Kobal was a pre-eminent film historian and collector of Hollywood film photography. The author of over 30 books on film and film photography, he was known for his creative and exuberant personality, as well as his voracious knowledge of the minutiae of film and photography lore. He is credited with essentially 'rediscovering' the great Hollywood Studio photographers - George Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Ted Allan et al - who were employed by the movie studios to create the glamorous, iconic portraits of the most famous and intriguing stars of the day that now epitomise Hollywood.
Kobal's mission in the 1970's and 80's was to reunite these forgotten artists with their original negatives and produce new prints for exhibitions he then mounted worldwide at, amongst others, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; National Portrait Gallery, London; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC and LA County Museum, Los Angeles. These prints, along with the original vintage prints from the studio days form the core of the John Kobal Foundation Archive that he donated to the foundation prior to his death in 1991.
The Eye of Photography/L'Oeil de la Photographie website dedicated a day in March 2022 to John Kobal, his life and his work with some memories of John by Simon Crocker
The link is:
Obituary of John Kobal by John Russell Taylor in The Times, October 1991
Born: Linz, Austria, 30th May 1940
Died: London, England, 28th October 1991
'June Duprez, his princess in 'The Thief Of Baghdad', cooked him gourmet meals; Olga Baclanova fed him caviare. Joan Crawford sang to him, Miriam Hopkins recited Byron's 'The Prisoner Of Chillon', Tallulah Bankhead taught him to smoke and Marlene Dietrich let him sleep on a sofa, baskets of flowers at his head, in her hotel suite.'
'It was Tallulah Bankhead who unlocked Hollywood for me. One night she called George Cukor and said 'Dahling George...' and after they gossiped forever, she remembered why she had called him in the first place and said, 'I have this diviihhhne young man here, and he's going to Hollywood and he doesn't know anyone and you know everyone; and he's really a most serious young man.' She looked at me to make sure, and then mortified me by telling Cukor that I was broke 'but presentable, dahling. And he knows everything about everybody's movies' (John Kobal, 'People Will Talk')
It was a bold man who ever dared to disagree with John Kobal on the most minute point of Hollywood history. The range of detail he had stored in his mind was encyclopaedic.
John found everything interesting: that was his charm. And his enthusiasm was infectious. He was always aware that his formal education had been interrupted and sketchy, but he had little self consciousness about continuing to educate himself in public. Consequently the focus of his attentions shifted through the years, as he progressed from movie-mad teenager to a world respected authority, from a magpie acquirer of film-fan memorabilia to the creator of an archive, The Kobal Collection, which rivalled that of any national cinematheque. He was a real innovator, creating interest in many areas, notably that of the great Hollywood portrait photographers, which no one had taken seriously or bothered to research before.
The story of John Kobal was, surprisingly, an egregious tale of virtue rewarded. Kobal was born in 1940 in Linz, Austria, of a Ruthenian father and an Austrian mother, his original name being Ivan Kobaly. He emigrated to Canada with his family when he was ten. From the first he was a passionate filmgoer and one of his earliest memories was sneaking into a Rita Hayworth movie being shown to the occupation forces in a hall next to his grandmother's house in Salzburg.
Though he seems to have assimilated very rapidly into the life of Ottawa, probably the dislocation of the move emphasised his tendency to live more intensely in film than in reality. And like many of his contemporaries he began to collect images of his most loved film stars. But since he seldom did anything in moderation, his collection grew and grew.
He was an actor at school, most noted according to his own version for picturesque disasters which surrounded his every appearance. Undeterred, at the age of 18 he headed off to New York with the intention of going on stage professionally. Shortly afterwards he arrived in England, which was to remain his home for the rest of his life. He spent the next four years touring the English provinces in various plays spending his spare time scouring antique markets and second hand bookshops for items of film memorabilia - old film annuals, copies of Picturegoer, the odd wad of film stills.
He always carried the picture collection with him, always augmenting it when he got the chance. In 1964 he went to New York where he freelanced for BBC Radio's 'Movie Go Round' programme and later became their US film correspondent. The American Film industry was in a period of major transition and the Hollywood Studios were closing down their offices and discarding old publicity materials - posters, photos etc. - that few regarded as of any value at that time.
But John did care about preserving these artefacts of Hollywood's past and seized the moment - what had been a casually built collection slowly began turning into a more serious enterprise. As publishers, art directors, picture editors and researchers realised the resources he commanded, they began to borrow pictures from him. During the last 20 years there have been few television programmes, newspapers, magazines or movie books in the UK, USA, Europe or Japan which did not regularly carry a picture credit to The Kobal Collection.
Kobal's extensive writing activities began with his collection: publishers planning movie picture books wanted texts to go with them and who better than John to provide both. He was never short of ideas and, though for a long time he could not believe that he was a 'real' writer, a rapidly lengthening shelf of titles proved him wrong. He always needed severe editing (which he took in good part) but at least the process was like harnessing Niagara and makes the results of the compression in his best books truly electric.
The most influential of these books (there were over thirty titles in all) were Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance (Hamlyn 1971,new edition 1983), his ground-breaking,engaging history of the American film Musical; Rita Hayworth: The Time, The Place and The Woman (WH Allen 1977), a book that struck critics for its 'ravenous love of the nitty-gritty, quotidian hard work that went into golden-age stardom'; The Art of The Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers (Alfred A. Knopf 1980), which single-handedly resurrected the reputation of extraordinary and neglected photographic artists like George Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger and Clarence Sinclair Bull and People Will Talk ( Alfred A. Knopf 1986), an astonishing collage of conversations with the stars :'The Gone With The Wind of Hollywood interview books' according to Time Magazine and the work which became Kobal's truest autobiography. At the time of his death in 1991 he had completed a gigantic biography of Cecil B. de Mille, appropriately entitled Mammoth, which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Kobal reinforced his international reputation, established by these books, as the major force behind the tremendous revival of interest in the work of the great Hollywood portrait photographers - Hurrell, Willinger, Bull, Allan, Bachrach etc. - whose work immortalised Hollywood for the starstruck public of several generations.
Working closely with the photographers themselves or their estates, Kobal mounted over twenty five exhibitions of their photographs, over a fifteen year period, at leading museums worldwide including The National Portrait Gallery, London; The Victoria and Albert Museum, London; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. These shows led to a complete reassessment of their contribution to 20th Century photography and to their belated recognition, by critics and public alike, as a major force in the history of portrait photography.
'To me John was the Claude Levi-Strauss of glamour. He meticulously collected its thousand-and-one stories and images, and laboriously erected out of them cathedrals full of light and life and wisdom and humanity.' (Donald Lyons, Film Comment)
'Film is the only thing of any creative worth that this century has produced. If not, it is still providing the most fun' (John Kobal)
Extract from John Russell Taylor's introduction to "The Glamour of the Gods"- photographs from The John Kobal Foundation (published by Steidl in July 2008) (c) John Russell Taylor.
Not to be reproduced without the author's express written permission.
So what is John Kobal's final place in the history of cinema and cinema studies? Whatever it may be judged, it is certainly unique. Undeniably he wrote two classic books, The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers and People Will Talk - three if you include the (yet to be published) DeMille biography. It is relatively easy to evaluate a writer's work, but how do you define the importance of an archivist? Of John it can be said with certainty that he did something no one else had thought at that time to do. Initially it was by accident. Thousands, possibly millions, of crazed film fans in the Forties and Fifties must have collected every scrap of information, verbal and pictorial, about their special objects of veneration. But only John had interests so extensive, and an acquisitiveness so obsessive, that he could put together such an all-embracing collection, entirely for his own delectation
Equally, the Kobal Collection as it features in the credits of practically every nostalgically-inclined film programme on television arose initially by accident, and it took John a long time to recognise its business potential. By that time, in any case, he was internationally recognised, much to his own surprise, as a scholarly expert in his field, so that in 1979, for instance, he was commissioned to organize and catalogue the picture archive of the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. Without doubt, his major achievement in this field was the rediscovery and documentation of the classic studio photographers during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Serendipity played some part in this too: by accident, John's timing was spot on. When he became interested in the men behind the images, almost all of them were still alive and reachable. But it was John who realized their importance, sought them out, and was ready to acquire, preserve and protect hundreds of the original negatives at a time when no one else gave a damn about them. For those who knew him, John regularly tops their lists of "The Most Memorable Person I Ever Met". For those who didn't, one can best quote Sir Christopher Wren's tombstone: If You Seek His Monument, Look Around You."
John Kobal Bibliography
Raymond Durgnat and John Kobal, Greta Garbo, London and New York: Studio Vista/Dutton, 1965;
John Kobal, Marlene Dietrich, London and New York: Studio Vista/Dutton, 1968;
Daniel Blum, A New Pictorial History of the Talkies, Revised and enlarged by John Kobal, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1968;
John Kobal, Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, London: Hamlyn, 1970;
Michael & Clyde Jeavons with Special Picture Research by John Kobal, A Pictorial History of Westerns, Parkinson, London: Hamlyn, 1972;
Raymond Durgnat and John Kobal, Sexual Alienation in the Cinema; The Dynamics of Sexual Freedom, London: Studio Vista, 1972;
John Kobal, Gods & Goddesses of the Movies, General Editor Sheridan Morley; Introduction by Deborah Kerr.New York: Crescent Books, 1973;
Clyde Jeavons with Special Picture Research by John Kobal A Pictorial History of War Films, London: Hamlyn, 1973;
John Kobal, Romance and the Cinema, London: Studio Vista, 1973;
John Kobal, Marilyn Monroe, with Introduction by David Robinson, London: Hamlyn, 1974;
John Kobal, 50 Years of Movie Posters (spiral bound), with Introduction by David Robinson London: Hamlyn, 1974;
John Kobal, Spectacular: The Story of Epic Films (spiral bound), London: Hamlyn, 1974;
John Kobal, 50 Super Stars (spiral bound), with Introduction by John Russell Taylor, New York: Bounty Books, 1974;
John Kobal, Hollywood Glamour Portraits: 145 Photos of Stars 1926-1949, New York: Dover, 1976;
John Kobal, Rita Hayworth: The Time, the Place and the Woman, New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1977;
John Kobal, Movie Star Portraits of the Forties, New York: Dover, 1977;
Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, Hollywood: The Pioneers, New York: Harper Collins, 1979;
John Kobal, The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers 1925-1940, NY: Knopf, 1980;
John Kobal, Film Star Portraits of the Fifties, New York: Dover, 1980;
John Kobal, Hollywood Color Portraits, New York: William Morrow, 1981;
John Kobal, Great Film Stills of the German Silent Era, with Introduction by Lotte H. Eisner, New York: Dover, 1981;
John Kobal and V.A. Wilson, Foyer Pleasure: The Golden Age of Cinema Lobby Cards, London: Aurum, 1982;
John Kobal, Hollywood: The Years of Innocence, London: Thames & Hudson, 1985;
John Russell Taylor and John Kobal, Portraits of the British Cinema: 60 Glorious Years 1925-1985, London: Aurum Press, 1985;
John Kobal (General Editor), Legends: Gary Cooper, Essay by Richard Schickel,Boston: Little, Brown, 1985;
John Kobal (General Editor), Legends: Ingrid Bergman, Essay by Sheridan Morley, Boston: Little, Brown, 1985;
John Kobal, People Will Talk, New York: Knopf, 1986;
John Kobal (General Editor), Legends: Clark Gable, Essay by James Card,Boston: Little, Brown, 1986;
John Kobal (General Editor), Legends: Joan Crawford, Essays by Anna Raeburn, Ross Woodman on Hurrell's Crawford and Laszlo Willinger On Photographing Crawford, Boston: Little, Brown, 1986;
Victor Arwas and John Kobal, Frank Martin: Hollywood - Continental, London: Academy Editions, 1988;
John Kobal, John Kobal Presents the Top 100 Movies, New York: New American Library, 1988;
Terence Pepper and John Kobal, The Man Who Shot Garbo; The Hollywood Photographs of Clarence Sinclair Bull, with Introduction by Katharine Hepburn, London: Simon & Schuster, 1989;
John Kobal (Introduction to Artist's Catalogue), Bill Jacklin - Urban Portraits, New York: Marlborough Gallery, 1990