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Stanley Kubrick had a secret life as a teenage street photographer

The celebrated filmmaker spent his teenage years capturing his hometown of New York.

Before he hit it big with 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick was a teenager who needed a job. While most teens might work at the local ice cream shop or babysit, Kubrick had a slightly more glamorous gig: At age 17, he began taking photographs for the news magazine Look.

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These little-known photographs are the focus of a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York as well as a book published by Taschen that compiles about 300 photos Kubrick took from 1945 to 1950 while on assignment for the magazine. According to the volume, Kubrick chose to work at Look rather than go to college, a decision that became instrumental in cultivating his artistic eye–which was mostly trained on the city of New York, his hometown. “By the time I was 21 I had four years of seeing how things worked in the world,” Kubrick once said about working at Look. “I think if I had gone to college I would never have become a director.”

Stanley Kubrick with Faye Emerson from “Faye Emerson: Young Lady in a Hurry,” 1950. [Photo: courtesy Taschen]
For his first big feature assignment, Kubrick rode the New York subways for two weeks, taking pictures of strangers surreptitiously–which was difficult given the size of cameras at the time. Twenty-nine of the images were published in 1947 along with a story about the subway which described it as “the nosiest and biggest nickel’s worth of transportation in the world.” One image depicts two lovers cuddled together, asleep, as the subway hurdles along its tracks.

In fact, many of the images read as love letters to the city itself: Kubrick captured studious newspaper readers juxtaposed with a young couple sitting on a park bench, two glamorous women strolling down the street, a man leaning out of his office’s window, and scenes from the long-shuttered Palisades Park. All provide an unflinching look at the subtle nuance of human life, as seen through Kubrick’s eyes–with the gorgeous light and composition that would come to define his films.

“Reviewing Kubrick’s early career at Look, it is possible to regard that experience as the start of his celebrated career as an artist and filmmaker–a time when he honed his skills as both a storyteller and an image maker, albeit through a different lens,” write the exhibition curators Donald Albrect and Sean Corcoran in the book’s introduction.

For more images that capture teenage Kubrick’s view of the city, see the slideshow above.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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