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The Atlantic

The Movie-Star Photographer Who Helped Make Nostalgia Cool

George Hurrell's pictures of classic Hollywood came into vogue in the '70s. A recent book shows that in our image-obsessed, backwards-focused moment, he's taken on new resonance.

George Hurrell's black-and-white photographs of movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s are as voluptuous as the medium gets. Looking upon the 71 performers included in Reel Art Press's recently published coffee table-sized Hurrell: The Kobal Collection triggers a lot of complicated nostalgia. Take the image of James Cagney in cowboy wear, taken in 1939 for his first western, The Oklahoma Kid. He'd only make a couple more westerns, and it's clear why—today, it's delightfully off to see Mr. Urban Irish Take No Shit Himself in that getup. But that bemusement only lasts a second, because the image is perfectly posed, in every way: the soft slope of Cagney's hat; the wariness of his hooded eyes (wariness seen on ranges rather than in alleys); his left elbow a perfect L; and the killer touch, a cigarette held near his lips, like a little radio microphone. It's unreal, but it's utterly convincing: Hurrell in a nutshell.

The Kobal Collection is named for John Kobal, a journalist and Hollywood photo collector who stumbled onto Hurrell in person while on assignment to cover the filming of 1970's X-rated bomb adaptation of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge. Hurrell was shooting stills on-set, and a friendship developed. Kobal became a Hollywood-stills archivist and historian, eventually authoring and editing 30 books, and his single-mindedness helped force collectors to take Hurrell (and colleagues such as Clarence Sinclair Bull and Ted Allen) seriously. He didn't create a market for those images, but he did help to give them art-world credibility.

Cultural reconsiderations take time and exposure, even now, especially in the popular arts. Take the Sight & Sound recent greatest-movies poll, which the British magazine has conducted every 10 years since 1952. Dziga Vertov's 1929 Russian silent documentary Man with a Movie Camera made the Top 10 for the first time ever, something that surely wouldn't have happened without the film's revival on DVD. Not to mention S&S's new winner, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which toppled Orson Welles's Citizen Kane from the top of the list for the first time in 50 years. It took a long while for Hitchcock to get his critical due as an artist. Not to mention how long it took for crediting a movie to its director became normal—for a film director to be considered an artist as opposed to a craftsman. Something similar happened with Hurrell, and the belated way that he gained legitimacy helps tell the story of how nostalgia became big business in America.

The 1970s were when the post-Warhol everyday-as-art aesthetic began to truly take hold; it was also the beginning of America's commodification of its past. The bank-breaking movie of 1973 was George Lucas's American Graffiti, which looked back with palpable longing to the first rock and roll era, 10-to-15 years earlier.

"The demise of the counterculture and the end of the war fueled a wave of nostalgia that could be seen in the popularity of films like The Sting and The Great Gatsby," wrote Andreas Killen in his invaluable 1973 Nervous Breakdown (2006). Discussing Joan Didion's 1973 essay "In Hollywood," Killen goes on:

Perhaps most symptomatic was the rediscovery of the 1950s, the last time when, according to Didion, the American national narrative still functioned. For Didion, the principal legacy of the 1960s had been that she "began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself" growing up in the 1950s. This loss of a narrative paradigm mirrored the loss of home as a fixed social coordinate, a stable part of Americans' mental geography, and it fueled a look back to a time when such coordinates could be taken for granted. After 1973 nostalgia would become both a dominant aesthetic force in American film and a pervasive influence in American culture more generally, from Happy Days to the proliferation of theme parks and historical preservation projects. In Home From the War psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton analyzed the new nostalgia as a part of psycho-historical restoration, which used technology to recover 'an imagined past of total harmony.'

Hurrell's photos embodied that "imagined past of total harmony" like little else because they actually looked unreal. Shooting promo pictures of Hollywood actors, he devised a visual signature as immediately distinctive as Irving Penn or Richard Avedon's. A few images in The Kobal Collection conform strictly to a star's type (Edward G. Robinson in full Little Caesar mode, a full seven years after that 1931 movie), but most give it new shadings. Constance Bennett's image focuses not on the actress, but on her short waterfall of blonde hair. In Hurrell's portrait of the Mexican-born 1930s MGM star Delores del Rio, the photographer sharply contrasts her pitch-dark hair and black-etched eyes and brows with the white furs she's swaddled in—the better to highlight her "foreignness," yes, but also genuinely, unsettlingly alien. Speaking of which, a soft-focus shot of Errol Flynn standing with a cigarette resembles nothing so much as the star-child from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Previously obscure movie-buff terms were gaining mainstream traction in the '70s, just as Hurrell's photos were too. The 1970s were when the "Film Generation" of the 1960s came to power. New York's repertory house Film Forum opened in 1970; two years later, Groucho Marx's sold out a solo performance at Carnegie Hall to a crowd of vintage-movie buffs. Many of the era's most successful films with critics and at the box office depicted or adapted earlier eras in glowing tones: Francis Ford Coppola's two Godfather films; George Lucas's American Graffiti; Peter Bogdonavich's The Last Picture Show and What's Up, Doc? (a screwball throwback to Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby). Not coincidentally, Bogdonavich was a film journalist and historian before he became a filmmaker, somewhat akin to Kobal in his unstinting support of the greats from Hollywood's studio-system days.

Additionally, previously obscure movie-buff terms were gaining mainstream traction in the '70s. Chances were if you liked movies you had some idea about auteur theory—an idea unheard of not all that long prior—as well as film noir, a category minted after the fact, sort of like "doo-wop." Open up Alain Silver, James Ursini, and Robert Porfirio's interview collection The Film Noir Reader 3 (2004, though the Q&As were conducted much earlier), and you can read many a befuddled old writer, director, actor, exec, or crew member go blank upon encountering the word "noir," followed by the interviewer explaining it. (One frequent response: "You mean melodramas?")

Hurrell's after-the-fact resonance also came about in a post-Warhol visual landscape, where the photographer's images, once commonplace, could be seen as more iconic than ever. Jane Russell owed as much of her fame to stills as to motion pictures: She was the most frankly sullen female star in the firmament, and in each of her five Kobal Collection shots, she sneers big, like Elvis with breasts. Or maybe Russell was the Elvis of breasts, since it's hard to imagine images so unabashedly sexy making it into American mass media before World War II.

Today, Russell's frankly daring poses seem almost quaint (though not tame—not remotely). But from Buzzfeed's '90s-nostalgia mining to the sweep of this year's Oscars by The Artist and Hugo, a pair of homages to the silent era and the dawn of film, respectively, we're in a throwback era of our own, as Simon Reynolds lamented in last year's Retromania. No wonder Hurrell feels newly resonant.

Or maybe not: The sheer beauty and charge of Hurrell's images are circulating again thanks to technology. Hurrell's silvery black-and-whites have an uncommon depth that, until recently, was hard to reproduce on anything but the glossy paper The Kobal Collection is printed on. Today, we're used to laptops—and cellphones—with vivid, deepened color resolution, which makes black-and-white look better. Looking at Hurrell photos pass by on my Tumblr feed, his images are available with a degree of nuance it might have been easy to miss in magazines or (certainly) newsprint reproductions. It's not like sitting with The Kobal Collection, of course. But the evolution nevertheless reinforces Hurrell's timelessness.

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27 Nov, 2012 Michaelangelo Matos