Eames Archives: On a Hollywood Set

When Charles and Ray first moved to Los Angeles in 1941, Charles worked as a set designer for MGM. The job at MGM introduced Charles to director Billy Wilder, and Billy undeniably became fast friends with him and Ray. By 1949, the Eameses accompanied Billy and his wife Audrey Young on their honeymoon and designed a home for the newlyweds—intended for a site in Beverly Hills, but left unbuilt.

From time to time, Wilder invited Charles and Ray to come on set during his filmmaking. Charles became aware that they learned more about architecture from being on Wilder’s sets than they did about filmmaking itself. With their own cameras in tow, they documented set designs on the studio lot and on location, Wilder and his crew, camera and lighting equipment, scaffolding, wardrobe, makeup, props, and other behind-the-scenes elements of television and cinema. The result was hundreds of images of a world usually kept private—as to not demystify Hollywood’s illusion.

The image presented features Audrey Hepburn on the set of Wilder’s 1954 film Sabrina. Most photographers, when given a chance to be on a movie set with Hepburn in a lead role, would be tempted to photograph the talent more than other aspects of the setting. Who wouldn’t snap a full-framed photo of Audrey Hepburn when presented with the opportunity?

Instead, Charles took an unusual image of Audrey: parts of her face and arms are exposed, but the rest of her frame is hiding behind staging equipment. Why? Because he and Ray were more interested in the workings of a set than they were with the “Hollywood” aspects of it (the actors and actresses). It was the structure and the process of Wilder’s filmmaking, alongside a deep appreciation for unself-conscious tool design, that was more appealing to the Eameses. 

This photograph has a subtle visual lesson that Charles and Ray repeated countless times, like in their film Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair. The film presents two dozen Eames Fiberglass Side Chairs and Armchairs in numerous colors and positions; they filmed alternating scenes of the chairs through the lens of a kaleidoscope. The viewer sees fragmented and abstracted versions of the chairs recognized from previous frames. The chair design’s structure is boiled down to its most basic elements: the metal legs, the texture and curves of the seat, and the colors of the fiberglass shells.

In the photo of Audrey Hepburn, Charles captured her most recognizable traits while leaving most of her body obstructed by large equipment. The output isn’t nearly as abstracted as if shot through a kaleidoscope, but it is clear that the focus of Charles and Ray’s attention wasn’t placed only on her identity. Instead, the viewer is left to concentrate on the essential structural elements of filmmaking: a blurred set background, the camera and lights situated in the correct positioning, and the talent readying themselves for action.

Read the introduction to the Eames Archives: An Image as an Idea series here and stay tuned for monthly installments.