The Art of Glamour #3 - George Hurrell, The Master of Light & Shade
As Norma Desmond put it in Sunset Boulevard, the stars of the golden age of Hollywood had faces. But more than the movies, it was the studio portraits that elevated the artifice of image into an art form.
These photographs played an instrumental role in the star-making process. And the studios directed it all, from the make-up, the hair, the wardrobe, and perhaps most importantly, in hiring the right stills photographer.
George Hurrell is credited with creating the idealised Hollywood portrait as we recognise it today. His innovative signature style would define glamour for the movie industry. A classically trained painter, he employed fine art techniques in his compositions, aiming for a clarity and an intensity that were new for the time, while abandoning the soft focus filters used by his contemporaries to blur and prettify. Hurrell’s use of minimal lighting and precise spotlight placement created dramatic highlights and deep shadows. Sculpting with light and shade, as though he were working with a piece of alabaster, his subjects were transformed into untouchable screen gods and goddesses.
'The most essential thing about my style was working with shadows to design the face instead of flooding it with light’
– George Hurrell
The final component of glamour photography was retouching, to erase any stubborn physical imperfection thought unforgivable in a star. One of the most famous examples was Hurrell’s image of Joan Crawford. Shot in 1931, his re-toucher James Sharp used a machine that allowed him to manually paint away blemishes, freckles, and fine lines; it was highly skilled, and painstaking work that, in this case, lasted six hours to achieve perfection.
Of course, one unwelcome, and not always avoidable, effect of this process was the disappointment stars might encounter when they met their fans in the flesh.
‘I think it shocks people to see how many freckles I have. I’ve never counted them. I tried, but I lost count’
– Joan Crawford
Today we have Facetune and Photoshop at our fingertips, but the modern images created with software don’t quite have the same magic.
Using light and shade with such dexterity, Hurrell created, or sculpted, a standard of beauty and glamour unsurpassed today.
Hurrell was, without question, an artist.