Grace, Life and Loomis

Grace: We all know her. She was luminous. Her time in Tinsel Town was truncated because she was soon wedded to a prince. Yet she still found time for some legendary movies – ‘High Noon’, ‘Rear Window’, ‘Dial M for Murder’ – and to win an Oscar for ‘Mogambo’. She met a tragic end in 1982. And he, Loomis, reflected the beauty of her and bought it into our lives.

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Life: I remember my family had a subscription for a while. I vaguely recall it as an Australian edition, but when I checked the ether I could find no mention of there being such a thing. For decades Life was the vehicle for the best in photojournalism world wide. It was also, I suspect, a contributory factor to my lifelong fascination with the photographic image. When I think back, I know I was always excited when it arrived in our mail box. I have a specific memory of taking an issue to the beach, to peruse, one summer’s day. That was long ago, that time of yore when ‘the beach was the place to go’ for myself as well as the Wilson Brothers. All this occurred in my youthful pre-uni Burnie days. Such quality, even then, would have been cruelly expensive to print and Life Magazine didn’t see much of the new millennium before folding – but, of course, on-line is the place to go these days for what this mag once provided. It started life (poor pun) in 1883, but it wasn’t until Henry Luce took over in 1936 that it gained its reputation for excellence. At its height Luce made sure it was staffed by the best in the business – and he, Loomis, was certainly up there in the mix. This employee, unlike some of his colleagues, wasn’t interested in the fripperies of camera-smithery. Just getting an image up to the standard the editors expected was his sole aim. He was the go-to guy when a photo of the greats of Hollywood or of European royalty was required. His bosses knew he would make them look human, accessible even – with just a hint of show-biz to mark them out from the rest of us. And he presented Grace to us, numerous times, via Life. And look at his capturings of her. Wasn’t she something? She was special and he only enhanced her specialness, turning her into the sublime.

Obituary photo of Loomis Dean.
Obituary photo of Loomis Dean.

Loomis: Good name, isn’t it. It’s his Christian name, not surname. Loomis Dean. Googling him, he often comes up as Dean Loomis, but that’s not right. Loomis Dean it is.

Grace’s photographic capturer was born in Florida in 1917. His dad ran a museum celebrating circuses – and that was an early fascination for Loomis too as a lad. Circuses were big business back then – having their own museums, schools even. In fact Loomis studied at one – the Ringling Bros Art School. He couldn’t draw to save himself, but he later stated it gave him an eye for composition. He then moved on to engineering – and that was even less to his liking. But during that time came his light-bulb moment when a fellow student took him into his darkroom and Loomis watched as a print emerged from a bath of chemicals. He was hooked. He was soon enrolling at the Mechanics Institute of Rochester, NY to study at its famous photography department. On graduation, what was his first job? Why, working as a camera-snapper for circuses. With Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey he started to develop his signature style, a style a critic once described as ‘…photography with a twinkle in the eye.’ Then along came the war and he signed up with the army air force – as an aerial photographer. This had the side effect of giving him a life long fear of flying. Of course many future assignments meant doing just that.

After the war he started off doing some freelance work and soon came on Life’s radar. His second commission for them landed him a coveted cover – and it was so Loomis, a giraffe peering over the shoulder of a clown. Yes, he had been commissioned to do a series on circuses. Realising his talent, the editors at Life soon had him on permanent staff, operating out of their LA office. He didn’t take a backward step after that. He was the first photographer at the scene when the liner Andrea Doria went down in the Atlantic. He photographed Hemingway in his beloved Spain not long before his self-induced death. His crowning glory was to convince a mad Englishman, Noel Coward, to indeed go out, dressed to the nines, into the midday sun of Nevada to help promote a certain song into being a world-wide hit.

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In all Loomis Dean contributed fifty-two covers for Life. He left the organisation in 1961 only to return five years later. He stayed with them until 1969, then again went freelance. One of his favourite jobs later in his career was a gig as set photographer for James Bond movies.

In 2005 he passed away, aged 88. Just before his death he was asked what was the greatest moment in a long, illustrious career. He answered it was a photograph from a series he did on the Vatican. The Pope, Paul VI, obviously liked it too for he awarded LD a medal for it as well as granting him an audience. The snap in question showed white-robed bishops, bearing the Pope’s tiara, marching through St Peter’s Square.

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This camera-smith had, in the days before television really took a stranglehold on the public’s imagination, one of the most glamorous jobs in the business. Although he hobnobbed with the world’s glitterati, he never lost his common touch. He was just as happy capturing images of, as he put it, the ‘…ski bums and the beach bums…’ of his world. He loved people of any persuasion and his photos, whether they be of rich or poor, demonstrate his affinity with all humankind – that’s what really shines. And he certainly made Grace shine for Life – and I thank him for that.

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An on-line Loomis Dean gallery =

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