Wednesday, 22 August 2012

George Hurrell: The Kobal Collection

George Hurrell (June 1, 1904 – May 17, 1992) was a photographer who made a significant contribution to the image of glamour presented by Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s
In the late 1920s, Hurrell was introduced to the actor Ramon Novarro, by Pancho Barnes, and agreed to take a series of photographs of him.  Novarro was impressed with the results and showed them to the actress Norma Shearer, who was attempting to mould her wholesome image into something more glamorous and sophisticated in an attempt to land the title role in the movie The Divorcee. She asked Hurrell to photograph her in poses more provocative than her fans had seen before. After she showed these photographs to her husband, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, Thalberg was so impressed that he signed Hurrell to a contract with MGM Studios, making him head of the portrait photography department. But in 1932, Hurrell left MGM after differences with their publicity head, and from then on until 1938 ran his own studio at 8706 Sunset Boulevard.
Throughout the decade, Hurrell photographed every star contracted to MGM, and his striking black-and-white images were used extensively in the marketing of these stars. Among the performers regularly photographed by him during these years were silent screen star Dorothy Jordan, as well as Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard and Norma Shearer, who was said to have refused to allow herself to be photographed by anyone else. He also photographed Greta Garbo at a session to produce promotional material for the movie Romance. The session didn't go well and she never used him again.
In the early 1940s Hurrell moved to Warner Brothers Studios photographing, among others Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Alexis Smith, Maxine Fife, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. Later in the decade he moved to Columbia Pictures where his photographs were used to help the studio build the career of Rita Hayworth.
Postwar: He left Hollywood briefly to make training films for the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. When he returned to Hollywood in the mid 1950s his old style of glamour had fallen from favour. Where he had worked hard to create an idealised image of his subjects, the new style of glamour was more earthy and gritty, and for the first time in his career Hurrell was not seen as an innovator. He moved to New York where he worked for fashion magazines and photographed for advertisements before returning to Hollywood in the 1960s.
An exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965 caused a revival of interest, and he continued to work sporadically. By the 1970s he was photographing such celebrities as Raquel Welch, Cher, Farrah Fawcett and John Travolta. He officially retired in 1976 but would still take photographs if he was particularly interested in the subject. Sharon Stone and Brooke Shields were two stars he felt conveyed the type of glamour he enjoyed photographing, and they posed for him several times during the 1980s . In 1984 when Joan Collins was asked to pose for Playboy at the age of 50 she insisted that the only photographer she would accept was Hurrell, he photographed Collins in a nude 12 page layout and the issue became a bestseller. Among his last works were production stills featuring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening for the film Bugsy and the cover artwork for the Natalie Cole album Unforgettable... with Love. In 1992, during the making of a documentary about his career, he took a series of photographs of actors Sherilyn Fenn, Sharon Stone, Julian Sands, Raquel Welch, Eric Roberts and Sean Penn. In these portraits he recreated his style of the 1930s, with these actors posing in costumes, hairstyle and makeup of the period.

Hurrell died shortly after completing the documentary from complications from his long standing problem with bladder cancer. When his doctors delivered the message to him that he had perhaps only a day left to live, he replied, "Well, the party is over. Time to go home." He died on May 17, 1992.
Since his death, his works have appreciated in value and are highly sought after as fine art by collectors.

‘A Hurrell portrait is to the ordinary publicity still about what a Rolls-Royce is to a roller-skate.’ Esquire, 1936.

Hurrell: The Kobal Collection
in / August 16, 2012
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.

Hurell: The Kobal Collection edited by Tony Nourmand and Phil Moad published by Reel Art Press, price £45. More info at

George Hurrell: Hollywood's icon maker

MATILDA BATTERSBY    TUESDAY 21 AUGUST 2012 in The Independent
George Hurrell gave the Golden Age of Hollywood its glossy sheen and soft-focus seductiveness. He was the foremost publicity stills photographer of the day - a man responsible for creating icons.

Hurrell’s portfolio reads like an A-list who’s who: Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Lawrence Olivier, Rita Hayworth, to name a few. Many stars refused to sit for anyone else.

It was Hurrell who suggested Veronica Lake should flick a sumptuous curl over one cheek and peer through it in what became known as her peekaboo look. In another stroke of genius, he snapped a sultry (and bra-less) Jane Russell in a haystack. His black and white portraits show a creativity of composition and painterly flare that modern photographers have since plundered.

Click here or on "View Gallery" for more Hurrell pictures

"A Hurrell portrait is to the ordinary publicity still about what a Rolls-Royce is to a roller-skate," wrote Esquire in 1936.

He developed his own spotlighting and soft focus techniques, such as fitting a boom microphone with a light so that he could move it around his studio. He was skilled at retouching the negatives, decades before Photoshop made such airbrushing commonplace, and preferred his subjects to wear little make-up in the days when drawn on eyebrows and overtly painted mouths were ubiquitous.

It took a while for the artistry of Hurrell’s portraits to gain more attention than their high profile subjects. But collectors began showing interest in his work and in in 1981 one of his portraits of Ramon Novarro sold at Christie’s for $9,000 – the first time a still had ever sold for such a price. The piece is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

Hurrell, who died 20 years ago, outlived many of the stars he photographed and is now recognised as one of America’s greatest portrait photographers.

George Hurrell: the master of the Hollywood still
George Hurrell didn't just photograph Hollywood's greats: as a new collection of his work reveals, he also imbued them with their mysterious allure
By Lucy Davies 14 Aug 2012 in The Telegraph
At 16, George Hurrell couldn’t decide whether to become a priest or an artist. A Chicago resident, he applied to both the Quigley Seminary and the Art Institute, hoping the decision would be made for him, but was accepted at both. If I reveal that before he turned 40 he had divorced his first, beauty contestant wife to marry into the Disney family; that his friends included Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth and a Pasadena aviatrix heiress, you can guess which path he took. And lucky for us he did. As the foremost portrait photographer in Hollywood, he gave its stars their sheen of grace and mystery. “A Hurrell portrait is to the ordinary publicity still,” said Esquire magazine, in 1936, “what a Rolls-Royce is to a roller-skate.”
Until recently, though, Hurrell’s photographs were valued for their famous subjects rather than his skill; few troubled to read the author-stamp on their yellowing backs. Now, thanks to the late John Kobal, a film buff who began collecting Hurrell’s work in the Seventies, they have been amassed, catalogued and restored. Highly prized, they rarely appear on the market, but when they do, command thousands.
What makes a Hurrell portrait so alluring? “The most essential thing about my style was working with shadows to design the face instead of flooding it with light,” he said. He fitted a boom microphone with a light so he could move it around his studio and sculpt with precision. Jawlines and cheekbones were brought into sharp relief, imbuing their owners with a magnetism they hardly possessed in real life. He was a master of retouching, preferring his subjects make-up free so he could work on the negative afterwards.
Such expertise came at a time when glamour was in high demand. His appointment at MGM came a few months after America had plunged into the Depression. Even as people queued for bread, they found a nickel for the cinema, desperate for the escape its gods and goddesses offered.
Hurrell came to California as a landscape painter, but began taking photographs of locals to boost his income. He struck gold with aviatrix Florence “Pancho” Barnes, rendering her masculine, portly appearance as radiant and handsome. The silent film star Ramón Novarro saw the image and engaged Hurrell to take his. Next came Norma Shearer, wearing nothing but a gold, fur-trimmed dressing gown. Hurrell had soon photographed every star on the lot, from Clark Gable to Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn. His zenith came in the early forties, when he styled Veronica Lake’s hair into its famous peek-a-boo style and stood a gun-toting Jane Russell on a haystack. Not only did the portraits establish both actresses, they became pin-up sensations – hardly a soldier departing for the front didn’t have one or the other in his pack.
But when Hurrell returned from war service he found glamour photography out of fashion. By the time he was rediscovered in the Seventies, Ramón Novarro had been murdered, Veronica Lake had died of alcoholism and both Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo were recluses. Joan Crawford lived to see her friend’s work rediscovered but only just — she died a year later, in 1977.
Hurrell’s fortunes revived in the Eighties, with the return of glamour. One of his clients was Sharon Stone, then a virtual unknown. She later said: “I’ve done photo sessions with maybe a thousand different photographers. They take hundreds and hundreds of pictures. George takes three frames and every one is good.”

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