Grand Seigneur: George Hurrell
Movie stars in the 20s, 30s, and 40s were always larger than life to me. They were known by the characters they played and idolized by moviegoers almost as gods. Unlike today where we know the most intimate details of actors’ lives (more than we ever want to know at times); back then, the public was only given the glamorous details; the scandals were merely whispers. This came through in the photography as well. George Hurrell was known as the “Grand Seigneur of the Hollywood Portrait.” His images inspired the term “glamour photography.”
“I have no way of explaining. When you’re born with it, you’re born with it. That’s all.” – George Hurrell
I have always had a fascination with the portraits from the early days of motion pictures, long before I ever knew I wanted to be a photographer. Seeing portraits of stars like Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, and Myrna Loy, I wondered how they could be SO beautiful when so many of the movie stars I grew up with didn’t even come close. Now that I have an interest (understatement) in photography, I look at these photos and see not only the artistic value in them, but also how technically perfect they are; how the lighting worked, the composition, the poses, etc. I am still amazed at how stunning these shots are and, more often than not, George Hurrell was the one behind the camera.
George Hurrell was born in 1904 in Covington, Kentucky. He loved to draw and to paint even as a child and had early aspirations to become an artist. He learned to use a camera, merely as a necessity so that he could photograph his own paintings. When he graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago, he was commissioned in 1925 by an art colony in Laguna Beach to photograph painters and their paintings. He wanted to continue his artwork, but soon found that photography paid his bills faster than his paintings did.
The photograph that would launch Hurrell’s professional career as a photographer was of Florence “Pancho” Barnes, one of the first female pilots. In 1928, Barnes commissioned Hurrell to take her portrait for her pilot’s license. The story goes that he had her dress very mannish, holding a cigarette, as a dig to Orville Wright, who had to approve the license. Wright had a reputation for not liking female pilots. It was Hurrell’s friendship with Pancho that led to his career shooting movie stars. She introduced him to silent film star, Ramon Novarro, who commissioned a series of portraits. Novarro loved the shots so much that he showed them to his coworkers at MGM, one of whom was a leading actress named Norma Shearer. She had been trying to convince her husband (MGM’s production chief, Irving Thalberg ) to give her the leading role in a movie called “The Divorcee”. Her husband didn’t think she could pull off the sultry role. Shearer went to Hurrell to have him take some sexy portraits to prove she could take it on. Hurrell tousled her hair, pulled her gown off of her shoulder, convinced her to show some leg, joked around with her, and got the shots.
They worked. She got the part and, in 1930, Norma Shearer won the Academy Award for Best Actress. After seeing the images of his wife, Shearer’s husband hired Hurrell as the head of MGM portrait studios. Over the next two years, Hurrell went on to shoot every major star at MGM including Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Greta Garbo. However, after a disagreement in 1932 with publicity head Howard Strickling, Hurrell left MGM to set up his own studio on Sunset Boulevard.
Hurrell learned from shooting Shearer that sexiness does not depend on nudity. It’s more of facial expression and that facial expression needs to be believable. We need to see, not someone putting on an act trying to be sexy, but someone who actually is sexy and letting that show. It is this authenticity that comes through in his images. He did not make these stars what they weren’t, he was just able to get them to show it.
Hurrell was also a master of studio lighting, able to sculpt faces with light and shadow. He invented the boom light to make it easier for him to move the lighting around the studio. He said, “The critical question is not where is the light, but where are the shadows.”
Retouching had become an art form unto itself by that point and Hurrell embraced it. He preferred the stars wear as little makeup as possible so he could retouch the negative, giving him more control over the final image. The retouching work he did was amazing considering he had no Photoshop. The skin and makeup on the actors is flawless. When you see the photos of Joan Crawford it is nearly impossible to tell she has a face full of freckles.
I found it interesting that the portraits of 30’s were created for a specific purpose. Like the movies that were made then, they were meant to give the average person an escape from the Great Depression. People were looking for something beautiful that they could dream about. The movie stars of the 30’s were romanticized as gods and goddesses, objects of perfection.
Soon after WWII, actors became “demystified”; they became just like us. Studios stopped retouching every shot. Photographers stopped using 8×10 cameras and went to 35mm instead. Hurrell said, “…the glamour was gone.” He relocated to New York, where he continued shooting advertising and fashion lay-outs throughout the 50’s.
In the 1980’s glamour photography came back into style and Hurrell was there to help redefine it. During this time he photographed actors such as Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Natalie Cole, Sharon Stone, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Sharon Stone had this to say about him, “George creates a magic in a still photograph. I’ve probably done a photo session with maybe a thousand different photographers. They take hundreds and hundreds of pictures. George takes three frames and every one is good.”
George Hurrell died of cancer in 1992. During the last years of his life, Hurrell worked on Legends in Light, a major film retrospective of his work. This film was only available on VHS and is now out of print, however you can still se a trailer on YouTube.
George Hurrell said, “All of us glamorize everything, including the documentary photographers who glamorize filth and squalor. Even (Edward) Weston does it, taking a picture of a gnarled tree trunk. It’s a question of emphasizing… the dirt or the beauty.” Hurrell definitely emphasized the beauty. His portraits spanned almost a century and they remain timeless examples of the art of true glamour photography.