The man who shot Garbo


Clarence Sinclair Bull (1896-1979) was born in Michigan but spent most of his life in Hollywood. He was head of the MGM stills department for over forty years and he took over 4,000 photographs of Greta Garbo from 1929 until the end of her career in 1941. He was Garbo’s favourite photographer (she had clashed with George Hurrell and did not care for his manic personality) and as her power at the studio grew, she eventually requested that only Bull photograph her.


He was hired by movie mogul Sam Goldwyn in 1920 to photograph publicity stills of the studio’s stars. Four years later, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was founded, Bull was appointed as the head of their stills department where he remained throughout his career. During that time he took portraits of the most celebrated Hollywood film stars, however, he is particularly known for his photographs for Garbo who was almost exclusively photographed by Bull from 1926 to 1941.

From The Kiss (filmed in 1929) until Two-Faced Woman (in 1941), Bull took all Garbo’s portraits with the exception of one film in 1930, Romance. The were taken by George Hurrell, who hade come to MGM in that year.


Bull, with his reputation as Garbo’s portraitist, was still much in demand as a photographer of the bright new younger generation of stars of the 1940s. In the 1930s Paramount approached MGM about the possibility of lending out Bull for a series of photographs of their star Marlene Dietrich whom they wished to build up as a second Garbo by photographing her in the same way. “I refused”, Bull records in an undated magazine article.

Bull’s first significant session with Garbo was on the set of her last silent film The Kiss in 1929. “I recall that first morning the great Garbo walked into my portrait gallery looking like a frightened schoolgirl”. Garbo, a creature of extreme habit, suddenly found herself confronted with a new photographer having been photographed for the past three years by Ruth Harriet Louise. Most film stars considered their gallery sessions the most uncomfortable and exposing part of their work.

Bull and Garbo

Garbo was no different, and was unique in Hollywood in that she only ever posed in character for her role in whatever film she was making, and this may account for her reaction to their first session as Bull recalled it. Though, as he points out, “What she didn’t know was that I was just as scared. For three hours I photographed her in every pose and emotion that beautiful face could mirror. At the end of the sitting, which had been without a single break, she said ‘I’ll do better next time Mr Bull. I was quite nervous.’ I patted her hand and replied, ‘So will I”.


Bull’s outdoor soft focus pictorial studies of Garbo alone under a tree and posed with Gilbert on the set of Love (1927) do survive. Since so many stills were not credited in publications, the question of authorship occasionally remains problematic.

One of Bull’s many useful innovations was to devise and patent a negative numbering procedure. He set up a system whereby the name of the photographer, the date of the photograph, and the department for which it was taken would be recorded on the side of each 10″ x 8″ negative.

Love was the first major Garbo sitting Bull records. Greta first walked into his gallery looking like “a frightened schoolgirl,” he wrote. “What she didn’t know was that I was just as scared as she.” Over a three-hour period he shot her “in every pose and emotion that beautiful face could mirror,” expecting that she would speak up when she’d had too much. She never said anything. Finally he ran out of film. “I was quite nervous,” Garbo apologized as she prepared to leave . “I’ll do better next time.” Bull patted her hand. “So will I.” As did he.


C. S. Bull believed that as an actress, Garbo actually worked harder in front of his camera than anywhere else. She considered it an essential part of her job. “She comes in bounding – but with the air of a martyr. A sort of ‘oh-how-I hate- to-do-this-but-let’s-get-it-going!’ air. Not surly, merely resigned,” a profile suggested. “It’s always ‘Mr. Bull’ and ‘Miss Garbo’; never ‘Clarence’ or ‘Greta’ …”

With a single session producing as many as three hundred portraits, Garbo teamed to make herself at ease in the photographer’s presence. She liked to play popular music on the radio or phonograph, and walked about the studio with such noiseless ease that he often wasn’t aware of her. On one occasion, as Bull’s assistant Virgil Apger was adjusting a baby spot, the light slipped and missed her by a few hair-raising inches.


Garbo Moved Freely in his Gallery

With each sitting Bull discussed his plans in advance. Garbo was to “move freely in the gallery. When the pose was to my liking I quickly adjusted the lights and made the picture. Miss Garbo read my face out of the corner of her eye and when she saw that I liked an expression there was no need to say ‘Stilt’. Or, ‘Hold It…’ All I did was to light the face and wait. And watch” .

Leave a Reply