George Hurrell

His photographs recall Hollywood’s truly glamorous days

Sharon Apfelbaum PSL and Villager 0 Comments

Reprinted from the December 1980 edition of Palm Springs Life magazine.


Glamour. Designed and defined by George Hurrell. His camera, clicking since the 1930s, has created the ultimate atmosphere of romance and those archetypal images of men and women the world still cherishes. Like characters in the illusory American dream, his Hollywood portraits are part of our inner fantasy life. They have shaped a modern mythology.

Dapper and energetic at 76, this septuagenarian artist is still going strong. While he photographs new celebrities in his grand old style, a major exhibit of his portraits, covering celluloid's last 50 years, opens December 18 at the Palm Springs Desert Museum. Entitled "The Hurrell Style," the show features photographs of such luminaries as Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, John Barrymore and Katharine Hepburn. Hurrell has built a reputation on his chiaroscuro faces and his ability to make beautiful people more beautiful. He remains one of society's most sought-after celebrity photographers.

It all started when Cincinnati-born Hurrell joined friends in Laguna Beach, living there in the late 1920s while the town was but an art colony. He had studied painting at the Chicago Art Institute and hoped to succeed on the West Coast as a landscape painter. But he supported himself with a camera, taking publicity shots of art for newspapers, friends and fellow artists like Millard Sheets, while experimenting with natural lighting techniques. His circle of friends soon included famous socialite aviatrix Pancho Barnes. She introduced him to Ramon Navarro, a silent screen star who needed some new publicity stills. Those that Hurrell took captured a new dimension of Navarro, exposing what the star described as his "inner depths." One showed him gleaming in dappled sunlight beside a white horse and led Pancho to remark, "My God, George, even the horse looks glamorous!"

Hurrell was on his way. Actress Norma Shearer, wife of MGM studio head Irving Thalberg, saw the shots and realized Hurrell's lens might also enlarge her too-prim public image. In the resulting series of photographs Shearer was turned from brainless broad into a smashing sex siren, and in 1930 won the Oscar for her vampish lead in Divorceé. MGM welcomed his talent, and Hurrell soon took over the studio as contract photographer.

What followed is history: glamorous portraits of all the Hollywood superstars glazed in Hurrell's inimitable style. The style combines with his own personal flair, for Hurrell, though amazingly modest, is himself a wise-cracking showman. From career outset he wound up his Victrola to arouse his subjects with jazz, or temper their tensions with classical fare. Music set the mood and motivated the dramatic expressions which blossomed from his lens. His á la carte comedy routines and artless clowning were innate leveling devices, antics that often induced crusty personalities like Garbo to relax. Rosalind Russell summed up the natural ingredients for Hurrell's success: "He was a joy to work with and a delightful friend."

Poster from 1980 George Hurrell retrospectiveBut his long span of popularity is due also to technical expertise. His inspired use of lighting had an enormous impact on photography. When he burst onto the movie scene in the 1930s his unconventional approach upset the prevailing ideas on portrait work. Black backgrounds and shadows were then taboo, but they became a Hurrell hallmark. His portraits are intimate collaborations with light and dark, forms outlined in dramatic chiaroscuros.

Those super-charged etchings were further enhanced by his innovative use of props and sets: waved hair spilling over beds of white animal fur, glazed lips parted seductively, hint of a thigh emerging from beneath a satin negligee, arms entwined seductively in hair or haystacks, or resting on hips swathed in leopard skins, the nonchalance of a come-hither look. If he gave both shadow and sex appeal their proper due, so his work epitomized that era of exaggerations and bequeathed joy and fantasy, however vicarious, on what was then a Depression-plagued world.

His glorification of beautiful women made him one of photography's highest-paid professionals. Howard Hughes paid him $4,000 for the notorious haystack pictures he took of then-unknown Jane Russell. Hurrell trucked a mound of straw into his studio, posed Russell lying voluptuously in a low-cut peasant blouse, seductively fingering a strand of hay. The photos were used as posters to promote the movie Outlaw and captioned, "How would you like to tussle with Russell?" A bonanza of publicity banned both the poster and the film, and when at last it was shown to a feverish public, it proved a dull affair about two cowboys and a horse. But it turned Jane Russell into a star.

Hurrell's lens created a gallery of greats, all accompanied by cheeky anecdotes. "I remember when Mae West 'accidentally' dropped her clothes and stood there naked as a jaybird," he recalls, concealing a chuckle. "The studio door was locked, but still, there she was. And her boyfriend at the time, whatever his name was, got so upset he left. I had to unlock the door for him. Marilyn Monroe pulled the same routine, but it wasn't as natural with her.

"Of all my subjects, Joan Crawford's face was the closest to perfection. She was also the most serious and relished a full day's shooting from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Crawford was tireless, but I had to take a day off after one of those sessions. Jean Harlow was the opposite of Crawford — never sweated over a shooting, was always gay and frivolous. Roz Russell was serious too, very ambitious and stagey. She wanted all her shots re-touched, with all the wrinkles in her face really ironed out. Rita Hayworth would do anything, and Marlene Dietrich had to watch herself in a full-length mirror at all times. Hepburn was the brainiest though, all spunk and spirit."

Photographic language is a peculiar amalgam of art and reality, and Hurrell has consistently been recognized as a master-blender of these two forces. In the words of French art critic Pierre Restany, his is a "painter's eye transferred to the camera lens." The Museum of Modern Art concurred when it featured Hurrell's work in a show of women's portraits by famous photographers some years back.

Today the photograph has fully enmeshed itself as an art form — recording of time made not with brushes and paint, but with light and silver. It is a common fallacy that photographs can be made from a negative in infinite quantity and with uniform quality. Negatives slowly change and deteriorate, but more important, every print, even from the same negative, is one of a kind. Each of Hurrell's prints has been hand-pulled, its full, luminous range of light stretched and altered, the darks detailed and manipulated in a painstaking process of craftsmanship. The pleasure of his portraits lies in the fact that each is an exception, a valuable object in itself.

His Desert Museum exhibit allows visitors to stroll through the alluring atmosphere of those early decades and meet the galaxy of stars whose seductive magic and glamour George Hurrell helped create. The exhibit continues through February 1st, 1981, in the museum's Foyer Gallery.

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