Overshadowed by the work of 1920s Paramount colleagues Donald Biddle Keyes and Eugene Robert Richee, stillsman George P. Hommel crafted thoughtful portraits highlighting both the beauty and sorrow of those he photographed. Like Keyes, the peripatetic Hommel always looked for new challenges, new opportunities, keeping him on the move. Unobstrusive and elegant, Hommel’s work reveals hidden depths in those he shot.
Little is known about his early life. Born George Peter Hommel in New York City, May 8, 1901, Hommel turned to photography at a young age. Trades list him as an assistant cameraman working with Edwin Carewe in 1919. At the time, Pathe director Carewe had established his own unit to produce “The Girl of the Moulin Rouge” with Dolores Cassinelli in Europe. Young Hommel gained early film experience serving as an assistant cameraman, studying the importance of lighting, angles, and setting a mood.
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Always looking for opportunities and challenges, Hommel left motion pictures for the stark reality of police work. Learning the importance of objectivity, stark reality, and framing, Hommel served as official photographer for Bergen County, N.J., police in the early 1920s. The photographer was even called to testify during the 1922 murder trial of George Kline, convicted of killing “Jack” Bergen in Kline’s home.
Seizing the opportunity, Hommel moved into studio portraiture in 1924 when he was hired to work at Paramount’s Astoria Studio as a stillsman. Employing his skills to forensically capture a scene or a passing emotion on a star’s face, Hommel quickly gained renown for his work. He spent three years shooting scene stills, off-camera studies, and portraits for Paramount’s top stars and films.
In 1927, Paramount brought him west to head their stills department, originally established by Donald Biddle Keyes. Shooting production stills and studio portraits, Hommel focused on getting to the heart of emotions, not trying to create a mood or a scene, but capturing the truth underneath as in police reportage. Good at organizing and delegating, Hommel studied the artistry of colleague Eugene Robert Richee, renowned for stylish visual settings and abstract art framing.
Hommel’s straightforward portraiture captured the vulnerability of his sitters, revealing a wistful and often melancholic look in their expressive eyes. His pensive work focused on serious matters, not straining to create fleeting moods but revealing the heart of those he photographed. Employing simple, dark-textured background, Hommel focused on the eyes and lips, creating a sharp image with an often soft-focus background. His portraits often feature shadows and strong angular lines, creating dramatic composition. Hommel could also capture the sometimes insouciant or even overly exuberant emotions of sitters, often covering their vulnerability and pain, such as in his Pierrot portraits of Clara Bow as clown.
From 1927 until fall 1929, Hommel worked diligently in Paramount’s studio and sets, revealing a soft glamour in his portraits and stills. Trade magazines, newspapers, and magazines carried his thoughtful work, propagating the beauty and artistry of Paramount’s product.
Restless and looking for new challenges, Hommel resigned from Paramount in October 1929. For the next several years, he shot scene stills at MGM on such titles as “Dance, Fools, Dance,” “Laughing Sinners,” “This Modern Age,” and the iconic “Wizard of Oz” in 1939. Hommel moved to Republic in the early 1941, working on Gene Autry and Roy Rogers’ pictures. By the mid-1940s, Hommel worked freelance, skipping around among the studios.
In 1945, Hommel served as stills photographer for Allan Dwan’s 1945 “Brewster’s Millions,” more than 20 years after working as stillsman on Dwan’s 1924 Gloria Swanson feature “Manhandled.” Over the next seven years, Hommel shot stills on such diverse films as “He Walked By Night” (1948), “Siren of Atlantis” (1949), “Trapped” (1949), and Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight” in 1952.
Hommel died September 10, 1953, just 52 years old. Restless and unsettled, his constant moving from studio to studio prevented a lasting signature look to help memorialize his work. Serving as stillsman, Hommel seldom returned to his glamorous portrait work, a true loss. Packing stunning portrait work into only a few years, Hommel is collected by museums and art connoisseurs today while little known to classic film fans.