There are two major categories of movie photos: film stills and art photos. Most of these vintage images originated on movie sets and were used as publicity pictures, often displayed in theater lobbies or printed in programs. Though there is a good deal of variation, photos of actors or behind-the-scenes shots were typically printed on glossy eight-by-10 or nine-by-seven-inch paper.
Film stills, as their name suggests, are photographs from scenes in a movie. There are actually two different types of stills. The first and more collectible is the posed film still. In this type of photo, the actor is seen in costume, but the shot has been set up to accentuate specific details of a movie. These photos were typically used as advertising in periodicals and as lobby cards. Studios tended to take posed stills as full-body shots, so close-ups are rare and, consequently, more coveted by many collectors.
The other type of film still is a frame enlargement, which is simply a blown-up copy of one frame of film. Though authentic, these were often unable to convey the same level of emotion of, say, a posed Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman at Dooley Wilson’s piano in “Casablanca.”
Older movie stills of Greta Garbo in the 1920s or Jean Harlow in the 1930s, for example, are particularly collectible. Stills from memorable and legendary films are also highly sought—for example, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind” or Errol Flynn in “Robin Hood.”
Some collectors of movie stills like to focus on an individual actor or actress; Judy Garland is a particularly popular catch. Others go for the sex appeal of such stars as Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe, and then there are those who try to accumulate photos of power couples, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy foremost among them. Finally, there are those who collect by genre, be it horror flicks, Westerns, or film noir.
While film stills are popular, their cousins, art photos, are also fun to collect. Unlike stills, whose subjects are confined to specific movies, art photos are rarefied portraits of movie stars. The most famous vintage Hollywood portrait photographer was George Hurrell. He photographed just about all of the big stars of the 1930s and 1940s, from Garbo to Joan Crawford to John Barrymore.
Whether it is a film still, a portrait, or even just a candid snapshot, movie photos are usually more desirable if they are autographed. The problem, of course, is that signature...
The two most collectible star autographs are those of Garbo and James Dean. Garbo’s autograph is rare because she signed virtually nothing, except the contracts and legal documents that required the Swedish beauty’s signature. Dean’s signature, on the other hand, is collectible because his time in the spotlight was brief—he died at the age of 24, with only three credited films to his name.