Hurrell, George

George Hurrell (American, b. 1904) was key figure in the creation of Hollywood glamour, Hurrell was arguably the most important still photographer in the history of American commercial film. Hurrell’s first important client was Ramon Novarro; his shot of the dashing star in courtly armor beside a white horse immediately marked the photographer as one who understood the fantasy that defined Hollywood. His real break, though, came when Novarro recommended him to Norma Shearer, then at the peak of her popularity. Shearer was trying to find a photographer to take some steamy snaps of her to convince her producer husband, Irving Thalberg, that with the coming of sound her sweet image could use a little sexy sophistication. Hurrell’s flair for atmosphere, figure placement and artful lighting created a series of shots at once mythic and sensual, and Hurrell was suddenly in great demand by all of MGM’s top female glamour stars.

Hurrell worked primarily in black-and-white during Hollywood’s golden years, creating halos around the subjects he sculpted with light while surrounding them with posh, quietly Art Deco settings. Flashy mirror effects and surprising intimacy amid the artifice mark a number of his finest works. Better than anyone else, Hurrell knew how to highlight Veronica Lake’s silken hair and sulky hauteur, Jane Russell’s earth-mother sensuality (for “The Outlaw”) and Clark Gable’s tongue-in-cheek masculinity. He even knew how to highlight the seemingly unattractive to stunning effect. His famous 1932 shot of a freckled Joan Crawford, for instance, tempers her gloriously tony chic with a touching vulnerability. The master craftsman also conquered color, both in the garish 1940s Technicolor musical mode and (more typically) in a subtle blend of pastels and half-tones. The durable Hurrell continued well into his eighties, shooting Arnold Schwarzenegger and other current stars, and lending more than a dash of the style so essential to the cult of stardom.