Monday, February 21, 2011

The Legendary Glamour of George Hurrell Photography

Along with Clarence Sinclair Bull, George Hurrell helped create the ideal standards of high end Hollywood Glamour in photography.

But while Bull showed an early interest in photography, Hurrell was actually initially more interested in painting.  The only reason he got into photography was to make a record of his paintings.  Hurrell was born in Covington, Kentucky and eventually moved to Chicago, Illinois.  But in 1925 he found, when he relocated to Laguana Beach, California, that there was more of a profitable interest in photography. 

In the later 1920s, Hurrell was introduced to actor Ramon Navarro and took a series of photographs of him.  Navarro was significantly impressed enough to show the results to actress Norma Shearer who in turn sought to use Hurrell to change her wholesome image to a more provocative one.  Shortly after, Shearer showed the finished photos to her husband, MGM production chief, Irving Thalberg.  Thalberg signed Hurrell to a contract with MGM as the head of the portrait photography department. 

However, in 1932, Hurrell left MGM and opened his own studio on Sunset Boulevard.  Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Hurrell photographed just about every major star in the industry including Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Carole Lombard.  In the 1940s, he moved to working for Warner Brothers Studios and photographed Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Errol Flynn, Maxine Fife, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney.  Later in the same decade, he again moved--this time to Columbia Pictures--and photographed Rita Hayworth among others.

While he also photographed Greta Garbo for the film Romance, the two did not hit it off and Garbo preferred to keep Clarence Sinclair Bull as her official photographer.  However, Norma Shearer, who adored Hurrell, kept his as her exclusive photographer.

From the book, Glamour of the Gods:

George Hurrell started work at MGM at the beginning of 1930 and almost immediately tranformed Hollywod photography. Brought to MGM at the insistence of Norma Shearer, his task was to make his subjects, especially women, sexy. Not only did he succeed but his work, in this respect, has never been bettered. Norma Shearer was an attractive and talented actress, who through determination and fortitude, not to mention marriage to MGM's top producer Irving Thalberg, managed to secure most of the studio's choicest femail roles. But she found herself increaslingly cast as the nice girl or sophisticated matron when she wanted the racier roles given to Joan Crwford and Greta Garbo. Hurrell changed Shearer's appearace, at least in the portrait gallery, and there is no question that the lovely lady portrayed by Ruth Harriet Louise took on a new smoldering guise when seen through Hurrell's lens. Hurrell's very best work was saved for Joan Crawford who probably enjoyed being photographed more than any actress before Marilyn Monnroe. Of the approximately 100,000 photographs that were coded by MGM's publicity department between 1924 and 1942, Crawford's face appears more often than that of any other star. Hurrell and Crawford enjoyed an extraordinary collaboration, beginninng at MGM and continuing after he went independent in late 1932. Hurrell could be almost brutal with his sitters, subjecting them variously to strong lights, extreme close-ups, and complicated positions. Crawford survived all of Hurrell's antics and her allure was only heightedned by his inventive camerawork.

Glamour was Hurrell's hallmark and he saved the best for his ladies. Harlow reached her peak of sexual allure in front of Hurrell's lens, as did Carole Lombard and Veronica Lake when he shot portraits for Paramount. As good as Hurrell was in the 1930s, his 1943 photographs of Jane Russell in the hay, taken to promote "The Oulaw," are porably his most famous and frequently reproduced.

Hurrell did not have the temperament to last long as part of a studio team. He remained available to MGM on a contract basis throughout the 1930s photographing Harlow, Gable and Crawford among others, both at his studio and at MGM. MGM seemed to have been grooming Harvey White to take Hurrell's place, but he lasted at the studio less than a year. The work by White that survives includes copious shots of Jean Harlow on the set for "Dinner at 8."

John Kobal (the famous chronicler of Hollywood) and Hurrell must have enjoyed swapping tales about Marlene Dietrich, who, when Kobal met her in 1960, was in the midst of a second career as a concert performer. A quarter of a century earlier she was one of Hollywoods reigning queens and for six years, beginning when she came to Hollywood in 1930, Dietrich's star shone brightly, especially in a series of films made at Paramount and directed by Joseph von Sternberg. But two duds released in 1937, "Knight Without Armour" and "Angel", saw her value sink rapidly and she was dropped from the Paramount roster. Strategically, and in an attempt to bolster her career, she commissioned a series of portraits from Hurrell. The feathered hat and chiffon dress she selected for the session obviously pleased both actress and photographer, and the results proved that, although her film career might be faltering, she was as beautiful as ever. Two years later she was back with one of her greatest hits, "Destry Rides Again"--but it was a western and made at Universal, something of a comedown for a Paramount star. Might Hurrell's dazzling portraits have helped her secure the role?

For a time, Hurrell left Hollywood to make training films for the United States Army.  But, when he tried to return to Hollywood in mid 1950s, he found that his original style of glamour photography was no longer in vogue.  So he decided instead to venture to New York, where he photographed for fashion magazines and did advertisements for various products.

However, his initial style did not fall out of favor for long.  In 1965, a revival of his work was exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and it caused a sensation.  He began to work again returning to Hollywood and photographing occasionally but by the 1970s he was in full swing again taking photos of such new stars as Raquel Welch, Farrah Fawcett and John Travolta.

He decided to retire though in 1976.  Nevertheless, he sporatically would photograph certain new stars if he found an interest in them.  Sharon Stone, Brooke Shields, and Shannon Tweed were among those he felt imparted the same kind of glamour that he was famous for shooting in the Hollywood heydays. 

In addition, in 1984, he could not say no when Joan Collins (then hot off Dynasty) said that he would be the only photographer she would allow to photograph her in the nude for a spread that Playboy was proposing.  In turn, Hurrell photographed the classy 50 year old star in some page layout shots and the subsequent issue became a best seller. 

Lastly, he created publicity photos of Annette Benning and Warren Beatty for the film "Bugsy" and Natalie cole for her album Unforgettable ... with Love. 

Around the same time, there was a documentary being made about his life and he did his last legendary style shots of actors Sherilyn Fenn, Sharon Stone, Julian Sands, Raquel Welch, Eric Roberts and Sean Penn.

After the documentary was completed, he fell ill from complications from a reaccuring problem with bladder cancer.  He passed away May 17, 1992. 

Like C. S. Bull, his photographs have appreciated in value over time.  His work is highly sought after by art dealers and collectors.

Here is some discussions on Hurrell's techniques:

Here are some examples of his work:

Gene Tierney

Jean Harlow

Norma Shearer

Miriam Hopkins

Joan Crawford

Carole Lombard.

A color photograph by Hurrell of Linda Darnell.

One of his later subjects, Sharon Stone.
Here are some photos of Hurrell on the set with some of the stars he photographed.

Hurrell with Jane Russell.

With Olivia De Havilland.

Looking over some of his many great photos.

With Robert Montgomery.

Here is a recent auction from Ebay where this Joan Crawford photograph went for 4, 995.00.  Notice the next photo shows the Hurrell ink stamp and the MGM one for star Crawford:

Another example of a Hurrell stamp and a press snipe.

Here are some more examples of Hurrell's work:

And here are some of the male stars he photographed:

Thanks to Vince for these links!


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  2. Great pictures! I've been looking into getting pictures taken and getting into modeling. Are there any tips that you can share for a beginner? I've heard about some glamour shots complaints and I want to know how to prepare myself.

    1. Jayme I would try going to your local colleges and see if one of the teachers of photography or if one of the students would like to take your photo for school purpases. I actually had my own teacher take some great photos of myself a few years ago and he did an excellent job and then I had a student that took some photos for practice. So that may be a better solution to Glamour Shots. I've heard they put a lot of make up and hairspray and such on you and that is why it doesn't work to well. Plus they don't do any kind of special lighting or anything. So my suggestion is to try and see if some new photographers would like to help.

      Sincerely, Barb