PHOTOGRAPHY: George Hurrell’s portraiture

I was recently honoured to be part of my lovely and talented friend Emma’s latest photography project; a 40s Hollywood glamour shoot which forms part of her final year of Photography study. Together with a friend, the gorgeous and elegant Deb Wilson, who modelled some of her very own homemade artisan jewels, we tried to evoke and capture the mood of the early Hollywood head shots by master of black and white glamour photography, George Hurrell.

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Hurrell (1904–1992) was one of the most important American photographers of the 1930s, but you won’t find his work in many history books.  He made commercial portraits of movie stars between 1930, when he became the primary portrait photographer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and 1942, when he was drafted to take photos for the Army. During this time he developed the lighting techniques and visual vocabulary that gave Hollywood stars their special aura of grace, mystery, and perfection. He is considered the master of Hollywood glamour, encouraging his stars to reveal their inner selves to his lens. Then he intensified their defining qualities, while creating mystery with light and shadow.

Such photos were a major element in the studio’s star-making process, establishing and updating actors’ public identities and promoting them between films. Even more than the movies themselves, the stills depicted a grace that could transcend age and time. The goal was not to humanise stars but to elevate them: These were not down-to-earth actors, but idealised screen gods and goddesses.

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The brief for me for Emma’s shoot was fairly straightforward; glamorous, elegant makeup, not too heavy, but with enough texture to the eyes and cheeks to ensure that they come alive out of all that shadow. Strong lips in a creme texture, smouldery eyes without being too heavy or dark on the lids. Nice.

We were all very pleased with the results and Emma did an absolutely tremendous job of capturing Deb’s beauty whilst staying true to the spirit and the mood of Hurrell’s work. She was adept at getting the lighting just perfect, which resulted in some truly phenomenal shots that really evoke that true Hollywood glamour vibe; the kind of shots that just take your breath away with their still, refined elegance and subdued mood.

I will post some of our handiwork in a separate post soon!  For now, enjoy some of the inspiration for this shoot by the fabulous George Hurrell:

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Carole Lombard

Hurrell considered glamour an illusion intrinsic to photography. “All of us glamorize everything, including the [documentary photographers] who glamorize filth and squalor,” he said. “Even [Hurrell’s friend, the noted photographer Edward] Weston does it, taking a picture of a gnarled tree trunk. It’s a question of emphasizing … the dirt or the beauty.”

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Veronica Lake – 1941

Hurrell’s work emphasized beauty and celebrated the human face.

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Joan Crawford 1934

Hurrell sculpted his subjects’ faces with light and shadow, using an easily movable boom light that he modeled on a boom microphone, to illuminate cheekbones and create shadows under the eyes and nose. “The most essential thing about my style was working with shadows to design the face instead of flooding it with light,” he has said.

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Carole Lombard 1934/36

Until recently, his subjects’ celebrity overshadowed his art; even collectors generally paid more attention to Hurrell’s subjects than to his techniques.  However, with memories of the era’s stars fading, however, museums and art collectors have begun to recognize the photographs’ aesthetic value. The focus is now less on the subject and now on the considered and beautiful lighting, the retouching, the extreme detail, the way the eyelashes are drawn in.

Joan Crawford - by George Hurrell 1935

Joan Crawford

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Joan Crawford

Hedy Lamar

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