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Matinee: 'Howard Mandelbaum's Photofest' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

21 February 2015

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the seventy-third in our series of Saturday matinees today: Howard Mandelbaum's Photofest.

This New York Lives TV production is an all-too-brief seven and half minutes long. The program notes only hint at the treasures about to be revealed:

Howard Mandelbaum is a photo collector, author, and co-founder of Photofest, an entertainment photo archive on East 31st Street specializing in film, television and theater stills, and housing well over two million hard copy images, many of them very rare.

He founded the archive in the early 1980s with film historian and fellow collector Carlos Clarens, who died in 1987.

So, no, he's not a photographer. But with the Oscars tomorrow, what better way to start the party than with some glamorous Hollywood stills of yesteryear? And Mandelbaum has millions of them. Two million prints and slides, he estimates, collected over many years and stored in four-drawer filing cabinets and shelves of binders.

His company Photofest provides them for editorial use only, since he doesn't have the copyright for any of them. But he's happy to show you a few.

Collecting is an addiction, Mandelbaum admits. He grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when movies were being screened on TV, so he got an education in the art without leaving the house. Those days, he could come into the city to buy publicity stills for 50 cents or a dollar. And he did.

He thinks the best period was in the 1980s and 1990s when magazines were still going strong. "I thought it would go on forever. But somehow when the century flipped, it seems that the public got younger and less interested in what came before," he remembers.

"There are young people who have no idea who the Beatles are. It's scary. And things move so quickly, the Spice Girls are already nostalgia," he says.

These days the studios don't distribute hard copies any more, everything is digital. You can't hug the prints (gently) any more. You can't collect them, he says.

After picked out a few of his choicest black and white prints filed in manila folders in those filing cabinets, he wanders over to the shelves of binders full of color slides.

That leads to a discussion of the inevitable attempt to digitize the collection. "That's just impossible. You'd need a whole army of slaves. Bring back the pharoahs."

You can just barely make out an Epson desktop scanner and Photoshop CS3 Extended hard at work on building the pyramids.

There is, he says, still one corner of the entertainment industry that relies on publicity stills. The theater. "It's a temptation, though, to buy the obscure shows, just because they should be preserved," he admites.

In addition to taking a peek at the prints over his shoulder, quite a few are displayed full screen in all their digital glory. They really are stunning. Impeccable makeup, not a hair out of place, no expense spared in lighting the perfect poses. Beauty idealized.

A few minutes of that should get you in the mood for the little golden statuette tomorrow.

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