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  • historicalzg - 1Reply
    studiolymar wrote on Jul 7, '09
    Very, VERY interesting story, fine photography art. Thanks for sharing.

    gumlegs wrote on Jul 7, '09
    Very nice work. Thanks for posting this. I've been rooting around for the Sartov portrait of Griffith. If I find it, I'll post it.

    profdash wrote on Jul 7, '09
    I have a vintage print of it & I'll add a scan to the album.

Hendrick Sartov
Hoover Art Studio (with Frank Harmon, formerly owned by Frank Hoover)
Artcraft Studios (D.W. Griffith)

Time Period: 1910s-?
Location: Los Angeles, NYC

© David S. Shields

The Aesthetics of Soft Focus: Hendrick Sartov    Jul 7, '09 1:51 PM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #119

Since a member of our illustrious groups has brought up the name of Hendrick Sartov, I thought I would take a moment to say something about him here. This is a brief section of my study of silent cinema and photography now being vetted at Harvard University Press. Sartov as Gumlegs said introduced the soft focus--to southern California. Karl Struss and a number of the pictorialist art photographers had done so in the east, and Arnold Genthe in San Francisco. Here, in short, is the first part of the story of Hendrick Sartov. I treat his later work for Lillian Gish in another chapter dedicated to M.G.M. in the 1920s.

HENDRICK SARTOV (c) David S. Shields
In Spring of 1918, D. W. Griffith, the greatest film-maker in the world, entered Hoover Art Studio at 6321 Hollywood Boulevard, intent on stealing the chief photographer for Artcraft Pictures. Usually Griffith assigned Paul Woods to hire and fire persons on the production staff. In this case, the director scheduled a sitting and in the midst of the shoot tendered a personal invitation to the photographer to join his crew.

Hendrick Sartov (1885-1970), aged thirty-two, possessed none of the masculine allure he so adeptly captured on glass negatives. Skinny, with a slight photographer’s hunch, thickly bespectacled, plagued with “fuzzy hair” that was giving way to male pattern baldness, he spoke laconically with a difficult Danish accent. His studio manner oscillated between mute aloofness and patrician formality. Despite his ugliness and awkwardness, Sartov knew more about the new imagery of glamour than any photographer in Los Angeles. His lighting went well beyond the usual studio effects. Instead of backlighting his subjects rimming their silhouettes with a halo of light, he used multiple lamps, and lit faces from the side and from just beneath the chin, like Baron Adolph De Meyer, chief photographer for Vogue. Wrinkles vanished. Years evaporated. Sartov trained a special lens that he guarded jealously from prying eyes upon his sitters, not the usual Struss soft-focus lens. It gave a distinctive softness and roundness to a sitter’s face and body. The more artful of his portraits radiated luminousness, a supernal glow that won notice in exhibitions. Sartov and Edward Weston alone of California’s photographers won prizes in the salons of the American Association of Professional Photographers during World War I.

Griffith wanted Sartov to supply a visual finesse to his features, a poetic delicacy that his long-time cameraman, Billy Bitzer, could not manage. Glutted with the grandeur and huge scale of “Intolerance” (1916) and mindful of expenses, Griffith contemplated more intimate films, dramas that depended more upon close-quarter impression than vista. He wanted someone who could light the faces of his heroines with a tenderness that would make them visually irresistible, even in squalid surroundings. ‘The light of glamour shines out of the darkness.’
Several stories tell how Griffith came to call upon Sartov. Billy Bitzer—who viewed Sartov his rival—connected his hiring with Griffith’s infatuation with the actress Carol Dempster:

Carol Dempster left her pictures with the casting department and Griffith thumbed through them. He was first intrigued by the photographer’s skill; then he studied the face which seemed to come out of a new method of lighting. The photographer was Hendrik Sartov. Griffith sent for him, as well as the girl.Sartov had made several revolutionary portraits of Carol at a Hollywood studio. He knew next to nothing about movie camera technique or running a motion picture camera, but with my training, his new method could become a valuable property. . . . Sartov was an apt pupil, foreign-born, with an accent and a resigned nature. What he had in talent, he lacked in enthusiasm: he always seemed bored.

Bitzer’s tale has the hallmarks of fantasy. Griffith’s infatuation with Dempster, an imperfect beauty in Bitzer’s eyes, paralleled his fascination with the visual artistry of an imperfect photographer, a man lacking passion for art.

Lillian Gish claimed that she, not Dempster, was the female conduit between Griffith and Sartov. I went to this Hollywood [Hoover] Art Studio, came back with "heads" [close-ups] of the character I was playing in Hearts of the World, and I said to Mr. Griffith and Billy Bitzer [the cameraman], "Look how that cameraman makes me look. Why don't I look like that on the screen?"

Mr. Griffith said, "Well, if you're so smart, go get him, and have him make you look like that on the screen."

Gish of course did not hire anybody. Yet no silent actress has greater credibility when commenting on portrait photography. She regularly paid over $10,000 per annum for photographs over and above the publicity generated by whichever studio had her servicees. She promoted the careers of portrait photographers James Abbe, Charles Albin, Richard Burke, Kenneth Alexander, Henry Waxman, and Nelson Evans, and the M.G.M. still photographer Milton Brown. Only Ruth St. Denis among contemporary performers spent more time in portrait studios and knew more camera artists. Gish’s relationship with Sartov would be close and enduring. Upon her recruitment by M.G. M. in 1925, Gish had insisted that Sartov be retained as her cinematographer. Sartov in gratitude named his soft focus lens after Lillian Gish.

Several surviving Hoover Art portraits radiate the sort of splendor that would warrant Gish’s intervention. Yet we must not neglect the unasked question lurking behind her story. Why had Gish been dispatched for stills at Hoover Art in the first place? Both Bitzer and James Woodbury, or camera assistant Karl Brown could have shot publicity during takes on the set. Gish remarked, “we were always being sent to get still pictures.” Sent out of the studio because Griffith already revered the artistry of Sartov at Hoover Art, and to a lesser extent Albert Witzel. In 1915, when Frank Sheridan Hoover appointed the newly arrived Sartov chief cameraman of Hoover Art Studio, D. W. Griffith had read in the Los Angeles Times about the international recognition being accorded the work of Hoover Art’s photographers and may have heard the rumors circulating about his background—that he. had reputedly been a lecturer on the physics of light at the University of Rotterdam before abandoning academics for photography in Hamburg. Once studio life in that port city palled, sometime in early 1913, Sartov trekked to the wilds of the Montana copper country to assist Anaconda’s leading photographers George C. Thomson and E. C. Schoetner. A year and a half roughing it drove him to salubrious southern California.

Griffith’s talent raid on Hoover Art Studio had results more complicated than he had anticipated. Sartov in 1917 had partnered with company treasurer, Frank Harmon, to purchase the business from Frank Hoover for $16,000. Sartov was no longer hired help ripe for plucking, but a proprietor. He could not walk away. So he worked two jobs, at the gallery and at the Artcraft studio with Griffith until the director moved east in 1919. At that juncture Sartov sued Hoover, claiming fraudulent misrepresentation of the studio’s revenues at the time of sale, the suit a rather transparent means of extricating himself from the business so he could move to New York with Griffith. Hoover Art Company became Hoover, L.A. run by Harmon, with Jacques D’auray taking over as artistic director until the hiring of Russian-born portraitist Sergis Alberts in 1923.

Griffith’s artistic instincts rarely failed him when it came to collaborators. Sartov, after his tutelage at the hands of Billy Bitzer, became one of the premier cinematographers of silent cinema, the man who more than anyone else established soft-focus pictorialism as a visual idiom in Hollywood. His masterworks of the 1920s-- “Way Down East,” “Dream Street,” “La Boheme,” “the Scarlet Letter,” “Quality Street”—won effusive praise for their visual poetry. Belying Bitzer’s characterization of Sartov as a disengaged and disinterested figure—all talent and no passion—he proved to be an adventurous cameraman, pioneering the aerial representation of the Grand Canyon with airborne vistas shot from the wing in 1928’s “The Bride of the Colorado.” His contributions to still photography rivaled his contributions to cinematography, for he perfected the lustrous atmospherics of Hollywood glamour portraiture in the 1910s.

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