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Thursday, March 18, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shooting Stars -- Peter Stackpole, One Of Life's Original Photographers, Made A Name For Himself Through His Hollywood Focus

"Masters of Photojournalism," photographs by Peter Stackpole, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Carl Mydans, Nina Leen, Andreas Feininger, Dmitri Kessel and Leonard McCombe, opening 5:30 to 7:30 tonight (to April 14), at the Circle Gallery, 2001 Western Ave. 443-9242. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

When Peter Stackpole shot a 1933 fight by heavyweight champion Max Baer, using the light available at ringside, his editors at the Oakland Post-Enquirer hated it. They weren't used to candid shots. Like other newspapers around the world, they preferred carefully posed pictures of people shaking hands.

They fired Stackpole.

"Years later, what I did became known as photojournalism," Stackpole said. He's in Seattle for a show of his work, and that of six other masters of the trade at the Circle Gallery.

Stackpole began work for the Oakland Post-Enquirer when he was in high school. "It was during the Depression," he recalled. "They could get kids to work as apprentices for nothing. I did sports, murders, you name it, using a 35-millimeter Leica." In those days, nearly all newspaper photographers used larger-format Speedgraphic or Graphlex cameras.

Not until later, when Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson championed 35mm photography did the Leica come into wider use. "World War II made the real difference," Stackpole said. "They sent photographers out to cover the war carrying Speedgraphics, and it made them sitting ducks." The switch to 35mm cameras was on.

In 1935, when he was just 22, Stackpole was asked to join California's Group F/64, a group of Bay Area photographers that included Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham.

The following year he was hired as one of Life magazine's original four photographers, with Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White and Thomas McAvoy. Stackpole had caught their attention with a shot of then-President Herbert Hoover nodding off during a speech.

A 1992 book on his work, "Peter Stackpole: Life in Hollywood 1936-1952," published by Clark City Press, tells the story this way:

"Henry Luce was dreaming of adding a new magazine to his stable. They weren't sure whether to call it Dime, Pic, Look, or See, but finally they settled on Life. Stackpole recalls the first meeting in New York, on the top floor of the Chrysler Building, then the home of Time Inc. His pictures were passed around and examined by all of the editors. Luce, Stackpole says, spoke in a sort of staccato voice, his words nearly gibberish.

" `The man had such an active mind that his words didn't flow in sync with what he was thinking,' Stackpole remembers, `but he was a man of vision and innovation.' "

Stackpole was sent to Hollywood to capture the Golden Age of the movies.

He shot the 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, a girl who loved horses. He did a series on Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth at home. Directors at work. Parties. And starlets, starlets, starlets.

Stackpole's most dramatic moment happened in 1941, when he was assigned to rendezvous with Errol Flynn's yacht Sirocco to take underwater pictures of Flynn spearing fish.

"I used to be a kind of beach bum between assignments, but it never occurred to me to take underwater pictures," Stackpole said. "I'd never seen an underwater camera. Fins weren't invented yet, and face masks were few. I had a friend make up a plastic box to hold my oldest, most expendable Leica."

Aboard the yacht, Flynn fitted him with a pair of hand-carved wooden goggles to use underwater, and he met another guest: a beautiful young girl Flynn introduced as "Peggy LaRue." Stackpole got 15 decent shots before his camera flooded. One shot, of Flynn climbing the mast of the Sirocco, is included in the Circle Gallery show.

Three years later the girl, then identified as Peggy Satterlee, accused Flynn of raping her that day on the yacht. Stackpole knew only that she and Flynn had spent much of the time after his dive below deck, while Stackpole and crew members stayed on top. Flynn had asked Stackpole to drive her home when the boat docked, because he had an earache from diving. On the way home, Stackpole said, he could see that Satterlee was angry with Flynn, but she said nothing to Stackpole about what had happened.

Humphrey Bogart tipped Stackpole off that the studio was thinking of making him the fall guy, by bribing the doorman at Peggy's apartment building to testify that Stackpole hadn't dropped her off until 3 a.m. Stackpole said he let a studio publicist know that if they did that, he was likely to remember other things about that day that could be embarrassing to Flynn.

Flynn eventually was acquitted.

"It was politics," Stackpole now says. "The district attorney was after Warner Bros. Studios because they had endorsed somebody else for D.A."

Looking back, Stackpole says, "I don't think I'd like Hollywood now. I don't know anything about these new people like Jack Nicholson."

At the prime of Life, during the the 1950s, the magazine had 38 photographers. Stackpole said he realized the magazine's dominance would end when he saw how easily TV cameras maneuvered around the 1950-'51 Senate hearings on crime syndicates, giving people instantaneous reporting on what was happening.

Stackpole retired in 1961. He moved with his wife, Hebe, to Oakland. There, as he was preparing for a 1991 retrospective of his work at the Oakland Museum, his redwood home went up in flames in the great Oakland fire.

All of his Hollywood photos, and photos he shot during World War II, went up in flames. Thousands of negatives were reduced to rubble and ash. So was art by his father, Ralph Stackpole, a noted sculptor, along with art by his father's good friend, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

When Rivera painted a mural at the San Francisco stock exchange in 1929, he made young Peter Stackpole a central figure in the mural - a young boy holding up a small plane. A boy just getting started in the world.

At 79, after the fire, Stackpole started over. Today, at 81, he doesn't need to go to Hollywood to find stars. He's the star.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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