In the days before World War I, Clarence Sinclair Bull took his first photograph — of a ladder leaning against a building on his father’s ranch south of Sun River, using a camera he bought in a Great Falls hardware store.
Not too many years after that, he was photographing Hollywood’s elite.
For more than 30 years, the former Montana ranch boy headed the still photo department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios. He was the only man for whom Greta Garbo would pose for a photographic portrait. Thousands of his photos of movie greats appeared in newspapers and magazine and on theater marquees around the world.
Bull, who retired in 1961, ascribed some of his success with the temperamental stars, supporting players, directors and executives of Hollywood to his ability to stay calm — and smile.
“The dimples I so hated as a kid paid dividends, it seems,” he said to Film Comment in 1970.
The natural curiosity of his frontier upbringing in the wide and demanding openness of Montana, too, seemed to pay dividends for Bull.
Bull’s grandfather, Charles A. Bull, was a pioneer of the Sun River country west of Great Falls. He came to Montana Territory and the new town of Sun River in 1867, from Indiana. Bull’s father, also named Charles A. Bull, was born in 1874 at Sun River, where Clarence Sinclair Bull was born in 1896. In 1895, Charles A. Bull Jr. was editor of the short-lived Rising Sun, a weekly newspaper.
“My grandfather had a sort of trading post,” Bull said in an oral interview preserved in the archives of the Montana Historical Society. “It was in this building that the Rev. W.W. Van Orsdel (the circuit-riding Methodist known widely as Brother Van) conducted his first services in Sun River in June, 1872. Perhaps my grandpa could have been trying to square his whisky business. Much of the Sun River water ended up in whisky barrels, and I imagine 40 proof would have been high for bar whisky. My dad did not smoke or drink. His father allowed him to attend a smoker held at the Sun River place. Dad tried one of grandpa’s special cigars, which I’ve been told were black and potent. Three days later dad was almost normal. That ended smoking. He tried some of the whisky granddad kept around (without addition of river water) with similar results.”
Bull’s father went to school in Sun River and later his grandmother sent him to study law at the University of Michigan. She “wanted him to carry on the tradition of the eastern branch of the Bull family,” which boasted a number of “Judge Bulls.” Although he graduated with honors in 1894, Bull said of his father, “it was a waste of time; he never practiced law. He was a natural born civil engineer and should have studied that. In fact, he surveyed some minor irrigation projects with crude instruments that worked well, and I believe still do.”
While in Michigan, the younger Charles A. Bull met and married Belle Sinclair, a Scotch-Canadian school teacher. When he graduated, they moved West and stayed on the Bull ranch at Sun River. Several years after Clarence Bull’s birth, his parents moved to another Bull ranch east of Cascade, on the Missouri River.
“My mother had become a true Western woman and could ride, drive four horses and shoot very well,” Bull related. “Dad and his older brothers filed on homesteads about five miles south of Sun River town and just east of Square Butte —the Cascade County butte, not the one in Chouteau County, he said.
“My mother also filed a desert claim. They leased a school section and did a fairly good cattle-raising business until the blizzard of May, 1908, wiped out half their herds. My dad sold out and we moved back to Sun River, where he went to work in B.A. Robertson’s store.
“Before we left the ranch I was exposed to photography. An aunt from Glendive came to visit us when I was about 10 years old. We had a partly completed house, with a ladder fastened to the front. She took some pictures of the place. When the prints came back, the ladder was gone. That got me. I hadn’t heard about retouching.”
Bull’s father started a store of his own in Sun River, and was postmaster of the Sun River post office from 1908 to 1944. He also built houses for farmers and managed a grain elevator. Bull started to help his father build houses the summer after his first year in high school. It didn’t last long, he recalled.
“Dad said I spent more time taking slivers out of my hands than pounding nails, so I worked in the store at his request.”
Young Bull still was “wondering about that box that could do away with ladders,” so he sold the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines to earn money to buy his first camera, from Murphy-Maclay Hardware Co. in Great Falls.
“First thing I photographed was a ladder against a building, but the ladder was still there when I got the prints,” Bull said. “I still hadn’t heard about retouching.”
One of the first photos Bull recalled that he took in Great Falls was of the public library, in 1910. In 1912, Bull took photos in the Sun River Valley west of Great Falls, including a plowing scene at Lowry, west of Simms. Years later, he shared his early action pictures taken in Sun River. In one 1916 photo, Bert Vedder, rider for the F Ranch of W.K. Floweree, shows his style as a bronc buster.
Bull completed grade school in Sun River and went to high school in Great Falls. “After school hours in Great Falls I did chores for the Ridgley Calendar Co., which was printing Charlie Russell’s paintings. I met Russell, who encouraged me to paint or sketch, but we both gave up. From Great Falls I went to the University of Michigan. School hours were such that I could work three hours a day for a photographer who had a camera store, dark rooms and all. By now I had found out where that ladder on the old ranch house had gone.
“First I bought a fine imported camera and then a Graflex (a fine press camera of the time). On vacations in Sun River these cameras paid off with good action pictures, as well as financially. I had learned how to operate a motion picture camera. In fact, I was tossed off the football field at the University of Michigan for going out with the players to cover the game. But I was given a $75 bonus for my shots. That sold me on photography. The summer I graduated from college I met Mrs. Frank Lloyd, wife of the top director in Hollywood.”
The British-born Lloyd tallied approximately 135 film credits, including ‘Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Cavalcade” and “The Divine Lady.” Bull said Lloyd’s wife “encouraged me to go to California and the movies. My dad took a dim view of the idea but my mother was on my side, so I left for movieland.”
Bull started out as first cameraman, and then moved up to director of photography. After a merger formed the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Co., he was given the choice of being laid off or running the still photo department and making portraits. He accepted the job and operated the department for MGM for more than 30 years.
Acknowledged as the dean of Hollywood’s still photographers, Bull’s portraits of film stars such as Jean Harlow and Clark Gable did as much to bring the actresses and actors before the public as the movies in which they appeared. In July 1959, the Photographers Association of America awarded Bull the degree of Honorary Master of Photography, highest honor in the field. His exhibits have hung in salons and art galleries in the United States and in Europe. He won the famed Academy of Arts and Sciences award.
“All of my awards I received meant little compared to my dad’s words in 1956,” Bull told a Cascade County newspaper in the 1970s. “He told me, ‘I’m damn proud of you.’”
In addition to his career as a photographic artist, according to the biography “The Man Who Shot Garbo,” Bull pioneered many technical advances in photography.
“His inventions and improvements on existing equipment include a new type lens shade, improved shutter synchronizer, camera monostand, film washing machine, negative numbering and identifying system and a color background process.”
He died on June 8, 1979, in Los Angeles.