In the late 1920s, Ruth Harriet Louise was one of Hollywood’s leading portrait photographers. As the head of MGM’s portrait studio, she was responsible for photographing stars including Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Ramon Navarro and Nina Mae McKinney. Louise’s career at MGM was short but prolific: hired by the studio in 1925, she shot some 100,000 negatives before she was replaced by George Hurrell in 1929.
Born Ruth Goldstein in New York City, Louise began her career as a commercial portrait photographer in New Jersey. Aged just 19, she set up a small studio and placed an advertisement in the local business directory, which read: ‘won’t you visit my studio, and let me perpetuate your personality.’ Louise took photography seriously, as she explained in 1922:
Good photographs, like good books, or a resonant mellow old violin, possess a soul….A violin sings to you, a book holds a mental séance with you and makes you think. Even so a photograph can talk to you. If it is the better type of photograph it not only talks to you, but it strikes you between the eyes and makes you gasp for breath.
In 1925 she moved to Los Angeles, where she shrewdly negotiated her contract with MGM. This granted her full credit for all her work, final approval of photographs, her own lab, and permission to photograph stars outside the studio. As her assistant, Al St Hilaire, recalled, ‘she must have been the first to have that sort of authority. She was the only photographer who had control over the development of her negs.’
Louise’s photographs were a key component of the MGM star-making machine. Perhaps most notably, she helped refine the image of Greta Garbo, whom she met in 1925. Louise photographed the Swedish star as an aloof, sophisticated femme-fatale, an image which would stick with Garbo for the rest of her career. In February 1928, Photoplay ran a Louise portrait of Garbo with the accompanying text: ‘Not America’s Sweetheart, but America’s Suppressed Desire – Greta Garbo. What every woman wants to look like. The Eternal Feminine to every man.’
After leaving MGM, Louise worked as a freelance photographer in Hollywood. Though photographing stars including Myrna Loy and Anna Sten, she never enjoyed the success of her earlier career. She died in childbirth in 1940.
Abrams, M., ‘Star Maker: The Photography of Ruth Harriet Louise’, The Telegraph, 24th July 2011.
Dance, R., Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography, California, 2002.