George Hurrell: Hollywood's icon maker

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George Hurrell gave the Golden Age of Hollywood its glossy sheen and soft-focus seductiveness. He was the foremost publicity stills photographer of the day - a man responsible for creating icons.

Hurrell’s portfolio reads like an A-list who’s who: Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Lawrence Olivier, Rita Hayworth, to name a few. Many stars refused to sit for anyone else.

It was Hurrell who suggested Veronica Lake should flick a sumptuous curl over one cheek and peer through it in what became known as her peekaboo look. In another stroke of genius, he snapped a sultry (and bra-less) Jane Russell in a haystack. His black and white portraits show a creativity of composition and painterly flare that modern photographers have since plundered.

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"A Hurrell portrait is to the ordinary publicity still about what a Rolls-Royce is to a roller-skate," wrote Esquire in 1936.

He developed his own spotlighting and soft focus techniques, such as fitting a boom microphone with a light so that he could move it around his studio. He was skilled at retouching the negatives, decades before Photoshop made such airbrushing commonplace, and preferred his subjects to wear little make-up in the days when drawn on eyebrows and overtly painted mouths were ubiquitous.

It took a while for the artistry of Hurrell’s portraits to gain more attention than their high profile subjects. But collectors began showing interest in his work and in in 1981 one of his portraits of Ramon Novarro sold at Christie’s for $9,000 – the first time a still had ever sold for such a price. The piece is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

Hurrell, who died 20 years ago, outlived many of the stars he photographed and is now recognised as one of America’s greatest portrait photographers.

Hurrell: The Kobal Collection is published by Reel Art Press. RRP £45. For stockist information or to order online visit www.reelartpress.com

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