of his age and he was Garbo's favorite portraitist.


Bull's Last Garbo Portrait

During the Two-Faced Woman session,  what was to be their final photo session together, as Greta gathered her things and got ready to go, Clarence Sinclair Bull asked if he could shoot one more portrait. That was Bull's final portrait of Garbo and her last Hollywood portrait sitting.


The Source

In 1989, a 240 pages book about his work was published by Simon & Schuster called "The Man Who Shot Garbo: The Hollywood Photographs of Clarence Sinclair Bull". This book highlights Bull's 40-year career at MGM with nearly 200 of his enduring portraits of filmstars such as Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Vivian Leigh, Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Katherine Hepburn.

This monograph presents an array of star portraits as well as a history of Hollywood in its heyday. The book will accompany a major exhibition organized by the National Portrait Gallery in collaboration with the John Kobal Collection and American Express.

The Man Who Shot Garbo: The Hollywood Photographs of Clarence Sinclair Bull
(by Terrence Pepper and John Kobal. Released by Simon & Schuster, New York 1989)

Garbo Portraits
by Arnold Genthe
by Ruth Harriet Louise 
by Edward Steichen 
by George Hurrell 
by Nickolas Murray 
by J. E. Jonsson
by Clarence Sinclair Bull 
by Cecil Beaton 
by George Hoyningen-Huene 
by Anthony Beauchamp 


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