March 5th, 2020

carole lombard 04
  • vp19

A goddess in Griffith Park

That stunning Carole Lombard portrait, from Hollywood magazine, is a magazine cover photo, in genuine color, from 1931. Its pioneering photographer -- and another icon he pictured to stunning effect -- is the subject of today's entry.

Edwin Bower Hesser was famed in the 1920s and '30s for his work in glamour photography. Beginning in 1919, he took scores of photos of Follies and film stars in both New York and Los Angeles; the pictures' subjects often were partially or fully undraped. Not always, however, as witnessed by this shot of Carole:

Hesser developed an early form of color photography known as Hessercolor, although he was never able to conquer Kodak in this market, and ran a monthly magazine highlighting his glamour work while evading censors. (His portraits were never explicit in their nudity, and the subscription-free magazines were not distributed through the mail.)

But Hesser's most famous Hollywood subject was, like Lombard, a teen blonde from the midwest who got some early movie training in silent two-reelers (Hal Roach rather than Mack Sennett). We are, of course, referring to Jean Harlow, whose 109th birth anniversary was Tuesday.

Ninety-one years ago this month, Harlow and Hesser collaborated on a session at an equally iconic site -- Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Noted Harlow expert Darrell Rooney tracked down a feature from the Times of London magazine on July 28, 2007:

Goddess, indeed.

As you can tell, Hesser took numerous shots of Jean, who had just turned 18 and thus now was technically an adult. (Given her filmy outfit, designed to accentuate the nude classical female form, this was important legally.) In honor of Harlow, some larger versions of these stunning portraits:

Anyone wishing to replicate such photos today might find it difficult -- and not only legally. Over the years, Griffith Park's topography has changed, and many of the secluded spots Hesser and Harlow employed no longer exist.

They collaborated on a few interior pics too, including this headshot which, by their standards, appears downright conventional:

Hesser (1893-1962) would live longer than Harlow and Lombard combined. He died Aug. 7, 1962, days after a later blonde icon known for her nudes, Marilyn Monroe.
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