Shooting stars: A dazzling new exhibition explores how Hollywood exploits the power of photography

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The Independent Culture

It's the stuff of fantasy: a photograph of Joan Crawford with liquid eyes and flawless skin, her strong bone structure casting sculptural shadows across her face. There is no context, no setting: it is simply a close-up of her perfectly beautiful face. Crawford's troubled character is not apparent in these photographs, nor is her battle with alcohol; the ravages of life are painted over with clever lighting and a thick concealer.

The photograph was taken by George Hurrell, head of portrait photography at MGM Studios in 1930. In those days, Hollywood studios employed full-time photographers who were responsible for creating a star's image. Those were the days of high glamour, when young women became sophisticated princesses, their allure heightened by their unattainability. Hurrell also moulded the images of Jean Harlow, Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth. He spent hours with his subjects, perfecting their look. Their public persona was a creation, a brand, an image on to which people could project their fantasies and desires. They were not meant to reflect reality, or reveal anything about the women's real character – it was all made up.

Yet, as time progressed, audiences and photographers tired of these images of idealised beauty. There was a place for pure glamour in fashion and society magazines, but now people wanted something more real, they wanted to know who their stars really were.

An exhibition of photographs opening next week in Bradford explores how a star is made, and how that process has changed over the years, from the early Hollywood glamour portraits to more revealing journalistic photographs and the rise of the paparazzo image.

"The most obvious change in our relationship with stars is the growth of the celebrity industry. The old Hollywood stars would rarely be photographed shopping or out with their kids. Their image was tightly controlled. Now, it's difficult to know when stars are on or off duty. Images of celebrities falling out of nightclubs will be captured by paparazzi and on the web in a few hours," says Michael Harvey, curator at Bradford's National Media Museum.

In 1958, Crawford was photographed by the Magnum photographer Eve Arnold. The photograph is called Dress Fitting, and a girdle encases Crawford's now matronly figure. It is a decidedly unglamorous shot that reveals the artifice behind the image of a star. There are more from this series, shot while Crawford was starring in The Best of Everything. There's Crawford lying on a massage bed, her head swaddled in cloth and a thick, white beauty mask covering her skin. There are close-ups of her eyelashes being curled and lipstick applied. In contrast to Hurrell's images, these are grotesque, which is why they are so interesting.

Arnold's photographs may be revealing, but Crawford was not unaware of the camera, and she had agreed to be photographed. It was Greta Garbo, in the years before the Second World War, who was one of the first to suffer at the lens of the paparazzo. Already obsessed with celebrity love affairs, the press was speculating about her relationship with the musician Leopold Stokowski. Photographers waited outside her apartment block, with their long lenses pointed towards her balcony. Garbo, a notoriously private person, was so infuriated by this intrusion that she came downstairs with a bow and arrow and began shooting at the paparazzi, ironically giving them perfect fodder for their shots. On the back of these images, photographers have scribbled the words she shouted at them: "I want to be left alone." She was the first star to have paparazzi planes fly over her house, trying to snatch a shot of her in the garden, with her lover.

When Diana Dors first arrived in Hollywood, she threw a party. She was never shy of publicity and there were photographers among the guests. The only problem was that, other then the few predictable famous faces, there was not much to photograph: nothing was going on. To liven it up, a photographer pushed a couple of guests in the swimming pool. The victims were understandably outraged, there was a fight, Dors was in the shot, and the photographer got his pictures, which were published worldwide.

In 1955, at the Venice film festival, Dors pulled an equally spectacular stunt. She told the British photographer Cornel Lucas to wait on the corner by the Grand Canal, near St Mark's Square. Moments later, Dors appeared riding in a gondola, wearing a robe, which she removed to reveal a skimpy bikini made of mink. She posed sexily – and Lucas took this now famous picture.

Photographs of Elizabeth Taylor in 1961 as she was leaving hospital in a wheelchair, recovering from thrombosis, show how the paparazzi were now in full swing. A tiny figure in a wheelchair, only the top of Taylor's head is visible within the crowd, which fills the picture frame and is almost entirely made up of men in dark suits, holding cameras high and close to get the shot; the reel of a film camera is visible at the side. On the hospital steps, a nurse wearing white stands over the crowd, wringing her hands as she watches Taylor depart, the actress's fragility intensified by the scrum surrounding her.

In the same year, Arnold shot Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits. Monroe's public persona was that of a breathless bimbo, a sexpot, the complexity and intelligence of her nature concealed beneath a public mask. Arnold's photographs revealed something of the woman. The image on show in Bradford is a poignant one: it was the year before Monroe's death and John Huston's film was to be her last. She is standing alone in the desert, a harsh empty landscape. There is a large microphone on wheels to one side; even the filming equipment appears stark and bleak. Monroe stands with her hands to her mouth, her attention focused inwards. She is going over her lines in preparation for a scene with Clark Gable, yet all the uncertainty and insecurity of her character is apparent on her face. She has the demeanour of a young girl, anxious to please and convinced she will fail.

In most of the images we see here, there is a kind of creepiness about our obsession with celebrities, our need for them, their need for us, the way we idolise them and then cut them down when they fail to live up to our ideals. We tire of them when they become fat or depressed or old. They must, in some way, capture our imagination and appeal to our fantasies. There's an image of Rock Hudson, taken in 1957 by the Life magazine photographer Bob Willoughby, on the set of A Farewell to Arms. He is having a few moments off in his trailer, sitting at a desk working on a typewriter. There's a gaggle of young women at the window, staring in at him, their faces pressed right up to the glass. Their expressions are adoring and ecstatic. It's not difficult to feel sorry for they guy, being gawped at like a beast in the zoo. It looks like an oppressive kind of admiration, unrelenting and cloying: even more so in his case, now that we know the truth about his sexuality. Yet it was part of the deal and without it he would have had neither riches nor fame. He was as complicit in the charade as everyone else.

Live by the Lens, Die by the Lens, National Media Museum, Bradford (0870 70 10 200), 20 June to 28 September