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The Life and Legacy of Bob Peak

The poster dates back to the early 19th century, and since its early days with the work of Henry Toulouse-Latrec, it has continually evolved. From the Art Nouveau period of Alphonse Mucha and Henry van de Velde, to the age of Erté and Art Deco, to Andy Warhol and pop art, to today’s Shephard Fairey and his contemporaries, the poster has become the leading form of art for the Modern Age -- both respected in artistic circles, and appreciated worldwide by the commercial masses.

Film is an art form now in its second century, and for nearly as long as there have been movies, there have been posters to promote them. It may take considerably longer for the movie poster to garner the same degree of artistic appreciation, but it has its due champions.

It also has its creative titans. Rene Carron, Reynold Brown, Howard Terpning, Heinz Schulz-Neudamm, Roger Kastel, Richard Amsel, John Alvin, and Drew Struzan are just a few of the talents whose work helped shape the way we experience – and anticipate – the movies. But a sound academic argument could be made for two movie poster artists to be placed above the rest, at least in terms of overall influence and historical importance within the 20th century. Those men were Saul Bass and Bob Peak.

Bass’ work is best described as graphic design, featuring bold shapes, colors, patterns, photographs, and typography. Popular examples are the swirling geometric shapes in his poster for Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, the bold iconography of his posters for SPARTACUS and EXODUS, and the eerie, hand-drawn title that makes up the minimalist poster of Kubrick’s THE SHINING.

Bob Peak’s work, however, embodies the epitome of traditional, hand-drawn illustration, and is the focus of this post. One can not overstate Peak’s influence, both creatively and within the public consciousness. Nor can he be described as just a movie poster artist. Peak’s output ran the advertising gamut of fashion, style, sportscars, cigarettes, high life and chic living. I suspect MAD MEN’s Don Draper owes much of his acquired persona and taste to the images Bob Peak produced. So, too, do an untold number of illustrators whose work mirrored Peak’s style and approach.

And then, of course, there are the movie posters. WEST SIDE STORY, MY FAIR LADY, CAMELOT, THE MISSOURI BREAKS, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and APOCALYPSE NOW – images that presented the best elements of the films themselves, and often exceeded them in quality.

Peak died in 1992, resulting from a tragic accident. In many ways, movie poster art died with him. The demand for traditional poster illustration was diminishing even before Richard Amsel’s death in late 1985, and in its wake came the rise of the digital age, Photoshop, and floating heads.

In my interviews with those who knew Richard Amsel personally, nearly all of them recalled how the artist often admitted his love of (and creative debt towards) Bob Peak’s work. Certainly Peak’s influence is apparent in many of Amsel’s early pieces, including the poster for HELLO DOLLY. Even if the two men competed for some film projects (THE DARK CRYSTAL, MAME, FUNNY LADY), Amsel always held Peak in very high regard.

Since the documentary’s start, I knew it would be essential to interview Bob Peak’s son, Thomas, to discuss his late father’s work and influence – particularly since it so directly tied in to Richard Amsel’s. Tom has spent the last few years archiving and promoting Peak’s work, including producing several art gallery retrospectives (most notably at Glendale Forest Lawn and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences). His most challenging undertaking, however, has been designing and publishing two lavishly produced books on his father’s art: The Art of Bob Peak and The Drawings of Bob Peak.

I own copies of both, and it’s obvious that the books were truly labors of love. The former book, in particular, beautifully encapsulates Peak’s varied and remarkable career. The latter book reveals many sketches that have never been published before, and sheds some light on the artist’s creative process.

I’ve met Tom several times over the years, and we’ve had many discussions about both his father’s work and Tom’s personal efforts in getting these books made. Developing and publishing them was a massive undertaking, involving considerable time and great personal investment. So when Tom expressed his support for my Amsel documentary – and my hopes to preserve the artist’s legacy, even if it meant spending every dime I had – it really meant the world to me. Who, more than Tom, could ever understand the creative challenges and personal risks of undertaking such a project?

“I had no idea that I could do this,” Tom said about the books. “You know, when I started the (first) book, I didn’t even know what an end paper was. … But it was something I had to do. I’m really proud of it.

“My dad always used to tell illustrators -- artists – when they were at a crossroads, and said ‘Should I continue doing this or not?’ And my dad would say, ‘If you have to, you will, and if you don’t, you won’t.’ And I looked at this and said it was something I had to do.”

Pep talks don’t get much better than that.

The interview was conducted at the Pop Secret Gallery in Eagle Rock, California, which is also home to The Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. It’s a magnificent place, compact but filled to the brim with original paintings, prints, art and illustration books, and a special gallery in the back. Tom and I owe many, many thanks to owner / director Scott Gandell for letting us use it for filming. It was especially choice, as several prints of Bob Peak’s work were on prominent display.

While Tom’s interview focused primarily on his dad’s work, he also shared a lot of insight into the art of the movie poster, and Amsel’s oeuvre in particular. While Amsel never met his creative idol, there was something of an unspoken mentorship he had from afar with the elder Peak. I always found it regrettable that the two men never met face to face.

Tom also discussed how Amsel’s work, in turn, would go on to influence other artists. We both lamented how traditional illustration was lost in the rise of the Photoshop era – which prompted me to ask Tom if he thought his father would have ever taken to using the digital medium.

“I can honestly say my dad was a painter and an artist in the sense of the old style. … My father would have definitely not gone into the computer. He loved the idea of painting."

Tom is part of a very creative family legacy. In addition to designing the books, he is a gifted photographer. His younger brother, Matthew Joseph Peak, is an accomplished illustrator and fine artist in his own right – famous for his movie posters of the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, and numerous soundtrack album covers for Varese Sarabande.

More on the work of Bob Peak can be found at:

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