A life filled with shooting stars

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Connie George

Bill Kobrin spent several hours snapping pictures of Marilyn Monroe in her underwear one steamy summer night, but had no idea it was going to make him famous.

The photographer responsible for Monroe’s most iconic image — standing atop a breezy subway tunnel vent with her skirt billowing up above her panties — recently reflected on a 60-year career that began with pictures of babies and weddings and culminated in decades spent capturing hundreds of famous show business faces.

The journey took him to Harlem and Korea before landing him in Hollywood, and through work for the Associated Press, Look magazine, 20th Century Fox, CBS and ABC.

It also taught him to think quickly on his feet and, as importantly, the vital skills necessary to cultivate working relationships with those in the entertainment business, where such associations are frequently unpredictable.

“To be a successful celebrity photojournalist you have to be part psychiatrist, part psychologist, part philosopher, and above all you have to be charming and likeable,” Kobrin said. “Now that’s easy for some celebrities and photographers, but it is not easy for some.”

It’s also a tall order on a daily basis, he acknowledged, but getting off on the right foot with his big-name subjects was critical when his livelihood was based on photographing men and women protective of their images who did not like being caught unaware by a photo shoot.

“You’ve got 30 seconds to make an impression,” he explained. “So when you had an assignment that was the case of ‘Surprise, surprise, I’m here,’ then you’ve got a problem. But sometimes when you hit it off right and both parties get along and kind of dig each other, then it’s alright.”

Kobrin, who has since retired to the east valley, excelled at getting the needed cooperation, as can be seen from his favorite photos, which have been compiled in a book, Bill Kobrin’s Stars and Celebrities, produced by Desert Springs Publishing in La Quinta. From candid studio images to formal headshots, the book features the most popular television, motion picture and music stars of their era, from Cary Grant to Grace Kelly, from Eartha Kitt to George Michael.

“This is no boast,” Kobrin said, “but I would imagine — being involved with AP, Look, CBS and ABC — that every major star or celebrity that ever existed between 1941 and 1990 I have photographed in one way or another.”

The road to Hollywood

The Brooklyn-born Kobrin took up photography in his teens, scoring a few small-scale freelance jobs before landing a position in the darkroom at New York’s Associated Press office in 1942 when he was 20.

Though he hadn’t been hired as a lensman, he was asked one night to cover a massive race riot in Harlem because the staff photographers had other assignments.

At the time, Kobrin said, “Harlem was a tinderbox and kind of scary,” but he was game to prove his worth to AP. So he headed out to the neighborhood by subway at 3:30 a.m., snapped shots of riot victims at a local hospital, and then ventured out into the streets at daybreak to capture images of looting and fires.

The riot lasted two or three days, he recalled, and made national headlines. His descriptive images went out over the wire to appear in newspapers all over the country.

Kobrin enjoyed several years with AP, but in 1950, when he was dispatched to Korea to cover the war, he said he reached a critical career impasse. “I was there for about a year and said, ‘That’s it — war is not for me.’”

Leaving the assignment meant having to leave AP, yet by this time, he said, “I knew I didn’t want to be a newspaper man all my life, but I knew I wanted to be a photographer.”

Returning to New York, he landed a position with Look magazine, a photo-heavy direct competitor of Life that, he explained, differentiated itself with in-depth show business coverage.

“That was my first introduction to celebrity photography,” he said. It also allowed him to make contacts in the entertainment field that would build throughout the next decades.

He drew on those contacts when he relocated to Los Angeles in 1958. He now describes the period as ideal for celebrity photojournalism due to the popularity of such magazines as Modern Screen andPhotoplay, and Hollywood’s dependence on the publications for promoting the film and TV industries.

Between a heavy load of freelance and staff assignments, “I was in the entertainment business at that point,” he said. “I was still in the news business, but a very specialized type of news.”

Due to his growing reputation, CBS snagged Kobrin in 1965 to be its director of photography. Then ABC hired him away in 1975 for 10 more years in the same role. He also continued building his roster of independent clients.

The Marilyn Monroe shoot

But it was a single assignment many years before — in 1954 — that has come to be considered Kobrin’s best known career moment. Ironically, for him “it was very frustrating. There was nothing interesting about it,” he says now.

As the official East Coast photographer and publicist for 20th Century Fox, he was assigned to a street scene in New York where stills of Marilyn Monroe and co-star Tom Ewell were to be shot to promote a new movie, The Seven Year Itch.

The logistics for the shoot were endlessly complex, Kobrin said, and made all the more uncomfortable by the muggy heat of the mid-September night.

Staging for the scene began at 11 p.m., with Monroe standing atop a subway tunnel air shaft and Kobrin and the rest of the crew waiting for a train to pass below and elevate the skirt on the actress’s dress for an “accidental” glimpse at her underwear.

Two hours passed without enough underground traffic or resulting breeze for the desired effect, and a crowd of curious spectators began to gather, eventually numbering more than a thousand. Meanwhile, Kobrin added, film director Billy Wilder was growing agitated with the setbacks.

Finally a resourceful grip on the set rigged a blower beneath the subway grate, powered by a remote control, and the shoot resumed. But Monroe “was not a one-take actress,” Kobrin said. In fact, the scene required 35 separate takes “between her and her acting and the dress blowing to Billy Wilder’s satisfaction and getting the light right.”

Kobrin admitted that he was growing weary from being up all night for an overly complicated assignment that also required shooting from numerous angles, including up and down on ladders.

Adding to the overall tension, Monroe’s husband at the time, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, was present and growing increasingly angry with the glorification of his wife’s sexuality and the enthusiastic gathering of onlookers.

“Marilyn was ecstatic at the crowd’s reaction,” Kobrin said. But “DiMaggio was furious.” Before the shoot was over, the couple engaged in an enormous public argument that lead to divorce papers being filed the next day.

By the time the shoot was finally over at 5 a.m., “On the part of everybody, tempers were short,” Kobrin said. “When they heard ‘wrap,’ everybody ran like hell.”

For his part in the overnight spectacle, Kobrin received $75 in staff pay, but that was not unusual. Regardless of how many significant celebrity images Kobrin has taken over the years, he receives no royalties from any, he said, because in every case, “I was a paid employee.”

Knowing the well-known

Along with his up-close-and-personal camera work came the opportunity for Kobrin to get a glimpse into the personalities and characters of his popular subjects.

Now, at the age of 90, he has also lived long enough to process the deaths of many of the celebrities with whom he was acquainted. On each loss, he shared, “You kind of reminisce a little and have kind of a tug of the heart.”

Some of his noted subjects left specific impressions on him. James Dean, Kobrin explained, did not like having his picture taken, so a sort of “cat and mouse” game was necessary to get shots of him.

“I think Sophia Loren is the sexiest woman alive — elegant, stylish,” he said. Catherine Deneuve is “beautiful” and Cary Grant was “the handsomest.” Frank Sinatra was difficult to work with, however — “I didn’t get along with him; didn’t like him,” Kobrin admitted.

Of Monroe, Kobrin said that upon hearing of her death his first thought was, “I didn’t know it would happen, and I didn’t know when, but all the components were there” for her to die young.”

He added that she couldn’t work under pressure and “the remedy that she chose for that period…for her relaxation, of pills and champagne, played a very prominent part of her life.”

At a book-signing and birthday party for Kobrin last November at Images by Gideon Fine Art Gallery in Palm Springs, he was visited by Christian Larson, who had been a photography assistant for MGM in the late 1940s. Larson had applied body make-up to Monroe for some of her nude shots, and was often dispatched to pick her up from her Fairfax apartment and drive her to the studio.

Larson came to meet Kobrin, noting “there’s not many of us left” from those days, and they spoke at length, sharing tales of the industry and impressions of Monroe, whom they agreed was terribly insecure. Larson recounted that Monroe would memorize passages from classic literature, feeling that would help her better fit in to intellectual society, and she would practice reciting them to him in the car.

The primary focus of Kobrin’s life these days is promoting his book, which was developed in memory of his late wife Ginger, who passed away in 2003. During the last 10 years of her life, Kobrin said, his wife “kept saying ‘do a book, do a book,’ and like every dutiful husband, I said, ‘I will, I will,’ and never did and then she died.”

He decided that the best way to honor her was to have the book published, and found that it has also kept his life active and social through setting up book-signing appointments and meeting people such as Larson at the various events.

High endurance, low-tech

Reflecting on what he is proudest of about his career, Kobrin noted not the glamour or prestige of his work, nor his famous Monroe shot, nor any of his other images.

Instead, he picked the “endurance and patience” that allowed him to make it through several decades of work that he described as exhausting and unpredictable.

The constant travel, lugging of equipment, work-related conversation and cajoling, being on-call all the time — “It’s not only the physicality of the job, it’s the inside of you,” he explained. “There’s no way to predict or plan. Every day is different.”

But in addition, he said, “The one thing I’m happiest about is that during my career, we didn’t have, one, cell phones; two, computers; three, Internet.” Back then, he said, “Even if you’re in Poughkeepsie, they’re going to have to find you, and we never missed a deadline.”

For more information or to obtain a copy of Bill Kobrin’s Stars and Celebrities, contact the photographer at (760) 772-0097. The clothbound books are $45 each.