Cornel Lucas: Photographer who made his name as a pioneer of film portraiture

 

Cornel Lucas was widely regarded as one of the world's pioneers of film portraiture during the 1940s and 1950s, photographing the great and the good from both sides of the pond, in London and on film locations all over the world. He went on to become the first photographer to be recognised by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, in 1998, for his service to the nation's film industry.

In a bygone era, long before the likes of Photoshop and other such tools of wizardry, using just light and shade and his 10in x 12in plate camera, Lucas captured stunning, rich portraits which were full of life and luminosity, conveying the glamour and beauty of his subjects. Greatly influenced by the leading film directors and cinematographers, Lucas wanted to bring out the splendour and sensuality of his subjects. "It could take three hours to get the lighting right," Lucas recalled. "But, after that, I could make my subject younger than a plastic surgeon could." It was later suggested that Lucas had done more for the images of many of those he photographed than their on-screen performances.

Unbeknown to Lucas, his breakthrough had come in 1948, when, as a relative newcomer in the publicity department at Denham Film Studios in Buckinghamshire, he was assigned to create stills of a leading lady who had just dismissed another photographer for what she considered incompetent lighting technique. The actress was Marlene Dietrich, then filming No Highway in the Sky (1951) opposite James Stewart.

It was a pivotal moment for Lucas. Dietrich, by now something of an expert on lighting techniques, told Lucas exactly what she wanted, and he listened attentively. "A photograph to me is more important than film," she told him. The next day Dietrich arrived, took out her magnifying glass and scoured the proofs, circling with eyeliner pencil the areas she wanted darkened or lightened. Lucas duly obliged. There followed a further re-examination. Pleased, she turned to Lucas, shook his hand and said, "Join the club Mr Lucas." Somewhat perplexed and unsure about what she meant, he asked her publicist. He simply replied, "Mr Lucas, it means you're on the road to success."

And he was: the result of the session was a seminal five-shot series of photographs which made Lucas the most sought-after portrait-maker of the stars. He became the photographer of choice for the British Film Industry, creating defining portraits of the leading film stars of the era, all captured in his trademark film-noir chic. A few of the subjects among his star-studded portfolio included Brigitte Bardot, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Jean Simmons, Stewart Granger, David Niven and Gregory Peck. Lucas produced the exceptional images that have, according to the film producer Lord Puttnam, "become the photographic icons by which we come to know and remember the stars."

Born in Highbury, north London, in 1920, Henry Cornel Lucas was one of eight children. His interest in photography was sparked when his mother bought him a Kodak Box Brownie snapshot camera for his 11th birthday. Thereafter, he was always rushing around taking shots of friends and family and developing them in the family bathroom.

Cornel's introduction to the film industry came at 15 through his brother, who secured him a job as a trainee at the same film-processing laboratory he worked at. He also studied part-time at Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster). On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Lucas was recruited by the RAF and sent to their photographic school at Farnborough to work on experimental and secret night-photography methods. While there, he had a chance encounter with Cecil Beaton, who advised him against the photographic business, claiming it was "too difficult, too much competition. It's over-crowded." Lucas was undeterred. When they met 10 years later on set at Pinewood Studios, Lucas having ignored his advice, Beaton said, "I knew you would, you silly boy!"

After the war Lucas joined Denham Studios. The Dietrich photographs and further success as a portrait and stills photographer throughout the late 1940s led the Rank Organisation to recruit Lucas to run a specially created studio at Pinewood to photograph the more than 50 stars they had under contract. From his studio, which was set up on an old swimming pool site, Lucas worked on some of the most memorable films of the era.

In 1955, Lucas married one of Rank's most glamorous starlets, Belinda Lee, but the marriage was over by 1959. She was killed two years later in a car crash.

In 1959, building on his success, Lucas turned freelance and opened his own studio in Flood Street, Chelsea, where he continued to specialise in portraiture, while also embracing wider aspects of photography, particularly high-fashion advertising and television commercials.

With the introduction of digital cameras the demand for Lucas's painstaking photography declined and he decided to give up. "They have ruined celebrity prints," he mused, "because photographers take up to 500 pictures at a sitting, but few are any good."

Lucas's work has been shown at major exhibitions in London and New York, and examples are held in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He published two books of his work, Heads and Tales and Shooting Stars.

Cornel is survived by his second wife, the actress Susan Travers, and their three sons and daughter.

Cornel Lucas, photographer: born London 12 September 1920; married 1954 Belinda Lee (divorced 1959), 1960 Susan Travers (three sons, one daughter); died London 8 November 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee