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Hollywood style goes digital for veteran photographer

Lights! Camera! Computer!

BRANDON — Remember those great old promotional photographs of Hollywood’s stars from motion picture’s heyday — how those black and white portraits of the actors and actresses looked so dramatic and elegant, bathed in lights and shadows?

Robert Alexander of Robert Alexander Photography remembers them well, and he also remembers how to produce the “Hollywood style.”

“When talking movies came out, the film industry had a problem,” Alexander said. “Silent picture stars had relied on overacting to convey their part in movies. When talkies came out, many moviegoers found the stars uninteresting because they no longer over-dramatized their parts. So, Hollywood decided that to promote their new stars, they need photographs that created excitement, interest. Thus, the ‘Hollywood style.’”

A long proponent of the photographic craft, Alexander lectured for years on the concept and produced a successful video before retiring. However, he is now planning a new video and new demonstrations as he looks to bring the Hollywood style into the Digital Age.

Alexander grew up in Grenada and displayed a love for art at an early age. Around the age of 10, he started snapping photographs.

Eventually joining the Navy, Alexander earned his wings and saw service on aircraft carriers. To document their actions and places visited, Alexander and chums became shutterbugs. With some spare money in his pocket, Alexander bought his first professional camera in Beirut, Lebanon.

“I had always leaned toward art, and had never really thought about photography as a career,” Alexander said. “But as a child, I remember standing out in front of the movie theater in Grenada, admiring the photos of all the movie actors and actresses. I was always fascinated by them.”

After leaving the Navy, Alexander returned home and set up a studio in 1954. (He later sold his studio and moved to Jackson due to a non-compete clause in the transaction.) Alexander found success, shooting everything from Ole Miss beauties to gubernatorial inaugurations. He also became active with Professional Photographers of Mississippi-Alabama.

Alexander learned that Ole Miss offered continuing education courses, a new concept to Alexander in 1958, and he decided that his association could benefit from them. Giving Ole Miss a short list of photographers the association would like to see lead the course, Alexander was pleased when the top three prospects accepted — including Max Autry.

“Max worked for 20th Century Fox and is recognized as the master of the Hollywood style,” Alexander said.

Given the authority to attach participants to an invited expert for mentoring, Alexander assigned himself to Autry. For three days, Alexander absorbed everything he could from the Hollywood photographer, forming a lifelong relationship that only ended with Autry’s death a few years ago.

So what is the “Hollywood style”?

“Billy Watkins, a reporter with the Clarion Ledger, once did a story on me, and he coined a perfect definition,” Alexander said. “He wrote, ‘A unique combination of very accurately controlled accented lights and shadows that produce an almost third dimensional quality of visual excitement.’”

While the Hollywood style requires a number of elements to be in place — good equipment, posing, background — the key to the craft is lighting. The technique utilizes “hot lights,” lights that burn continuously as opposed to flash. And not just any lights, either, but ones that allow the photographer to focus on individual features such as a strand of hair or a dimpled chin.

“It’s all about accentuating the positive and hiding the negative,” Alexander said. “It’s all about a focused, controllable light source that allows you to make images come to life and sparkle.”

After years of practicing and extolling the Hollywood style, Alexander produced an instructional video in 1994. He found buyers through advertising in trade magazines and online, as well as demonstrations he gave. After gaining new devotees all over the country, Alexander packed up his camera, sold his lights and retired.

Then, someone asked the question, “Can you do the Hollywood style with digital cameras?”

“Not only can you produce the Hollywood style with a digital camera, the new technology allows you to touch the pictures in Photoshop,” Alexander said. “Before, photographs were finished by hand using a pencil. It was tedious and time consuming, and there was little room for error since you were working from the negative itself. Mess up, and you have to re-shoot. Photoshop allows you to touch photos much more precisely, and you’re using a working copy – mess up, and you just grab another version and start over again.

“I wouldn’t say digital photography has made taking pictures in the Hollywood style easier, because it’s still not easy, but it’s much more convenient and far less time consuming.”

Alexander said he hopes to have a new video – “The Hollywood Style Goes Digital” – ready by the end of this year, and he’s already setting up venues for lectures, which now will include an on-stage demonstration of not only taking the pictures, but having a computer on hand to produce a finished product.

“I have already gotten my new lights in from Mole-Richardson, who I think makes the best lights out there,” Alexander said. “We have reached an agreement. I will use them in demonstrations, and they like that exposure, so they have given me this new set of lights to use for free.

“The Hollywood style is not for everybody. The lights are heavy and expensive, and they’re quite hot to sit in front of. But if you want that old Hollywood look, that dazzling and dramatic play of lights and shadows, there is no other alternative. “

To contact Alexander, call (601) 825-2442, or e-mail him at roberta@netdoor.com.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

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