George Hurrell (1904-1992 American)
The man dubbed the “Grand Seigneur of the Hollywood Portrait,” was born in Covington, KY, across the river from Cincinnati, in 1904. By the time he was eight, young George Hurrell had developed an interest in painting and drawing. He fell into photography almost by accident, originally learning how to use a camera so that he could photograph his paintings.
After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Hurrell was commissioned to photograph paintings and painters in Laguna Beach, CA, art colony in 1925. Prompting Hurrell move west to continue his art studies. Before long, however, taking pictures took the place of painting pictures as he found more work shooting portraits.
One of Hurrell’s first subjects was the famed aviatrix Poncho Barnes. Through her, he met silent-screen star Ramon Novarro, who commissioned a series of portraits from Hurrell. Thrilled with the results, Novarro showed off his new stills to co-workers at MGM, where they caught the eye of leading lady Norma Shearer. Shearer was desperate to convince her husband, MGM production chief Irving G. Thalberg that she could generate enough sex appeal to play the lead in The Divorcée. She
hired Hurrell to take some sizzling photos that landed her the role.
Thalberg and Shearer were so impressed with Hurrell’s work that he was hired as head of the MGM portrait gallery in 1930.
For the next two years, Hurrell photographed every star at M-G-M, from Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Greta Garbo to Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler. His work set a new standard for Hollywood portraits. It even inspired a new name for the genre – glamour photography.
After a disagreement with M-G-M publicity head Howard Strickling, Hurrell left to set up his own studio on Sunset Boulevard. The stars flocked to Hurrell for portraits.
It was the movies that remained Hurrell’s first love. After six years, he moved to Warner Bros., helping build the careers of such stars as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn and James Cagney. Hurrell moved to Columbia, where he shaped Rita Hayworth’s image.
During WW2 after he served in with the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Force, he shot training films and photographed generals at the Pentagon. After the war, Hurrell returned to Hollywood, but soon found glamour photography had fallen out of fashion. He relocated to New York and continued shooting advertising and fashion layouts through the 50’s.
In 1952, Hurrell returned to Hollywood and started a television production company with his wife, Phyllis. It was located on the Disney lot. After two years, he returned to New York. He settled in Southern California permanently in 1956, eventually moving back into the film industry as a unit still man.
Beginning in 1965 with an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern-art his work has been showcased at museums throughout the world. One of the first books published “The Hurrell Style” by John Day & Company, in 1976, was followed by other commemorative books and special-edition prints of his work. It was during these years that he shot stars like Liza Minelli, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford. Even after his retirement in 1976, he continued to shoot portraits, adding to his portfolio such representatives of the new Hollywood as Sharon Stone, Brooke Shields and John Travolta. Among his last assignments were photographing Warren Beatty and Annette Benning for Bugsy, Natalie Cole for the best-selling “Unforgettable” album and a fashion layout with Jennifer Flavin, his last photographic subject.
George Hurrell died of cancer in 1992.
- The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
- Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England
- Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, California
- George Eastman House, Rochester, New York
- Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
- Library of Congress, Washington, DC
- Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, California
- Laguna Beach Museum, Laguna Beach, California
- International Center for Photography, New York, New York
- Museum of Fine Art, Houston, Texas
- Getty Museum, Santa Monica, California
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California
- University Art Museum, University of Arizona, Tuscon, Arizona
- Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington
- Cincinnati Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio