Lights, Camera, Glamour

George Hurrell's Celebrity Photographs

George Hurrell

Perhaps no other photographer’s work brings to mind early 20th century Hollywood glamour quite like George Hurrell’s. His path to photography was rather circuitous; trained in fine art, he initially used photography as a means to record his paintings. After moving to Laguna Beach, California in the mid-1920s, one of his new connections, Edward Steichen, encouraged him to pursue photography full-time after seeing Hurrell’s work. Hurrell soon found photography to be more lucrative and never looked back. One of Hurrell’s other friends, aviator Pancho Barnes, introduced him to actor Ramon Novarro in the late 1920s. Hurrell agreed to take a series of photographs of Novarro, who was so impressed by the results that he showed them to actress Norma Shearer. The striking, sensuous black and white photographs he took of Shearer caught the attention of MGM Studios, and thus began Hurrell’s wildly successful career as photographer to the stars.

He would go on to photograph most of the major silver screen stars of the 1930s and 40s, including Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall to name but a few. Hurrell is credited with creating the standard for idealized Hollywood portraits. As curator Dr. Louis F. D’Elia explains, “he invented the boom light and developed several—now standard—lighting techniques. [His] signature use of precision lighting, spotlights, shadows, and hand-retouching on the negatives produced romantic portraits that became his trademark style and the definition of glamour for the movie industry. This influential look became known as ‘Hurrell style.’” Gazing at Hurrell’s hazy, sensual, black and white portraits feels akin to peering through a gauzy partition and into the glitz and glamour of a bygone era.