At 16, George Hurrell couldn’t decide whether to become a priest or an artist. A Chicago resident, he applied to both the Quigley Seminary and the Art Institute, hoping the decision would be made for him, but was accepted at both. If I reveal that before he turned 40 he had divorced his first, beauty contestant wife to marry into the Disney family; that his friends included Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth and a Pasadena aviatrix heiress, you can guess which path he took. And lucky for us he did. As the foremost portrait photographer in Hollywood, he gave its stars their sheen of grace and mystery. “A Hurrell portrait is to the ordinary publicity still,” said Esquire magazine, in 1936, “what a Rolls-Royce is to a roller-skate.”
Until recently, though, Hurrell’s photographs were valued for their famous subjects rather than his skill; few troubled to read the author-stamp on their yellowing backs. Now, thanks to the late John Kobal, a film buff who began collecting Hurrell’s work in the Seventies, they have been amassed, catalogued and restored. Highly prized, they rarely appear on the market, but when they do, command thousands.
What makes a Hurrell portrait so alluring? “The most essential thing about my style was working with shadows to design the face instead of flooding it with light,” he said. He fitted a boom microphone with a light so he could move it around his studio and sculpt with precision. Jawlines and cheekbones were brought into sharp relief, imbuing their owners with a magnetism they hardly possessed in real life. He was a master of retouching, preferring his subjects make-up free so he could work on the negative afterwards.
Such expertise came at a time when glamour was in high demand. His appointment at MGM came a few months after America had plunged into the Depression. Even as people queued for bread, they found a nickel for the cinema, desperate for the escape its gods and goddesses offered.
Hurrell came to California as a landscape painter, but began taking photographs of locals to boost his income. He struck gold with aviatrix Florence “Pancho” Barnes, rendering her masculine, portly appearance as radiant and handsome. The silent film star Ramón Novarro saw the image and engaged Hurrell to take his. Next came Norma Shearer, wearing nothing but a gold, fur-trimmed dressing gown. Hurrell had soon photographed every star on the lot, from Clark Gable to Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn. His zenith came in the early forties, when he styled Veronica Lake’s hair into its famous peek-a-boo style and stood a gun-toting Jane Russell on a haystack. Not only did the portraits establish both actresses, they became pin-up sensations – hardly a soldier departing for the front didn’t have one or the other in his pack.
But when Hurrell returned from war service he found glamour photography out of fashion. By the time he was rediscovered in the Seventies, Ramón Novarro had been murdered, Veronica Lake had died of alcoholism and both Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo were recluses. Joan Crawford lived to see her friend’s work rediscovered but only just — she died a year later, in 1977.
Hurrell’s fortunes revived in the Eighties, with the return of glamour. One of his clients was Sharon Stone, then a virtual unknown. She later said: “I’ve done photo sessions with maybe a thousand different photographers. They take hundreds and hundreds of pictures. George takes three frames and every one is good.”