Reel Art Press’s collection of George Hurrell’s studio portraiture, a snapshot of decadence from Hollywood’s Golden Age
Few photographers truly manage to capture a zeitgeist — fewer still create one. With his extensive portfolio of portraiture, George Hurrell engineered the image of Hollywood glamour, photographing the likes of Buster Keaton, Clark Gable and iconic screen sirens such as Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford throughout American cinema’s Golden Age.
Reel Art Press’s new coffee table book Hurrell: The Kobal Collection takes an extensive look at some of Hurrell’s most iconic portraits (and stars) in this rich 285-page collection, showcasing why Hurrell is considered to be the best photographer of his type and generation.
Revolutionising Hollywood portraiture through his use of negative retouching (a skill commonly lumped in with the rise of the digital medium and the tabloids but extensively used by Hurrell through the 1930s and 40s) and soft lighting, Hurrell’s education as a painter at Chicago’s Art Institute provided him with the building blocks that would come to typify his portraiture: shadow, light, texture and contrast.
For more than twenty years, Hurrell was the go-to photographer for studios and actors alike, and during his career (which spanned talkie to technicolour) Hurrel developed techniques that have made his photographs some of the most sought after in the world. In 1936, Esquire stated “A Hurrell is to the ordinary publicity still what a Rolls-Royce is to a roller-skate”.
Hurrell himself explained the alchemy of his work, in which he worked “with shadows to design the face instead of flooding it with light”, a technique which emphasised cheekbones and jaw lines, creating natural contrast and drama which came to typify glamour photography. Using these techniques, Hurrell reinvented starlets such as Norma Shearer (who was considered too “girl next door” to star in more risqué roles until her Hurrell make-over, which won her the lead role in The Divorcee and a subsequent Academy Award), silent film star Ramón Novarro and Veronica Lake, whose peek-a-boo hair style and femme fatale looks was composed by Hurrell.
The Kobal Collection is testimony to Hollywood’s most glamorous (and luxurious period), with John Kobal being its foremost historian. As the curtain descended on Hollywood’s Golden Era, it was Kobal who set about creating an archive of photography, posters and stills from the industry, recognizing the importance of documenting these items long before the studios took measures to do so. As a result, Kobal’s collection is the most extensive of its kind, and Hurrell: The Kobal Collection features previously unprinted photographs from the archive, and offers a fascinating visual commentary on Hollywood at its peak.
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