George Hurrell was dubbed the “Grand Seigneur of the Hollywood Portrait”. His work set a new standard for Hollywood portraits that has never been equaled. It even inspired a new name for the genre; glamour photography.

Born in Covington, Kentucky in 1904, he developed any early interest in painting and drawing. He learned how to use a camera so that he could photograph his own paintings. Hurrell attended the Art Institute of Chicago and after graduating he was commissioned in 1925 by an art colony in Laguna Beach, CA, to photograph painters and their paintings. Hurrell hoped to continue his art studies but soon found that photography was taking the place of painting.

One of Hurrell’s first known subjects was the Poncho Barnes, the famed aviatrix. As a result of that photo session Ms. Barnes introduced Hurrell to actor and silent film star Ramon Novarro, who commissioned a series of portraits. Novarro was thrilled with the results and showed them to his co-workers at MGM Studios. They immediately grabbed the attention of Norma Shearer, a leading lady of the day. Shearer had been trying to convince MGM production chief (and her husband) Irving G. Thalberg that she had what it took to play the sizzling lead role in The Divorcée. She hired Hurrell to take some provocative portraits. Not only did she land the roll, but Thalberg was so impressed that he hired Hurrell as the head of the MGM portrait gallery in 1930.

For the next two years, Hurrell photographed every star at MGM Studios; from Joan Crawford and Clark Gable to Wallace Beery and Greta Garbo. In 1932, after a disagreement with MGM publicity chief Howard Strickling, Hurrell left to set up his own studio on Sunset Boulevard. He soon became the toast of the town and all the major stars flocked to Hurrell for portraits.

Movies remained Hurrell’s first love and after six years he closed his studio and moved to Warner Brothers. It was there that he helped build the careers of Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Errol Flynn. Hurrell later moved to Columbia Pictures where he was instrumental in shaping the image of Rita Hayworth.

Shortly thereafter Hurrell served in the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Force, photographing Generals at the Pentagon and shooting training films. He returned to Hollywood to find that his grand old style of glamour photography have fallen out of fashion. In the early 1950s he relocated to New York, where he continued to shoot advertising and fashion lay-outs. He and his wife, Phyllis returned to Hollywood in 1952 and started a television production company on the Disney lot. After two years he returned to New York and then in 1956 he returned to Southern California, permanently settling in the area and returning to the film industry as a unit still photographer.

In 1965 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held an exhibition of his famous portraiture. This show was a great success and was followed by exhibitions in other museums throughout the world. Although he officially retired in 1976, Hurrell did continue to photograph the stars of the new Hollywood. Sharon Stone, John Travolta and Brooke Shields were among those fortunate enough to sit for the master of light and shadow. Among his last assignments were photographing Warren Beatty and Annette Benning for the motion picture Bugsy, and Natalie Cole for the cover of her best-selling “Unforgettable” album.

During the last years of his life, Hurrell worked with Producer J. Grier Clarke and Producer-Director Carl Colby on Legends in Light, the first major film retrospective of his work. George Hurrell died of cancer in 1992.

I would like to thank Mr. Mark A. Vieira for much of the information contained in this biography. I highly recommend his book, Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits: The Chapman Collection, Harry N. Abrams Publishing, 1997.

Other Recommended Reading:

The Portfolios of George Hurrell, by Gene Thornton, Graystone Books, hardcover published in 1991.

50 Years of Photographing Hollywood: The Hurrell Style, by Whitney Stine, The John Day Company, hardcover published in 1976 (reprinted by Greenwich House in 1983).

Hurrell Hollywood: Photographs 1928-1990, St. Martin’s Press, hardcover published 1992.

Other photographs by this artist are also available. Please contact Soulcatcher Studio
if you are interested in these or any other images.

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