Glenn Ford and Evelyn Keyes in a George Hurrell portrait for “The Desperadoes” listed on EBay at $149.95.
Recognized for his gorgeously lit, glamorous images of movie icons, photographer George Hurrell is considered one of the masters of Hollywood’s still portrait photography. An innovator as well as craftsman, Hurrell moved between studios, his independent galleries, and fashion work as the mood hit him. In fact, he could be said to suffer from attention deficit disorder, as he couldn’t sit still, and when bored, moved on to newer pastures. He remained active for decades, and his work attracts high demand, selling for high prices.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio June 1, 1904, to a large English/Irish family, George Hurrell served as an altar boy while spending his free time drawing and studying art as a boy. While in high school, he signed up with the Quigley Seminary in Chicago to study for the priesthood, but girls and art drew him to art school instead. Short attention spans and being bored caused him to move from studying at the Chicago Art Institute to the Academy of Fine Arts and back.
In 1923, portrait photographer Eugene Hutchinson hired him as a gofer and assistant. Hurrell studied the art of photography, gaining more opportunities in the studio such as developing negatives. With extra money, he bought a used camera and began shooting studies of his own, as well as shooting artwork for artists and also continuing to paint. Landscape painter Edgar Alwyn Payne visited the Art Institute in 1925 to lecture, and viewed some of Hurrell’s artwork afterwards. He suggested Hurrell accompany him to Laguna Beach, California if he really wanted to paint, and Hurrell signed on. They arrived in the beach town on June 1, 1925, Hurrell’s birthday. Hurrell moved into director Mal St. Clair’s small bungalow, painted, explored the countryside, and began experimenting with his camera in his free time.
To earn some extra money, he made photos of artists’ paintings, and began taking portraits of artists. In late 1925, he met Florence “Pancho” Barnes at a Laguna party, and they quickly became friends. She sent Pasadena socialites his way for elegant portrait photographs. In 1926, Hurrell made photos of Payne’s work for a monograph that served as a catalog of Payne’s work for a 1926 Stendhal Gallery exhibit in Los Angeles. Little by little, photography was becoming his life. To facilitate his increasing shooting of portraits, Hurrell moved to 672 S. Lafayette Park Place, studio 9, in 1927. In 1928, he printed negatives for a visiting Edward Steichen, learning how much money a successful photographer could charge clients. He was gaining an unique style, a lush almost halo effect around his subjects. This look was achieved because he had inferior equipment that didn’t quite focus, and he also greatly retouched his negatives. Retouching would become an essential part of his look.
A George Hurrell portrait of Ann Sheridan, listed on EBay at $950.
His friend Barnes brought along her friend, actor Ramon Novarro, in 1929. He needed elegant portraits to try and help promote a hoped for operatic tour of Europe. Hurrell shot elegant, soft focus shots of him that suggested Roman art. These photos would appear later that year in the rotogravure section of The Los Angeles Times, with the first credit, “Photo by Hurrell.” Novarro happened to show them to his friend and fellow actor Norma Shearer, who found them fascinating. She needed a hook to grab the part of a sexy vamp in the film “The Divorcee,” so hired Hurrell for a special shoot. After difficulties in getting the proper mood, Hurrell’s clowning broke a camera and caused her to laugh, setting the stage for a successful shoot. These sensual images of her caused her husband Irving Thalberg to cast her in the role, for which she won an Academy Award. The glowing shots also earned him a job at MGM after photographer Ruth Harriet Louise left.
When Hurrell replaced Louise, he kept her assistant Al St. Hilaire to assist him and worked in the smaller of two studios on the lot; Clarence Sinclair Bull as head of the department worked in the largest. Hurrell followed his own rules, thanks to the support of Norma Shearer. While taking photos, the artist danced, goofed off, and played music, helping himself and the stars relax. Hurrell’s job was to create stunning portraits of MGM stars to run in magazines and newspapers. He shot “in-character” portraits a day after films wrapped, per Mark Vieira in his excellent book “George Hurrell’s Hollywood.” Still photographers shot like crazy on the MGM lot in 1930-1931; Vieira reports that 25,000 negatives and 14,000 prints a week were developed, making it a virtual shooting factory.
Hurrell created his unique look with retouching that took three hours per negative, but MGM tried to speed the process along with a retouch artist team, none of whom knew or understood Hurrell’s own unique technique. The studio and the photographer reached a compromise enabling him to hire an assistant, Andrew Korf, to retouch the negatives. Hurrell also achieved his elegant style by employing multiple lights and lenses along with having actors wear no makeup, enhanced by his deft retouching.
The photographer’s retouching technique featured several steps. He applied powdered graphite to the emulsion of the negative, then rubbed it in patterns with a rolled up paper called a blending stump. This embellished facial highlights. In the dark room, he used the printing techniques known as “burning” to increase tonal range and to make less important areas go dark and recede, per Vieira in his excellent book. One actor went even farther to improve the look of his skin; Johnny Weissmuller applied baby oil to enhance highlights, inspiring Hurrell.
To prevent boredom as well as to continue honing his skills, Hurrell began taking freelance portrait shots of other studios’ stars on the weekend. He also tended to process the photos on the MGM lot. Studio executives discovered this and the photographer quit in 1932 before they could fire him. He opened his own studio at 8706 Sunset Blvd., taking photos of stars from virtually all the lots, even MGM’s, as well as fashion shoots. Joan Crawford, his favorite model, continued using him, as they enjoyed each other’s company. She stated. “He worked to catch you off guard.” He’d shoot while the two were talking or laughing.
Hurrell began traveling to the East Coast to shoot for magazines and advertising firms, as well as entering camera shows, winning awards several years in the United States Camera Salon held in New York, per the New York Times. In 1937 he was one of the judges, along with such photographers as Arnold Genthe, Edward Steichen, Paul Outerbridge, and Will Connell, per the October 7, 1937, New York Times. Los Angeles galleries exhibited his work as well. Publications such as “Esquire” and “Vogue” featured his photographs. “Esquire” even called him the Rolls-Royce of motion picture still photographers.
In 1938, Warner Bros. hired him as portrait photographer, and Hurrell would “…devote his entire time to photographic exploitation of Warners personalities,” per the July 25, 1938, Daily Variety. While at the studio, he added “oomph” to Ann Sheridan, as well as supposedly appearing as himself in the film “Models” in 1939 with the actress. In 1940, the studio appointed him along with 11 others such as costumer Orry Kelly, makeup man Perc Westmore, cinematographer Ernest Haller, director Anatole Litvak, to select two women contract players to groom for stardom, which the studio hoped to turn into an annual event.
Hurrell left the studio in 1940 to return to private practice, shooting for magazines in New York. In 1941, Howard Hughes paid him $4000 to glamorize Jane Russell for the film “The Outlaw,” which would sit on the shelf for years because of censorship problems. It was Hurrell who suggested a shoot in a haystack. One of these sessions was recorded for posterity by photographer G. T. Allen of “U. S. Camera” magazine. Soon after, Hurrell set up a large studio at 333 N. Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. He surprisingly discovered after renting the space that actress Greta Garbo was his landlord.
The photographer soon headed to Columbia in July 1942 as a special photographic portraitist, replacing the departing A. L. Whitey Schafer. Hurrell only lasted a short time however, before applying to the Army Signal Corps. in October, per Daily Variety. While in the Army, he shot portraits for the Pentagon, but signed out in 1943, returning to Hollywood. In 1944, Hurrell supposedly appeared in the film “The Hairy Ape” as a photographer.
Hurrell decided to enter the television business in 1947, producing, hosting, and starring in a reality show “Camera Highlights” on the DuMont’s showcase time on WABD, it’s New York station. According to Variety, many camera and manufacturing companies were eager to showcase their products in the show and to act as sponsors. Hurrell would teach real amateur photographers how to improve their work after viewing samples. Unfortunately, the trade panned the show in its June 25, 1947, edition, stating, “Here’s another good television idea gone wrong through insufficient preparation, poor scripting and faulty direction.” The paper thought the adlibbing atrocious, but felt that “Hurrell demonstrated a pleasant enough video personality to hold down a weekly show, given enough time to memorize his lines.” The show failed.
The artist returned to the West Coast, and in 1950 he formed Hurrell Productions with Roy O. Disney, Gunther Lessing, and Paul Pease, to make live action and animated features and TV films, shooting on the Disney lot, per the December 13, 1950, Daily Variety. Several years before, Hurrell had married Walt Disney’s niece, which aided him in setting up the deal. The company existed for several years, but mostly focused on commercial work. He returned to East Coast fashion shoots.
Hurrell headed the Twentieth Century-Fox Studios portrait department, shooting for TV shows and films like “Star!” and “Bang Bang”in the 1960s. The difficult stars and cheaper conditions both angered and saddened him. He complained to the Los Angeles Times on June 1, 1969 that “Working on a movie now is like being a combat photographer.” Stars now refused to pose, arrived late, or acted up, not like in the golden era. As he stated, “In the old days when a star was asked to pose for a publicity still, they posed and no nonsense.”
His work was also featured in major camera shows at places like the Museum of Modern Art in 1965 along with works of photographers like Cecil Beaton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Irving Penn, Edward Steichen, Man Ray and Richard Avedon. Hurrell’s portraits also appeared in Los Angeles exhibits. The photographic world now considered him a master as well.
Hurrell released his book “The Hurrell Style” in 1976 with text by Whitney Stine, featuring stories and commentaries from the photographer. He began making appearances talking about his work, and his photographs appeared in many exhibitions. A documentary about his life and career called “Legends in Light” was released in 1995 after his death, but “Variety” felt it revealed little of the man himself. The review did point out that the show revealed his still energetic and enthusiastic personality at the age of 87.