Starlight and Shadow

George Hurrell's brilliantly orchestrated photographs helped define Hollywood glamour in the 1930s.

The Atlantic , July/August 2007


All images copyright George Hurrell, Hurrell Enterprises
Photos from the collection of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive

George 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 didn’t record the Great Depression or the Dust Bowl, celebrate Hitler or Stalin, or turn machines and buildings into powerful abstractions. Hurrell 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, he developed the lighting techniques and visual vocabulary that gave Hollywood stars their special aura of grace, mystery, and perfection. He was the master of Hollywood glamour.

Until recently, his subjects’ celebrity overshadowed his art; even collectors generally paid more attention to Hurrell’s subjects than to his techniques. “If you had a photograph by Hurrell, it wasn’t because you thought it was great art but because it was the best photograph you’d seen of that star. It was more fan-based collecting,” says the Hurrell collector Louis F. D’Elia, a Pasadena neuropsychologist and an exception to the rule.

With memories of the era’s stars fading, however, museums and art collectors have begun to recognize the photographs’ aesthetic value. It’s the difference between revering a Madonna and Child as a devotional object and appreciating the artist’s use of perspective or sfumato.

“You concentrate less on ‘That’s Clark Gable’ or ‘That’s Greta Garbo,’ and you focus more on the lighting, the retouching, the extreme detail, the way the eyelashes are drawn in,” says Virginia Heckert, an associate curator of photography at the Getty Museum.

MYRNA LOY (1932)

One result of this new appreciation: much higher prices. In February, a vintage 10-by-13 photo of Norma Shearer sold for $4,094 on eBay, and one of Myrna Loy went for $6,768. Two years earlier, “you could pick some of these up for $500 or $550,” says D’Elia, who bought his first Hurrell—an elegant 1930 portrait of silent-era star Dorothy Jordan—as a teenager in 1967, bargaining the seller down from $8 to $5.

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 said.

Hurrell never intended to invent a new photographic idiom, or even to go to Hollywood. He dreamed of being a painter, and in 1925, shortly before his 21st birthday, he moved from Chicago to California, where he settled in the seaside artists’ colony of Laguna Beach. He soon found photography a more reliable source of income than painting, and began taking pictures of local artists, socialites, and other visitors, eventually opening a studio in Los Angeles. “I became a photographer because I had to make a living,” he explained. Hurrell had no qualms about mixing art and commerce.


One of his first friends in Southern California was Florence “Pancho” Barnes, a Pasadena heiress and free-spirited early aviator. (She appears in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.) She encouraged Hurrell’s photography and often posed for him. In the photo for her pilot’s license, he had her strike a masculine pose, complete with cigarette and grimy fingernails. The mannish persona was a dig at Orville Wright, who had to approve the license and supposedly didn’t care for female pilots. Through Hurrell’s lens, Barnes becomes a model of self-contained, modern femininity: She’s wearing a man’s shirt, but her dreamy eyes, bare throat, tousled bangs, slim fingers, and soft lips reveal her womanly nature. Avoiding the soft focus then in vogue, Hurrell used shadow to shape her face. “I was trying to get character into my work,” he later said. “That’s why I went sharp.”

In early 1929, Barnes’s best friend, the silent-film star Ramón Novarro, was worried that his career might not survive the talkies. The Mexican-born actor spoke English with an accent, and despite his success in hits like Ben-Hur, he thought he might be better off pursuing an opera career in Europe. He needed publicity photographs showing him in various roles, but didn’t want to tip off the bosses at MGM by using a studio photographer. Playing classical music on his Victrola, Hurrell photographed Novarro in costume, first at his tiny studio and later at Novarro’s home and at Barnes’s ranch. Compared with Hurrell’s later portraits, these soft-focus photographs look like sentimental pictorialism. But Novarro loved them. “You have captured my moods exactly,” he told the photographer.


Novarro recommended Hurrell to another MGM star who needed photos done on the sly. Norma Shearer, one of the studio’s most popular stars, wanted the title role in The Divorcée, but her own husband, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, thought she wasn’t sexy enough for the part—she had been typecast as a dignified lady. She hired Hurrell to prove otherwise. Playing jazz records and singing along as his wind-up gramophone slowed to a growl, Hurrell mussed her well-coiffed hair and made her show some shoulder and leg. Amused by his bad singing, she began to have fun playing the temptress. In the photos, Shearer looks the sophisticated seductress, completely at ease and enjoying herself. She got the Divorcée part—and won an Oscar for the role. And Hurrell, on the recommendation of the “queen of the lot,” got a job shooting publicity portraits at MGM.

Such photos were a major element in the studio’s star-making process, establishing and updating actors’ public identities and promoting them between films. Studio publicity departments placed these photos in magazines and sent copies in reply to fan mail. Even more than the movies themselves, the stills depicted a grace that could transcend age and time. The goal was not to humanize stars but to elevate them: These were not down-to-earth pals but idealized screen gods and goddesses.


Yet these photos weren’t entirely artificial. Not even the most gifted photographer can create charisma with only lights and a retouching pencil. Hurrell didn’t invent Joan Crawford’s drive or Jean Harlow’s sexuality. Rather, he encouraged the stars to reveal their inner selves to his lens. Then he intensified their defining qualities, while creating mystery with light and shadow.

Crawford, who was just 26 when Hurrell first photographed her, became his most frequent subject. A famous clotheshorse, she often posed in Adrian’s trendsetting costume designs, but Hurrell’s most striking portraits of her downplay her outfits, focusing on her intense eyes and determined mouth. In their first meeting, she tried to stick to her practiced poses. Hurrell preferred to have his subjects relax and move more spontaneously, allowing him to add the photo’s artifice. (From his heavily retouched photos, you would never know that Crawford’s face was covered with freckles.) Crawford and Hurrell argued throughout the shoot, but the proofs persuaded her to trust him. Even after he left MGM in 1932 to work independently, she continued to use him. He consistently made her look like a sophisticated, powerful star.

His one session with Greta Garbo did not go as well. To shoot promotional photos for Romance, she came laden with heavy 19th-century costumes of velvet and fur, her hair done in period ringlets. And she already had her poses in mind. Hurrell played the cutup, dancing around the studio. He wanted the “real,” lighthearted Garbo. But the star refused to lift the veil that had created her glamour. As the session went on, she became stiffer and stiffer, while Hurrell acted sillier and sillier. Finally, he accidentally tripped, she cracked a spontaneous smile, and he hit the shutter. The shot was only a temporary triumph, though: Garbo never used that “crazy man” again, relying instead on MGM’s Clarence Bull.


Jean Harlow, by contrast, was Hurrell’s most malleable subject. Just 21 when MGM bought her contract from Howard Hughes in 1932, the platinum blonde had a straightforward appeal: Harlow was overtly sexual. In a 1933 shot whose composition works from any angle, Harlow lies on her back, with her hair spread above her head. She clutches her hair with her right hand and drapes the back of her left hand against the side of her head. Her face is shiny and flushed. This is, the photo suggests, either a postcoital moment or the contemplation of one.

To Harlow’s obvious sex appeal, Hurrell added mystery. In 1932, he shot her in a soft, oversized coat, making her look small and playing up her childlike vulnerability—while letting the viewer imagine that she had nothing on underneath. In an iconic 1935 shot, he used complex light and shadow to add depth to her hair and sharpen her soft features, giving her a stronger character and more rarefied sexuality than in her less-stylized portraits. Here, the down-to-earth good-time girl becomes a screen goddess, an “angel trapped on earth,” in the words of D’Elia.

After World War II, the studio system broke down, and screen deities went out of fashion. Actors were demystified and desexualized; they became “just like us,” only prettier. Technology also changed, as photographers adopted 35-millimeter film and stopped routinely retouching their shots. “When we stopped using those 8-by-10 cameras, the glamour was gone,” said Hurrell, who turned to shooting TV stills and fashion spreads.


He lived to see his distinctive style rediscovered in the 1980s. After the studied wholesomeness of postwar Hollywood and the gritty antiheroes of the Vietnam era, audiences were again ready for honest artifice and larger-than-life stars. As moviemakers discovered the appeal of sculpted bodies, Hurrell turned bodybuilders like Dolph Lundgren, Grace Jones, and Arnold Schwarzenegger into new icons, helping to redefine contemporary glamour.

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.”

Hurrell’s work emphasized beauty. And it celebrated the human face. Now that we’ve largely forgotten the personas those faces represented, we can more fully appreciate the photographer’s art.

This article is adapted from the catalog essay for “Lights! Camera! Glamour!,” an exhibition of George Hurrell’s photographs, curated by Louis F. D’Elia, which travels to the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica in January 2008.