An exhibit of portraits taken by photographer Paul Hollingshead — who worked amid the titans of the entertainment and fashion industries in New York in the 1920s, and then settled in Woodland — will be on display at UC Davis’ Nelson Gallery this month.
The exhibit opens Monday, April 7, and will be up through May 4, with a reception planned for Thursday, April 10, from 4 to 6 p.m.
Hollingshead led an extraordinary life. Born in Utah, the eldest of six brothers, he grew up in a farming/ranching family, and spent many of his formative years in Wyoming. The family eventually moved to Orland, in Glenn County, about 90 miles north of Davis, to establish a homestead.
But Hollingshead had a dream of becoming a photographer. He started with a Kodak box camera in 1911, and later got a Kodak folding bellows pocket camera. World War I intervened, and Hollingshead enlisted. After the war ended, the young man spent several years earning his living as a skilled blacksmith working for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in remote portions of northeastern California, saving his money. In 1922, he moved to the biggest city in the nation, and enrolled in the New York Institute of Photography, graduating in 1923.
It was there that Hollingshead met Edward Steichen, the famed art photographer who had just been recruited by the publisher Condé Nast as the chief photographer for high-class magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair. Steichen needed to assemble a staff to handle this assignment, and he hired Hollingshead in 1923 as his right-hand man, leaving him in charge of the studio when Steichen went to Paris for his annual visit.
(In those years, Steichen earned renown for his 1928 portrait of film star Greta Garbo, among others.)
Hollingshead worked at Steichen’s side for 5 1/2 years, enriching his skills in the process. Then Hollingshead — who had recently married his sweetheart Vera, a school teacher from England — decided to return to California. He worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for several years, and eventually settled in Woodland in 1932, where the Hollingshead Studio remained in operation until 1969.
Hollingshead left behind more than 8,000 photos, which were carefully preserved by his sons Bill and Edward after their father’s passing.
“As I cataloged the photos by year and decade, I noticed Dad’s style changing with his experimenting with lighting, backgrounds, props and poses,” Bill Hollingshead said. “Dad had a great sense of creative playfulness, as did Steichen. Both took photos of women as fun-loving, flirtatious, beguiling and glamorous; the men as athletic, ruggedly attractive and ‘movie star’ handsome.”
When Bill Hollingshead showed his father’s photos to Rachel Teagle, Nelson Gallery director and founding director of the soon-to-be-built Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UCD, Teagle decided that an exhibit was in order, focusing on Hollingshead’s portraits. Teagle recruited graduate student Erin Dorn to curate the exhibit, and about 40 images were selected — mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, plus a few from the 1940s.
Dorn said, “It’s a fun show. … These are beautiful portraits, a slice of life from an earlier era. Paul Hollingshead was a wonderful photographer who learned a lot as an art student and as Steichen’s assistant, and these images include good-looking men and women, adorable babies, and sometimes the family pet. And people are wearing wonderful fashions” — this was, to be sure, an era when people dressed in their best clothes when they posed for a formal portrait.
The Nelson Gallery is in Nelson Hall (formerly the University Club), and the exhibit will be open Saturdays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, visit nelsongallery.ucdavis.edu or call 530-752-8500.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.