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
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - OTE £40,000

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Contracts / Sales Administrator

£19500 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Knowledge of and ability to use...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence