There are many stories that go untold, unheard, and unappreciated. Others, we accidentally stumble upon as I did on Jack Pashkowsky, who photographed Hollywood celebrities with the intimacy you do not find in many similar photographs you know. As I was looking for something to watch on Kanopy.com, I picked The Man Who Shot Hollywood, a short documentary on Jack Pashkowsky. Barry Avrich made the movie in touching notes to introduce a photographer who photographed many Hollywood celebrities but we’ve never heard of.
Jack Pashkowsky Loved Movies
A Russian immigrant who came to New York and then went to Hollywood to meet his heroes like Douglas Fairbanks and to become a cameraman of his dreams. As he narrates, he found out that only the cameramen’s sons can belong to the union! So, he picked up a still camera and started shooting in and out of the studios where he worked in various jobs. Pashkowsky never became famous yet he photographed many Hollywood celebrities of his time with their guard down because they knew him.
Life Among the Stars
To make a living, Pashkowsky worked as a photographer for the USAF, and might even have set up a studio for portrait photography. He also kept odd jobs at the movie studios which gave him access to his subjects. Along the way, he bought a movie camera and even made a movie that won an award at the Cannes Film Festival, Rhythm of The Rails, a movie about train travel. And, he says, “there is a rhythm to the rails, ta-ta-ta-dam, ta-ta-ta-dam, …”
He gets teary-eyed as he talks about his late wife Elly and a large photograph of her in his room, the love of his life for 54 years. The short documentary is about dreams unrealized but never shattered, hope never lost, and a life fully lived. As he talks about his life, there is never a sense of bitterness, he is perfectly content with his life, all the people he got to know and photograph, and now, being able to tell his stories to an eager listener. Pashkowsky spent his last years in a retirement home established by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, living among the stars he so admired. He died in his sleep in 2001, at the age of 89, and if it weren’t for the curious Avrich we would never have heard of Pashkowsky!
What appealed to me about his photographs was the intimacy he had with the stars. Gloria Swanson, Eleanor Powell, Carry Grant, and many others looked at him with a smile, unlike the smiles you might have seen in other famous photographers’ works. Their smiles reflected their familiarity and connection with Pashkowsky and their guards were down. This level of personal connection in a photograph makes the subject appear more human, more a person than the demigods we are accustomed to seeing, and their trust in Pashkowsky is always apparent.
The Man Who Shot Hollywood
Barry Avrich created the 13-minute documentary that will allow many to enjoy this unknown man’s amazing life. The narrative has many poignant moments as Jack tells the highlights of his life, including the negatives of hundreds of photographs that nobody has seen until then. Avrich, in addition to making the documentary, created an archive of Pashkowsky’s collection which can be viewed at the TIFF website.
The Man Who Shot Hollywood is available as a rental or for purchase from Amazon. You can watch a one-minute trailer there to get a sense of the short documentary. Barry Avrich also wrote an article for the Smithsonian back in 2004 about Pashkowsky providing more details.
I would like to thank Barry Avrich for making this documentary and preserving the works of Pashkowsky, I enjoyed them all. I also thank him for making the photographs available for me to use in this post. These photographs, which are used with permission, may not be used for other purposes without written permission from the copyright holder Barry Avrich.
Jack, it’s been a pleasure to meet you, albeit posthumously. Barry, thank you for introducing him to me and to others.