Greta Garbo looks totally at ease gazing out from a black and white portrait photograph, taken at the height of her film career. Only her face is in focus, the light resting beautifully on her sculpted cheekbones.

In another photograph Garbo is standing in a street, holding her hand up to her face. The message to the photographer is clear – “I want to be left alone.”

The two contrasting images are part of a fascinating new exhibition at the National Media Museum looking at the relationship between film stars and photographers.

Featuring striking photos of more than 100 big screen icons, from Sophia Loren to Russell Crowe, it brings together the diverse ways in which movie stars are presented by the media – ranging from the glamorous images produced by film studio photographers in the golden age of Hollywood, when studios had power over their actors’ images, to press and paparazzi pictures exposing the ‘reality’ behind the glamour.

“During the classic Hollywood era, from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, studios called the shots,” says curator of cinematography Michael Harvey.

“Some concentrated on portraits of stars, others on film stills. Now the industry is dominated by the stars, who command multi-million dollar fees and have rights over their pictures.

“But the film industry continues to build up the profile and reputation of its stars; stardom is a central commodity of the film industry and the prime means by which most films are promoted. Photography plays a big role in that.

“The media are crucial to the creation of the star image, on the one hand making extensive use of the free pictures and stories from studios while at the same time seeking to capture shots of stars unawares.

“The film industry and the media have both evolved enormously over the years but this aspect of their relationship has remained remarkably constant, as, indeed, has the public’s fascination with anything to do with film stars and their lives.”

The alliance between media and film industry comes undone when journalists are on the scent of scandal.

“The active pursuit of stars by press photographers started in the late 1930s with reclusive star Greta Garbo, and increased in the 1960s, with the emergence of the paparazzi. Today it has become almost the everyday background to a star’s life,” says Michael. “By becoming a star, you enter a pact with the camera and those who wield it.

“Stars like Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn collaborated with photographers, but others hated being photographed when they weren’t ‘in character’. Garbo didn’t like the attention, she didn’t sign autographs or do interviews and subsequently created a mystique around her. She ended up being hounded by photographers.

“One of the earliest ‘intrusive’ shots is a long lens photograph of Garbo and composer Leopold Stravinsky at an Italian villa in the 1930s. By the Fifties, when she’d retired, it was open season for photographers to try and get a shot of her.”

The exhibition features stunning photographs of film greats such as Michael Caine, Peter O’Toole and Elizabeth Taylor through to Keira Knightley, Scarlett Johansson and Jude Law.

The first section looks at creating the star image, featuring exquisitely lit, composed star portraits by studio photographers employed to promote their subjects’ glamorous lifestyles. “Taking this type of shot relied on a level of trust built between photographer and subject,” says Michael. “During the classic Hollywood era stars and photographers had quite an intimate relationship, creating a great ‘one-to-one’ relationship with the camera.”

He points out a lovely photograph of Sophia Loren, relaxed, windswept and giggling, by film photographer Ken Danvers.

The exhibition includes images taken on film sets, capturing stars at work and relaxing, and looks at the role of the ‘specials’; photographers invited onto sets for magazine shoots. These photographs, dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, sustain the image of film stars enjoying a lifestyle ordinary mortals will never have.

A picture taken by photo-journalist Eve Arnold for a lifestyle magazine shows Joan Crawford standing in her underwear while an assistant measures her for a fitting. It’s an intimate shot, revealing the trust between Crawford and Arnold. The exhibition also shows stars taking control of their own image – an example is a photograph of Tom Cruise holding a self portrait – and publicity stills from films such as Atonement, Gladiator, Moulin Rouge, Lawrence of Arabia and Withnail and I.

A photograph on display of Harry Potter star Emma Watson was used to create the doll of her character, Hermione. “The process of taking pictures for publicity and merchandise is done throughout filming,” says Michael. “This could mean re-shooting a whole scene – some directors are more co-operative with this than others!”

The exhibition brings together photographs from 1915 to the present, including images from the museum’s Daily Herald collection, from paparazzi agencies and photographers working in today’s film industry, and from partners including the Kobal Foundation, Magnum Photos and the National Portrait Gallery.

In shedding light on the relationship between star and photographer, the exhibition also celebrates the work of the stars behind the lenses, such as George Hurrell, Clarence S Bull, Cecil Beaton, Ken Danvers and Terry O’Neill. There is also video footage of photographers and film experts such as Barry Norman talking about the industry.

  • Live By The Lens. Die By The Lens: Film Stars And Photographers is in Gallery One at the National Media Museum from tomorrow to September 28. For more details ring 0870 7010200 or visit