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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.