George Hurrell's Hollywood

Glamour Portraits, 1925-1992

New Release


By Mark A. Vieira

Foreword by Sharon Stone

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The definitive biography and photographic record of George Hurrell, the famed photographer who shot the most iconic images of classic Hollywood legends—now featuring new and upgraded images.
George Hurrell was called the “Rembrandt of Hollywood.” Before his arrival, movie star portraits were “soft focus” and undistinguished, derivative of the Main Street USA portrait salon. Hurrell instituted a sharp, dramatic look. The vibrant, temperamental artist was an original, loved by the subjects he glamorized. For these performers, a Hurrell portrait was the passport to immortality.
In this paperback edition of photographer and historian Mark A. Vieira’s original volume, the author offers a wealth of new images to illustrate a compelling narrative. Featuring rare and never-before-published portraits and behind-the-scenes shots, George Hurrell’s Hollywood covers Hurrell’s entire career, from his beginnings as a Los Angeles society photographer to his finale as the celebrity photographer who became a celebrity himself. More than 400 pristine images showcase his work with Hollywood icons from 1929 to 1992. Vieira's text recounts the artist’s life, from his childhood to the heyday of his career as a starmaker, through untold stories of his fall from grace and eventual comeback.
Filled with previously unseen photos of the biggest stars across more than six decades and abounding with fresh insight, this volume is not only the ultimate showcase of the trailblazing artist’s work but an indispensable treasury of Hollywood lore.



George Edward Hurrell was the creator of the Hollywood glamour portrait. When he came to Hollywood in 1930, a movie star photograph was soft and undistinguished, like a portrait from a Main Street salon. Hurrell introduced a bold new look: sharp focus, high contrast, and seductive poses. He told a story with each photo, blending the ethereal and the erotic. He created imagery that was unprecedented and unique. How did an unknown artist from the Midwest become the most influential photographer in Hollywood history?

In 1929 Hurrell was twenty-five, a full-time commercial photographer and sometime landscape painter. He was eking out a living in Los Angeles when the film star Ramon Novarro came to his Westlake atelier. A series of sessions produced a remarkable portfolio. Novarro was so pleased that he showed it to Norma Shearer, the highest-grossing star at the most prestigious studio in the world. Shearer commissioned Hurrell to make photographs she could submit for a new type of role. She got the role and Hurrell got a job—head portrait photographer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The dreamlike world of silent pictures had created a star system based on personalities who were bigger than life. The naturalism of talking pictures diminished them. If the star system was to survive, the studios would have to enlarge them again. Along came Hurrell, who adapted his technique to this purpose. Using new lighting and retouching effects, he created spectacular, enticing images of Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and Jean Harlow, and sold them to a worldwide audience. In the process, Hurrell perfected a photographic idiom: the Hollywood glamour portrait.

In a town where imitation is the sincerest form of survival, Hurrell was an original. Not only was his lighting unique; his personality was as much a tool as his famous “boom light.” He was loved by his subjects and tolerated by moguls such as Louis B. Mayer, whose patience he tried with occasional bursts of temperament. For thirteen years, Hurrell was the highest paid, best-known photographer in Hollywood. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford gave him their fabulous faces, and he immortalized them. By 1943 he had worked with every studio in town, had a beautiful wife named Katherine, and was affluent. His sitting fee was $1,000, when the dollar bought thirty times what it does in 2013. The millionaire producer Howard Hughes paid him $4,000 to photograph an unknown girl in a haystack for The Outlaw. Censors suppressed the film, but Hurrell’s photos made Jane Russell a household word—which Hurrell already was. “Hurrell is one of Hollywood’s few genuine geniuses,” said Motion Picture magazine. “He is Rembrandt with a camera.” He was working at Columbia Pictures during the week and in his Beverly Hills studio on weekends, shooting foldouts for Esquire magazine. At thirty-nine, he had an enviable life and a secure future. The photographer of stars had become a star.

This is the story I told in Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits, which was published in 1997. It was the first book to show Hurrell’s work in accurate chronology, to describe it in the context of the personalities he captured, and to analyze it in accessible photographic terms. I am a working photographer, using vintage camera equipment to make portraits in his style, so I can explain his technique and show why his art had five distinct periods. There were many craftsmen in the studio system, but only Hurrell’s work had the periods that characterize a Picasso.

Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits was published just as the Internet and digital photography were gaining currency. Before long, images from the book were all over the Web. Faces in magazine ads had a digital sheen that tried to copy Hurrell’s retouching technique. Norma Shearer, known as the First Lady of M-G-M, became “Hurrell’s patron.” Joan Crawford, the most durable star in Hollywood history, was “Hurrell’s muse.” An authoritative book had honored the artist. I was no longer a Hurrell expert. I was a Hurrell scholar. I thought I had completed my life’s work. It had only begun.

If you’ve ever written about a famous person, you can expect to answer questions for the rest of your life. “How long did you work with George Hurrell?” And “What happened to his career after Hollywood?” And “What was he like?” I am asked to identify his subjects, his sessions, and their dates; to demonstrate his technique; to give free appraisals; to weed out counterfeit prints; and, happily, to print his vintage negatives. In short, I function as a professor of arcana. This gives me the opportunity to share knowledge and to gain more. In the seventeen years that have passed since I wrote Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits, I have learned that a few facts I wrote were incorrect. Hurrell never photographed Marilyn Monroe, even though numerous people claim that he did. This is why I have written a second Hurrell book. The next time you see a Hurrell portrait, I want you to know when he shot it, how he shot it, and what makes it great.

I have also written this book because of the photographs. At one time, in order to see a Hurrell portrait, you had the choice of a museum, a gallery, a book, or a fortunate friend. Technology has changed that. In our democratized millennium, you can see Hurrell’s work on the great god Internet for free, any day, any time, anywhere. But what are you seeing? In the ’70s I complained about books with poor reproductions of his work. I criticized copy prints that leached the subtle shades of gray from his black-and-white imagery. I have more to complain about now. Few of the Hurrell images on the Web retain the quality of his originals. I wrote this book to ensure that his photographs can be seen as he intended. I have secured prints made by Hurrell himself. I have included prints that I made in a photographic darkroom from his original negatives, sometimes under his tutelage, and sometimes under the supervision of his colleagues. I have scanned the prints myself. And I have entrusted these prints to Running Press, a publisher committed to fine lithography.

I have still another reason for writing this book. Hurrell died twenty-one years ago, yet he lives on. His personality vibrates in every image. People want to know more about him. There is more to tell. Like every Hollywood legend, Hurrell was bigger than life—brilliant, mysterious, mythic. I want to clear the apocrypha from the myth. Truth is more compelling than myth, Hollywood Babylon notwithstanding. I want to take the Internet taint off Hurrell and put him in a worthy context. I also want to tell what has not been told.

In 1943, when Hurrell was at the height of his prominence, he suffered a vertiginous fall from grace. In 1975, when I met him, he was seventy-one but could not retire. He had lost his fortune to bad investments and alimony. Instead of shooting glamour portraits, he was working as “unit still man” on Gable and Lombard, a feeble tribute to the stars he had immortalized. After years of middle-aged struggle, the one-time Rembrandt of Hollywood was an anonymous studio employee. The artist was in eclipse, his portrait career in ashes.

Six years later, Hurrell was Hollywood’s latest comeback story, a celebrated artist. Elderly but robust, he was charging $5,000 to photograph stars such as Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli. He was selling his 1930s work for twice that, and in galleries that once had sneered at Hollywood photography. He was the subject of articles, books, and shows. He was enjoying a second career.

Hurrell’s aptly named “boom light.”

This is the story I add in this volume: Hurrell’s return from the ashes. I was there, sometimes as a participant, sometimes as an observer. I watched him wend his way through the monolithic soundstages at moribund studios, through the lavender-scented living rooms of invidious collectors, through smoky dens of thieves, and into chic galleries. I saw him flirt with history and scandal, wooing this one and dismissing that one. I was there, like so many others, because I was entranced by the beauty of his work. Before long, I saw it tarnished by bootlegging, theft, and fraud.

The George Hurrell I knew was two people. Depending on what day you saw him, or what time of day, he was as bright as his spotlights or as dark as his famous shadows. When I knew him, I was too starstruck to anticipate his vagaries of mood. As a result, I was hurt and disillusioned. By writing the story of his life I have come to terms with that experience. I thank the individuals who have helped me write an objective account of Hurrell’s second career. I have made every effort to convey the truth, both about the artist and about his images.

It is those images that motivate this book. They are luminous, powerful, and timeless. Most have not been published since they were made. As you will read, they have traveled a circuitous route from the studios to this book. With the help of the private collectors and the archives I thank in the Acknowledgments, I have worked to make George Hurrell’s Hollywood the definitive work on this trailblazing artist, a shimmering montage of fact and anecdote, light and shadow.

Mark A. Vieira, January 23, 2013

George Hurrell was twenty-six when he made this self-portrait with an Eastman Century studio camera in the M-G-M portrait gallery.


The artist who would become famous for turning human beings into latter-day gods was born a Roman Catholic at the beginning of the twentieth century. George Edward Hurrell was born on June 1, 1904, in the Walnut Hills district of Cincinnati, Ohio. At one point his publicity would state that he had been born in Covington, Kentucky, a few miles across the Ohio River. Like so much of his life, the facts of his birth are blurred by myth. What is known is that his paternal grandfather came to America from Essex, England, where his forebears had been shoemakers for hundreds of years. George Hurrell’s grandmother came from Dublin. His father, Edward Eugene Hurrell, was born in Cincinnati. His mother, Anna Mary Eble, was born in Baden-Baden, Germany, and came to Cincinnati as a child. Edward and Anna had five boys and one girl. George was the first born. He was followed by Edmond (“Ned”) in 1907, Russell in 1910, Elizabeth in 1912, Robert in 1915, and Randolph in 1918. From all indications, the Hurrells were devoutly Catholic. Randolph studied for the priesthood for years but relented a month before his ordination. Likewise, Elizabeth was poised to enter a convent but instead chose the secular life.

In an Esquire magazine interview in the late 1930s, George Hurrell made a cryptic statement about his father, the only time he would ever mention his family in print. “I’m a somewhat screwy photographer—an artist gone wrong,” he said. “And so wrong, I’m the shoemaker’s favorite child.” In 1909 Edward Hurrell moved his growing family to Chicago so that he could start a shoe factory. Chicago was the Catholic stronghold of the Midwest, and young George was undoubtedly influenced by twelve years of Catholic education. He served as an altar boy and eventually felt he was being called to the priesthood. In the spring of 1922, as he approached his high school graduation, he decided to acknowledge what was known in Catholic school as a “vocation.” He applied for admission to the Archbishop Quigley Memorial Preparatory Seminary in Chicago. Yet he heard another calling. “As long as I can remember,” he recalled fifty years later, “I wanted to be an artist. I was drawing all the time, in school and out. Art was my favorite class.” George had always been putting his impressions of people on paper. By late high school, he was sufficiently skilled to consider a career in art. Hedging his bets, he applied to the renowned Art Institute of Chicago. He was accepted by both the seminary and the school. He chose the school, mostly because he could attend on a scholarship, and he began to study painting and graphics.

George did not find the Michigan Avenue campus entirely to his liking. The classes may not have been sufficiently stimulating or it may have been that he was easily bored and given to impatience. After a short time at the Institute, he left and enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which was located a block away, at 81 East Monroe Street. (Although this Academy had the same name as an earlier incarnation of the Art Institute, it was an entirely different school, founded in 1902 by the Pictorialist photographer Carl Werntz.) “I went to the Academy of Fine Arts at night for a while,” recalled Hurrell in 1980, “and I worked part-time. I would just fit that in. Whenever I had to pay rent, I would go to work.” His odd jobs did not include photography, although he did have a passing acquaintance with it. Students were encouraged to take snapshots during the warm months to use as the basis for the paintings that they would make in the winter. This was the first time George used a professional-gauge camera and entered a photographic darkroom, but he was more interested in surrealist painting, especially that of Giorgio de Chirico. After a year and a half, George dropped out of school, yielding to the inquietude that would inform the rest of his life.

In early 1924 George took a job as a hand-colorist in a commercial photography studio, but he soon wandered from the drafting table. “I got curious one day about life in the photography department,” he recalled. His curiosity led to a transfer, and he was soon assisting catalog photographers, making photos of iceboxes, hats, and—appropriate to his family history—shoes. “One day,” he recalled, “an emergency occurred in the studio. It was understaffed and a photo had to be taken right away—and there was no one else to take it.” This was George’s baptism by fire, his first professional photograph. It was a thrill, but it did not last. The elder staff members returned and George was back to assisting. After three weeks, he grew bored and quit. After taking a few more photography jobs, he found one that lasted. The portrait photographer Eugene Hutchinson had a splendid studio in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, about a block south of the Art Institute. George was hired as a colorist but moved on to negative retouching, airbrushing, and darkroom work. He also learned how to shoot copy negatives of photographs and artwork. Although he continued to paint, it was his photographic work that made a fortuitous connection.

In early 1925 the California artist Edgar Alwin Payne was visiting Chicago with his wife, Elsie, and daughter, Evelyn. Payne was known for painting en plein air, particularly the Sierra Nevada mountain range. He had been traveling through Europe for two years and was exhibiting at the Art Institute, which contracted with Hutchinson to shoot negatives of the art. Because George was entrusted with this task, he had an entrée to a lecture that Payne was delivering at the Institute. Never one to stand on ceremony, the young photographer asked the esteemed artist for a critique of his paintings. Payne liked a landscape that George had recently completed. A number of visits followed.

At forty-two, Payne was an acclaimed artist, showing in numerous galleries simultaneously. He had helped found the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918, and became its first president. He described Laguna’s Mediterranean climate, lush landscape, and thriving art colony, and told George that if he was serious about an art career, he might do well in California. George was not averse to a move; besides the lure of Laguna’s artistic offerings, the Chicago winter had made it difficult for him to get rid of what he would later call a “stubborn bacterial infection.”

In May 1925, George climbed into a Hudson touring car with the Payne family and set off for California. Payne was a true artist. In 1912, when he and Elsie were about to be married, he had suddenly asked her to call their guests and tell them to come several hours later—when the light in the chapel would be right. Anecdotes like this enlivened the drive to California, but it was interrupted by a minor accident in Denver. The party of four escaped injury, possibly because they were insulated by a carload of canvases. George’s first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean came on a balmy evening in late May. “No place like California,” was Payne’s breezy observation. For a young artist from the Midwest, this was an understatement. The image of Emerald Bay seen through a curtain of eucalyptus leaves would stay with Hurrell for the rest of his life.

The plein air painter Edgar Alwin Payne was responsible for George Hurrell’s coming to California in 1925. Hurrell made this portrait in Laguna Beach in 1926.

George Hurrell’s portraits were first published by the Stendahl Galleries in Los Angeles, so it was inevitable that Hurrell should make a portrait of the influential Earl Stendahl.




On June 1, 1925, George Hurrell celebrated his twenty-first birthday and began to live like an artist. Friends of Edgar Payne helped him find a place to live, a “picturesque cottage” that turned out to be a semifurnished shack called the Paint Box. It had been built in 1904 by J. N. (“Nick”) Isch, who was the proprietor of Laguna Beach’s general store and post office. The Paint Box was a place where an artist could pay for room and board with his or her work, so in a happy demonstration of quid pro quo, Isch accumulated an impressive art collection from tenants such as Emily White, James McBurney, and Donna Schuster. Hurrell’s arrangement was equally liberal; he would more or less watch the cottage for an absentee tenant, Malcolm St. Clair, a film director whose father, watercolorist Norman St. Clair, was one of Laguna’s first resident artists.

Hurrell soon found a sympathetic physician, but he prescribed pills that were both large and expensive. “I had to make a living,” recalled Hurrell. “I’d brought a camera from Chicago, and these artists needed pictures of their paintings. I’d take them out in the sun and put a Wratten panchromatic K3 filter on the camera [because the film was black and white and the color values of the art had to be approximated], and I’d shoot these paintings. I was getting my bread and butter out of photography.” And his health was improving.

Hurrell’s photographic training did not consist solely of copy technique. He had learned how to make a portrait. Because the 8x10-inch sheet film he used was large and its exposure time lengthy, the rhythm of a portrait session was like that of a sketch session: the artist captured a pose, flipped to the next sheet of paper in the sketch pad, and told the model to assume a new pose.

Hurrell owned a portable 8x10 camera and an eighteen-inch Wollensak Verito portrait lens. This lens was manufactured with a chromatic aberration that created haloes around highlighted areas of the image, an effect called “soft focus.” It gave the photograph a hazy, dreamy quality, not unlike the sfumato effect in Renaissance art, but only if the iris was used wide open, which was usually around F/4. Soft focus diffused facial detail, so the negative required less retouching, which saved both time and money. Moreover, the wide-open lens required less exposure time, which made poses more natural.

Before long, Hurrell was photographing Laguna artists. One of his first subjects was Edgar Payne. These dignified personages came to sit for him, even if he was young and his equipment primitive; he was using household bulbs with saucepans for reflectors. Sometimes he used nothing more than the north light coming through his studio’s skylight. Hurrell knew enough about lighting to control both intensity and direction. He had learned technique from Hutchinson, but he also had an innate understanding of what light and shadow could do. “Rembrandt was my ideal,” he said later. “Rembrandt used one source of light, and that’s what I did.”

William Wendt was known as the “Dean of Southern California landscape painters.” He was one of Hurrell’s first portrait subjects in Laguna. The lighting in this study of Wendt is subtle, considering the primitive implements Hurrell was using at the time.

Frank Cuprien was one of the plein air painters whom George Hurrell photographed in Laguna Beach in 1925 and ’26. Cuprien was known as the “Dean of Laguna Beach artists.” Hurrell’s use of negative retouching to emphasize highlights is obvious, even in this seminal work. Hurrell was twenty-two when he made this portrait.

Florence Barnes was becoming fast friends with Hurrell when he made this portrait of the San Marino socialite.

In 1925 the lighting scheme at the average commercial portrait studio consisted of: 1) the “key light,” a large floodlight aimed from above to create modeling; 2) the “fill light,” a floodlight set at eye level to lighten (or “fill” in) the shadows cast by the key light; 3) the “backlight” (or “hair light”), which was aimed at the subject from behind, in order to separate him or her from the background; and 4) the “background light,” which illuminated the wall behind the subject. A photograph reduces a three-dimensional subject into two dimensions; lighting is supposed to persuade the viewer that there are once again three dimensions.

At twenty-one, Hurrell was an iconoclast. Having left a genteel salon environment for a Bohemian enclave, he was dispensing with studio technique. He made a portrait of William Wendt, a sixty-year-old plein air painter, using a strong north light and a little edge lighting from the sauce pans. Wendt was pleased with Hurrell’s work; it was markedly different. When Hurrell used his Verito lens, he used it in a way that no one else had thought to. He did not shoot wide open; he chose to stop it down part way. The effect was akin to painting with a palette knife—not too soft and not too sharp. His Laguna subjects were quick to note the new look. This young man who fished at Victoria Beach was talented.

Hurrell was tawny, muscular, energetic, and, although he was only five-foot-eight, a shock of dark, thick, unruly hair made him appear tall. His unconventional good looks were accented by dark brown eyes, long eyelashes, and expressive eyebrows. His native intensity was allied to a bombastic self-confidence. He was not shy about expressing his dislikes, which included stuffy behavior. He was soon creating a stir in Laguna, especially with the wealthy tourists from Riverside, San Bernardino, and Pasadena.

On Christmas Day 1925, Hurrell accepted an invitation to join the Paynes for dinner at the home of William A. Griffith, a plein air painter and president of the Laguna Beach Art Association. Hurrell was studying with Wendt and painting steadily but his photographic portraits were getting more attention; he wanted to talk to painters. As Hurrell would later recall, the evening was memorable, but not for the artists. “They were all very friendly, but they were very serious painters, not partygoers particularly. The society crowd that came down there from out of town were partygoers.” Before the evening was over, Hurrell was introduced to a “Mrs. Barnes from San Marino.”

Florence Lowe Barnes was born on July 29, 1901, to a wealthy Pasadena family. Her paternal grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe Sr., was the inventor and industrialist who built the Mount Lowe Railway in 1896. Her mother came from the social echelon known as the Philadelphia Main Line and owned extensive property, including the stately Broadwood Hotel. Florence was attending the party with her husband, C. Rankin Barnes, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in South Pasadena. They had been married for four years and had a three-year-old son named William. In a room full of artists, Florence stuck out, not because she was a young woman in the midst of a lot of bearded old men, but because she had a forthright quality. She was not particularly attractive. She was stocky, her face was round, and she had sloe eyes, but she sparkled with an earthy élan. She was also well-spoken, conversant in the arts, and quick with a pun. At first glance, she was an odd match for a staid minister. Hurrell was drawn to her, if not romantically, then with fascination at an individuality as great as his. And she made him laugh. Like his sister Elizabeth, she was funny.

Florence Barnes was independently wealthy, having inherited a fortune at her mother’s death the previous year, and she was beginning to live life apart from Rankin. She maintained a thirty-five-room mansion in San Marino but was spending more time at a rambling Laguna estate called Dos Rocas. This palatial home boasted the first fresh-water swimming pool in that community. It was even designed with portholes so that non-swimming guests could watch underwater horseplay. Hurrell visited her in January and was soon a regular guest at her pool parties. Most were colorful and some were raucous, even by Roaring Twenties standards, since Barnes’s guests came from air circuses, art enclaves, and the fringes of show business. The eccentrics Hurrell met at these parties included Mary Frances Kennedy, before she became M. F. K. Fisher. There was also fifteen-year-old Katherine Gertrude (“Gigi”) McElroy, who was madly in love with thirty-three-year-old Dillwyn Parrish. When neighbors complained about the noisy parties, Barnes’s grandmother told her to stop them. Barnes ignored her. The headstrong young woman was beginning to incense both sides of her family with her unladylike pursuits. She loved to party, to fly, and to fish. “Whoever catches the smallest fish has to cook!” was her rule. After a few trips with Barnes, Hurrell’s skill at casting was surpassed by his skill at gutting. Barnes was an entertaining companion, even if it was apparent that her bravado masked insecurity and a lack of direction. Like Hurrell, she was sensitive, talented, and dynamic, but she needed a goal.


On Sale
Sep 19, 2023
Page Count
416 pages
Running Press

Mark A. Vieira

About the Author

Mark A. Vieira is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer who specializes in Hollywood history. He is the author of Warner Bros. 100, Forbidden Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille, Into the Dark, and many other film-related titles. He is also the creator of the documentary series DeMille Is Hollywood. Vieira has also appeared in documentaries such as Turner Classic Movies’ Garbo. He has lectured at USC, UCLA, Lincoln Center, and Universal Studios. Vieira resides in the Westlake District of Los Angeles.

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