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by J. M. Kessler

George Hurrell (1904-1992) was born in Covington, KY, and raised in Cincinnati, OH.  His interest in drawing began in childhood, and when he was just 16 he was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago on a scholarship. But Hurrell was a highly energetic man with a restless streak and a low threshold for boredom. He left the Institute to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, eventually dropping slow-paced art school altogether and working in a commercial photography studio making catalog photos. Three boring weeks later he walked out, but his interest in the photographic process led him to work in several more studios, all short-lived employment but each with something to learn. A good deal of experience came his way in 1924 when Hurrell was hired by acclaimed photographer Eugene Hutchinson. At his studio, Hurrell learned negative retouching, airbrushing and darkroom techniques. But the formulaic salon portraits offered little room for creativity (and Chicago winters offered less comfort), and in 1925 he went to Laguna Beach, purchased some used equipment, and within two years had settled in Los Angeles and was earning a living taking pictures of artists, their artwork, and socialites.







                                                         “If I have a special talent, it’s because I work hard and try my damnedest.                                                                     Maybe it’s mostly sweat.”








One of these socialites was the famed aviatrix Florence “Pancho” Barnes. Barnes, who held the women’s speed record for two years, had an actor friend who was not only between pictures but between careers.



Photographed by George Hurrell.

With actor friend Ramon Navarro.




Ramon Novarro had recently finished shooting The Pagan and would soon be making his first talking picture, Devil May Care. Nervous about his accent, Mexican-born Novarro decided to mount a two-fold European opera tour: grand opera would both utilize and refine his singing and acting skills, and the publicity would support his opera career (this turned out to not be the case). After training, setting up the tour, and selecting costumes, Novarro was ready for publicity stills. When he saw Pancho’s glamorous photos, he asked her for and was given a secret meeting with Hurrell.

Hurrell was anxious about shooting a world-famous actor with his used, mismatched equipment. Following standard operating procedure, he placed some jazz records on his wind-up Victrola and went to work. As a model, Novarro was responsive and inspiring. When Hurrell switched to classical music, Novarro was even more striking.   


Novarro “had photographically perfect features.”


Impressed with his proofs, Novarro was anxious to show them around. Visiting a former co-star on the set of her latest picture, he inspired one of the most famous career moves at M-G-M.

At 27, Norma Shearer wanted to break away from ingénue roles. Her idea was met with little support. “…Irving (Thalberg, husband & MGM producer) laughed at me when I told him I thought I could do Divorcee…” A few weeks after seeing Novarro’s photos, Shearer arrived at Hurrell’s studio (in her Rolls-Royce) with costumes, a hairdresser, and “Shearer” determination.  Hurrell instructed the hairdresser to fluff out Norma’s hair. He played “When My Baby Smiles At Me” on the Victrola. Shearer didn’t care for it, but Hurrell managed to get a laugh out of her by imitating the singer as the record speed slowed. (In future sessions, if the mood in the studio became too serious, Norma would start singing the song to George. It became a private joke that continued for years.) The photographs impressed Thalberg (he gasped when he saw the proofs), and The Divorcee earned Shearer an Academy Award.   


“She knew how to focus just beyond what she was looking at. She looked through the lens―to something right past it.”


When studio photographer Ruth Harriet Louise left, it was Norma Shearer who was responsible for getting Hurrell hired at M-G-M in 1930.  Over the course of his 14-year career, Hurrell worked at every major studio and independently. Among his trademarks are elongated eyelash shadows, the boom light (which he invented) highlighting the cheekbones and hair, spotlighting from the floor, and retouching the eyes to lighten the iris. His style has been imitated, then and now, but that’s not really a bad thing, is it? Hurrell’s photos are beautiful, stunning, ethereal, erotic, iconic. You want to look at them until they become a part of you, maybe hoping that some of the glamour will rub off. George Hurrell did more than advance the art of photography, or even the art of shooting stars. He enhanced the relationship between stars and their public, and created a shimmering legacy of one of the most exciting eras in cinema history.

For more photos, follow this link:

Also suggested: Mark A. Vieira’s book Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits.      


“We used to shoot pictures of (Anita Page) all over the place. Up in the trees; splashing in streams; cuddling in silks. Whenever we weren’t busy, we’d call Nita in. ‘Let’s see. What haven’t we done?’”





“If I were a sculptor, I would be satisfied with just doing Joan Crawford all the time.”


Hurrell’s favourite face belonged to Joan Crawford.  He could shoot her perfectly from every angle.  Initially, they did not get on; the freckle-faced Crawford resented being told how to pose, but got over it after the first proofs proved to be “…so very, very lovely.”  Eventually, they would have 33 sessions together, Hurrell capturing the many faces and phases of Joan Crawford.     

“(Hurrell) used to give me just one key light, and for him, I never wore makeup. Just a scrubbed face. Hurrell loved photographing me without makeup – except for my eyes and lips, of course.” – Joan Crawford

“I always tried to get them to leave the makeup off. In those days, it wasn’t easy. Because the makeup was so caked…and by the time you had retouched some wrinkles out, why, it was completely flat.”


“…She had an instinctive sense of design and of herself…She constantly altered her appearance…yet with all the changes there was a classic beauty, a weird kind of spirituality…. “





“Erudite, urbane, and amusing, (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) would give me the exact mood I wanted.”




“Loretta Young was one of the most inventive subjects I ever shot…She had radiance.”

“What I liked was the way he made you look so glamorous. And your skin looked so shiny…like you could touch it. It looked like skin. It didn’t look like chalk.”  - Loretta Young





“She was very sensitive to suggestions…she would deftly move her palm or fingers a fraction of an inch without altering the whole effect.”

“When you got her alone, she became sweet and shy. It was like she didn’t have to be ‘Jean Harlow’ anymore.”



“They got George Hurrell to take sexy-looking photos of me – he didn’t know what ‘oomph’ was either – and it snowballed on them.” –Ann Sheridan



“There was something in her face I’d not seen before…a special kind of beauty…a kind of inner anguish.”

“I don’t want some glamour girl stuff. I want to be known as a serious actress, nothing else.” – Bette Davis


Hurrell was paid $4000.00 by Howard Hughes to photograph an unknown teen.


Jane: “I feel like a guinea pig.”

George: “You won’t when we’ve finished with you.”

“She was a great gal.”



“If (Rita Hayworth) was experiencing a case of the blahs, all I had to do was place a tango, samba, or rumba record on the phonograph, and her spirits would perk up.”




Mary Pickford wanted to drop the “Sweetheart” persona.

    Using a mirror, Hurrell was photographed with, and by, Robert Montgomery.

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