'Always an insomniac, he used to pass the night playing a game of solitaire with photographs of movie stars by throwing them from his bed to the floor to see who came out on top. Sometimes Joan Crawford fell on top of Bette Davis, sometimes Margaret Sullavan came out on top. All three of them were favourites of Kobal and he knew all of them - in the movies, in the flesh and in stills. It was insomnia and his game that led him to organise what is now the Kobal Collection, one of the biggest stills libraries in the world. There is hardly a book on film published today, or a programme about the movies on television, that does not bear the name of the collection as source material.'
But Kobal had a much more influential role in photography than a purely commercial one. Over the years, his personal expertise, together with a growing private collection of vintage and contemporary prints and negatives, made him a respected collector and historian.
One of his greatest achievements was the revival of critical and public interest in the work of the Hollywood portrait photographers working from the 1920s to the 1950s. Kobal introduced us to George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull and Laszlo Willinger, whose soft-focus portraits of stars such as Garbo, Dietrich and Gable are so familiar today, through his books - more than 30 in all - and through the series of exhibitions he mounted at major international museums in London, Paris, Venice, New York, Washington and Los Angeles.
It was to continue his work in this area that he had made his own, and to encourage portrait photography internationally, that Kobal planned to set up a charitable foundation, using his private collection as a financial basis, which would further the excellence of portrait photography and which could give grants and awards to deserving photographers. He died before the foundation was officially recog- nised, but he left the responsibility for its formation in the hands of a group of respected trustees who, at the end of last year, succeeded in setting up the John Kobal Foundation as a registered charity.
Their first aim was to establish an annual International Portrait Award, open to all photographers over the age of 18, which would further the technical and artistic understanding and appreciation of portrait photography, and which would one day become the most important photography prize in the country. The Independent on Sunday has joined the Foundation as sponsors of the prize and we are very pleased to announce the opening of the first
John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award today.
The prize money will be pounds 5,000, divided between
one or more winners. The first prize will not be
less than pounds 3,000.
'Portrait' in this case is defined in the widest sense - 'photographs portraying people with emphasis on their identity as individuals' - ie,
people-based pictures. The trustees hope in the future that the award will encourage technical innovations and in later years, at the discretion of the judges, a separate prize may be given by the Foundation for the photograph that successfully furthers the medium of portrait photography.
The judges will be Zelda Cheatle, of the Zelda Cheatle Gallery; Angela Flowers of the Angela Flowers Gallery; Sir Eduardo Paolozzi; Terence Pepper, Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and Liz Jobey, Editor of the Independent on Sunday Review.
The National Portrait Gallery has been enthusiastic in its support of the Award and has agreed to host the prize-giving ceremony in June. The 50 best photographs will then be on exhibition for two weeks at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery, 8 Cecil Court, London WC2. The winning photographs will be printed in the Independent on Sunday Review on the Sunday prior to the prize-giving.-
For rules, conditions and entry forms, please
One of John Kobal's earliest memories, he said, was sneaking into a Rita Hayworth movie being shown to the forces of occupation in a hall next to his grand- mother's house in Salzburg. He was born in Austria in 1940 but emigrated to Canada with his parents when he was 10. At 18, already passionate about film, he tried his luck as an actor in New York, but soon landed up in rep in England, where he scoured markets and second-hand bookshops for film memorabilia. He returned to New York in 1964, to become film correspondent for BBC Radio's 'Movie Go Round'. In Hollywood, the studios were in transition, closing down offices and discarding old photographs. Kobal added to what was turning into a world-class library. He was also building a private collection of prints and negatives and, living in London, began to write books on photography and film. Before his death he had published over 30 titles and was established as the leading authority on Hollywood portraiture.