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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Accountant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working for one of ...

Recruitment Genius: Laundry Assistant

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care organisation take pride in del...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Account Executive

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you starting out in PR? Do...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most