FOCUS ON: GEORGE HURRELL
Updated: Oct 25, 2019
“A Hurrell portrait is to the ordinary publicity still what a Rolls-Royce is to a roller-skate.” Esquire Magazine, 1938
"The man who invented Hollywood glamour." Time Magazine
"It's all so simple – no one believes me … you strike a pose, then you light it. Then you clown around and get some action in the expressions. Then, you shoot." George Hurrell
George Hurrell is regarded as the master of glamour photography. He immortalised the the stars of Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1980s; his subjects encompassing the cream of Hollywood and the legends of entertainment. From Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Jean Harlow, and later in his career, icons such as Freddie Mercury and Paul McCartney, Hurrell was the name synonymous with the immortalisation of glamour.
With roots in England (his paternal grandfather was from Essex), he was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1904 into a family of shoe makers. Originally a painter, he had no interest in photography, and only acquired a camera as a means to photograph potential landscapes to paint.
In the 1925, Hurrell moved to Laguna Beach to pursue his painting career. Struggling to make ends meet, he found that photographing artists and their works paid better than painting did; although he kept this as a sideline, still intending to pursue his career as a fine artist.
Whilst he was living in Laguna Beach, he met and became close friends with the daring aviator and socialite Pancho Barnes, who asked him to take some photographs of her. She particularly wanted the images to look ambiguous as to whether she was male or female in order to gain her pilot's licence (at a time when females couldn't learn to fly in the USA). Hurrell happily obliged; and this is where an entirely different career began to take shape.
Pancho Barnes was friends with Ramon Navarro, a world famous silent movie star who was under contract with MGM. Navarro was concerned about the coming of talkies, worried that his Mexican accent would not be received well by audiences. He did, however, have another talent - his voice - and decided to have shots taken to promote himself as an opera singer. Because he was under contract, he could not be photographed by any photographer other than MGM. Pancho Barnes suggested Hurrell as a man who was good with a camera, who was not a well known photographer - and therefore could photograph him privately.
“I have never seen you photographed so beautifully.” Norma Shearer to Ramon Navarro
“Yes, Hurrell captured my mood exactly.” Navarro to Shearer
When Navarro received his photos, he was so impressed with them he showed them to a friend of his, the actress Norma Shearer. Shearer in turn was extremely impressed, at a time when she needed new portraits to refresh her own career and promote her as more of a provocative, voluptuous character as opposed to the wholesome girl next door characters she been type cast as. No studio would allow her to do it. She engaged Hurrell to take shots for her. Hurrell also had a natural skill for posing; Shearer had a straying eye which Hurrell noticed could be disguised with the right pose. When Shearer's husband, the MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, saw the photos and the transformation of his wife, he immediately offered him a contract as the head pf the portrait photography department. This upset many of the other photographers employed there, who all felt they had much more training and experience then this painter who didn't seem to really care much about photography or the stars he photographed. Which was absolutely true; Hurrell was not interested in celebrities in the slightest and was renowned for his total disregard of them. For most, this worked in his favour, as the stars he photographed felt suitably entertained by him (he would put on records, sing, and dance around to get reactions and expressions from them) - all apart from Greta Garbo.
“I will not work with that crazy man again!” Greta Garbo
His nonchalant approach caused problems throughout his career at MGM. He was the rebel photographer; when told the publicity portraits should be shot on a white background, he refused. He insisted on shooting them on black. Unless, of course, he felt the subject or the scene would benefit more from a lighter background. But otherwise, it would be black. Such was Hurrell's outstanding talent and skill, he got his way. He was also obsessed with his own style of retouching, to the extent he refused to relinquish this to anyone else. But as demand for his photography increased, and the stars lined up to be photographed by him, there was simply not the time for Hurrell to be shooting as well as retouching. The studio decided to hire in retouchers to work under him. He refused; instead, he recruited two retouchers and trained them himself in his own style.
What was so striking about Hurrell, and what he was best known for, was his use of light. Using continuous lighting such as a fresnel lamp on a boom arm, he would position the light directly above the subject, using extreme contrasts of lightness and darkness to create drama and sculpt the face. This reflected the mood of the motion picture; complimenting the dark, rich black and white tones.
“The most essential thing about my style was working with shadows to design the face instead of flooding it with light.” - George Hurrell
In my previous blog post, I described how as a teenager I would sit in a darkened room with a desk lamp and a web cam, and experiment for hours with light and shadows; fascinated with how the light could flatter, slim, highlight, create cheekbones and accentuate heavy eyelids, and turn a face into that of a sculpture like the Venus de Milo or Michaelangelo's David.
It is perhaps obvious, then, that when you see my own portrait photography, how great an influence the photographers of vintage Hollywood - and Hurrell in particular - have been. I didn't ever set out to copy Hurrell's technique, nor anyone else's - but the combination of complete adolescent immersion into these Hollywood deities and my own passion of art and design certainly helped to define my own style of portrait photography.