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Ethereal yet sublime: The artistry of George Hurrell

As the motion picture industry developed in the teens and twenties, it's understandable how the public began to perceive the stars projected onto these increasingly bigger screens as themselves being larger than life. But these handsome and beautiful giants needed further definition in order to become gods and goddesses, and that task turned out to be the stock in trade of the Hollywood portrait photographer.

And nobody did that better than George Hurrell.

The unquestioned king of his profession, Hurrell's lighting and posing work brought not only an Olympian majesty to his subjects, but a sense of humanity as well. Those stars in Hurrell's portraits were like us, but not of us; in many ways, they represented idealized versions of ourselves. For proof, here's a famed Hurrell portrait of Jean Harlow:



(Fans of the '80s sitcom "Night Court" might recall a huge version of this portrait hanging in the judge's office.)

We bring this up because beginning Wednesday and running through June 29, the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica is presenting "Lights! Camera! Glamour! The Photography of George Hurrell." Dozens of his Hollywood portraits will be on display, as will much of his other work. Hurrell's famed studio will even be recreated, to provide a feel for how the master of his craft worked.

Hurrell was born in Covington, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in 1904. He initially wanted to be a painter, and his art training turned out to be invaluable when he entered the field of photography.

He came to California in the 1920s to paint, at the invitation of well-known artist Edgar Payne. Staying at the Laguna Beach property of aviatrix Pancho Barnes, his photographic career started with the portrait he took of her for her pilot’s license and word of his talent quickly spread to her circle of friends.

His first commission was a series of portraits of Ramon Novarro in opera roles. Novarro’s friend Norma Shearer, then known for her wholesome roles, approached Hurrell to change her white-bread image. Here's what he came up with, even persuading Shearer to show some leg -- something she wasn't all that comfortable doing.



Hurrell's work convinced her husband, MGM production head Irving Thalberg, that she could star as the sultry lead in “The Divorcee” -- for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Moreover, Thalberg was so impressed by Hurrell's work that in 1930, he hired him as MGM's studio photographer. In mid-1932, he left MGM and became an independent contractor, setting up a studio on 8706 Sunset Boulevard that he would use through 1938:



Hurrell was an innovator. He invented the boom light, a device that enabled him to get the precise shadows he sought. He used graphite on negatives to add highlights and remove blemishes. Actors universally enjoyed working with him.

Hurrell preferred a largely natural look from his actresses. In a 1934 interview, he said, "The general rule for make-up is not to wear too much. Just a little panchromatic lip-rouge to shape your mouth the way you want it and some attention to the eyes. No facial rouge, of course, and very little powder -- or skin tones will be lost. If you are freckled, don't try to cover it up with powder. Let the retoucher take care of it."

In the years after World War II, Hurrell discovered that Hollywood's definition of glamour had changed, and his style didn't follow the trends, so he moved to New York for commercial assignments there. But by the 1980s, Hurrell's genius was being rediscovered and appreciated -- and fortunately, not only was he around to see it, his photographic artistry remained undimmed and he continued working. As proof, check out this early 1992 portrait of Sharon Stone:



Hurrell died in May of that year, a few weeks before he would have turned 88, and just after work on a documentary about his work (narrated by Stone) was completed.

Carole Lombard did her share of portraits for Hurrell, who said of her in that '34 interview, "The hollow cheeks of Carole Lombard demand full-face or full-profile. It's the in-between poses that are dangerous; her face must be evenly lighted to avoid thinness."

Records show his first session with Lombard came in early 1933, from which this portrait probably derives:



He worked a few more times with her, including thess portraits, probably from 1936 or '37:



Hurrell's most famous Lombard portrait is known primarily because Carole got a copy, signed on the back "Pa, I love you. Ma," and gave it to Clark Gable, who kept it in his dressing room for many years. Here's the renowned shot:



Now, a rarity for you: At the same session, Lombard posed for a portrait without the jacket, and while she understandably preferred the other one, this has charm in its own right:



The California Heritage Museum is at 2612 Main Street, Santa Monica, open Wednesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; phone 310-392-8537. For more about Hurrell, visit the official Web site, http://georgehurrellestate.com/.
Tags: george hurrell, irving thalberg, jean harlow, norma shearer, publicity stills, sharon stone
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