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George Hurrell

Revered Hollywood photographer George Hurrell was born in Covington, Kentucky on June 1, 1904. His family relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio shortly thereafter, which is where he pursued his fascination with painting. He reproduced his painting through photography, but throughout his adolescence, painting remained his first love. At 16, Mr. Hurrell moved to Chicago to study painting at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Academy of Fine Arts, which he left before completion in 1922. For the next two years, he worked hand-coloring photographs for various commercial studios until he was hired to work for portrait photographer Eugene Hutchinson. It was here he received his formal photographic education, learning various types of lighting, darkroom techniques, airbrushing, and negative retouching.

In 1925, Mr. Hurrell moved to California and settled in Laguna Beach. He combined his passion for painting with his more lucrative photography work, making portraits of local artists and their paintings. He soon established himself as an innovative portrait photographer among the social elite, and capitalized on his newfound reputation by relocating to Los Angeles. Silent film star Ramon Novarro admired his innovative uses of light in portraits, and hired Mr. Hurrell to take his publicity portraits. Actress Norma Shearer, who was under contract to MGM, saw Mr. Novarro's portraits and wanted to hire Mr. Hurrell to promote her as a sexy leading lady. She sought to convince her husband Irving Thalberg, MGM's head of production, that she was capable of playing more than cute ingenue roles. In a single session, Mr. Hurrell's masterful manipulation of lighting and pose conjured a sexier image of Norma Shearer, which enabled her to earn the coveted lead role as a vixen in The Divorcee, for which she won an Academy Award. For his efforts, Mr. Hurrell won a contract with MGM.


During his tenure at MGM, Mr. Hurrell established himself as one of Hollywood's foremost glamour fashion photographers. His style changed with the times as he distanced himself from the softness of 1920s romanticism to the stark contrasts between light and shadow that characterized the 1930s. When lighting a portrait, Mr. Hurrell would attach a spotlight to a boom arm, which he then adjusted to highlight the hair of his subject. Soft lights were then placed above and around the face of the subject to replicate natural light. He would request that the subject wear no makeup during photographic sessions because he and his assistant would carefully retouch the negatives with an application of powdered graphite to accentuate the subject's skin tone.

Although Mr. Hurrell was known mostly for his black-and-white portraits, he also took color photographs of such stars as Shirley Temple and Joan Crawford for the covers of Photoplay magazine. After a dispute with MGM's publicity chief Howard Strickling, he left the studio and resumed freelancing. He later became associated with Warner Brothers and took portraits of its contract stars, including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn. During World War II, Mr. Hurrell was a member of the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Force, and during this time photographed Pentagon generals and made training films. After the war, glamour portraits lost their appeal, but Mr. Hurrell continued to be sought after by the leading stars of the day. He spent his later years exhibiting his works and making a documentary of his life and career, Legends in Light. George Hurrell died of cancer on May 17, 1992 at the age of 87.


Ref.:
2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis), pp. 489, 767-768.

1987 Hollywood Glamour: 1924-1956 (Madison, WI: Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), p. xi.

1976 Hollywood Glamour Portraits (New York: Dover Publications), p. vi.

2010 Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi), p. 69.


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