Hurrell’s studio was in Suite Number Nine from January 1928 through December 1929. I’m upstairs in Suite 48, but I do use his camera. What’s it like? I have the satisfaction of maintaining a tradition. I can make the subject look better with this technique than if I were shooting, say, with a digital camera and available light. Hurrell wanted his subjects to look their best; so do I. What would his work have been if he had been shooting exclusively for RKO Radio Pictures instead of for M-G-M or Warners? Who knows? I do think that the continuity of working in one location and having a simultaneous improvement in technology (film, paper, lighting implements) fired his imagination and propelled his growth as an artist. The one constant in the Hurrell story is that he could not stand doing the same thing or being in the same place for more than a few years. Richard Settle rented his Santa Monica Boulevard studio to Hurrell in the 80s. One story really hit me. Hurrell romanced a starlet in his darkroom at the studio on Sunset Boulevard in the late 30s.
As the head portrait photographer for MGM, Hurrell could command a $1,000 sitting fee, and his eye for the perfect shot had everyone from Greta Garbo to Clark Gable clamoring for his services.
George Hurrell made his name as the foremost portrait photographer of his time by photographing movie stars. His work during the 1930s and 40s are especially inspiring. Hurrell used a large format 10″x8″ camera, but the most notable and innovative techniques was with lighting and retouching of negatives – Hurrell often preferring his sitters not to wear make-up. Lighting was created by using spotlights attached to microphone boom stands to create harsh, dramatic lighting with strong shadows. This was used to accentuate features – eye lashes cast long shadows, cheekbones bought into relief. Softboxes where used if the effect needed to be to be softened.
This technique of using harsh spotlights is the opposite of what more conventional portrait lighting seems to be about, i.e. soft, diffused lighting using umbrellas and large soft-boxes to eliminate harsh shadows.
George Hurrell started work at MGM at the beginning of 1930 and almost immediately tranformed Hollywod photography. Brought to MGM at the insistence of Norma Shearer, his task was to make his subjects, especially women, sexy. Not only did he succeed but his work, in this respect, has never been bettered. Norma Shearer was an attractive and talented actress, who through determination and fortitude, not to mention marriage to MGM’s top producer Irving Thalberg, managed to secure most of the studio’s choicest femail roles. But she found herself increaslingly cast as the nice girl or sophisticated matron when she wanted the racier roles given to Joan Crwford and Greta Garbo. Hurrell changed Shearer’s appearace, at least in the portrait gallery, and there is no question that the lovely lady portrayed by Ruth Harriet Louise took on a new smoldering guise when seen through Hurrell’s lens. Hurrell’s very best work was saved for Joan Crawford who probably enjoyed being photographed more than any actress before Marilyn Monnroe. Of the approximately 100,000 photographs that were coded by MGM’s publicity department between 1924 and 1942, Crawford’s face appears more often than that of any other star. Hurrell and Crawford enjoyed an extraordinary collaboration, beginninng at MGM and continuing after he went independent in late 1932. Hurrell could be almost brutal with his sitters, subjecting them variously to strong lights, extreme close-ups, and complicated positions. Crawford survived all of Hurrell’s antics and her allure was only heightedned by his inventive camerawork.