The Movie-Star Photographer Who Helped Make Nostalgia Cool

George Hurrell's pictures of classic Hollywood came into vogue in the '70s. A recent book shows that in our image-obsessed, backwards-focused moment, he's taken on new resonance.

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Hurrell: The Kobal Collection

George Hurrell's black-and-white photographs of movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s are as voluptuous as the medium gets. Looking upon the 71 performers included in Reel Art Press's recently published coffee table-sized Hurrell: The Kobal Collection triggers a lot of complicated nostalgia. Take the image of James Cagney in cowboy wear, taken in 1939 for his first western, The Oklahoma Kid. He'd only make a couple more westerns, and it's clear why—today, it's delightfully off to see Mr. Urban Irish Take No Shit Himself in that getup. But that bemusement only lasts a second, because the image is perfectly posed, in every way: the soft slope of Cagney's hat; the wariness of his hooded eyes (wariness seen on ranges rather than in alleys); his left elbow a perfect L; and the killer touch, a cigarette held near his lips, like a little radio microphone. It's unreal, but it's utterly convincing: Hurrell in a nutshell.

The Kobal Collection is named for John Kobal, a journalist and Hollywood photo collector who stumbled onto Hurrell in person while on assignment to cover the filming of 1970's X-rated bomb adaptation of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge. Hurrell was shooting stills on-set, and a friendship developed. Kobal became a Hollywood-stills archivist and historian, eventually authoring and editing 30 books, and his single-mindedness helped force collectors to take Hurrell (and colleagues such as Clarence Sinclair Bull and Ted Allen) seriously. He didn't create a market for those images, but he did help to give them art-world credibility.

Cultural reconsiderations take time and exposure, even now, especially in the popular arts. Take the Sight & Sound recent greatest-movies poll, which the British magazine has conducted every 10 years since 1952. Dziga Vertov's 1929 Russian silent documentary Man with a Movie Camera made the Top 10 for the first time ever, something that surely wouldn't have happened without the film's revival on DVD. Not to mention S&S's new winner, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which toppled Orson Welles's Citizen Kane from the top of the list for the first time in 50 years. It took a long while for Hitchcock to get his critical due as an artist. Not to mention how long it took for crediting a movie to its director became normal—for a film director to be considered an artist as opposed to a craftsman. Something similar happened with Hurrell, and the belated way that he gained legitimacy helps tell the story of how nostalgia became big business in America.

The 1970s were when the post-Warhol everyday-as-art aesthetic began to truly take hold; it was also the beginning of America's commodification of its past. The bank-breaking movie of 1973 was George Lucas's American Graffiti, which looked back with palpable longing to the first rock and roll era, 10-to-15 years earlier.

"The demise of the counterculture and the end of the war fueled a wave of nostalgia that could be seen in the popularity of films like The Sting and The Great Gatsby," wrote Andreas Killen in his invaluable 1973 Nervous Breakdown (2006). Discussing Joan Didion's 1973 essay "In Hollywood," Killen goes on:

Perhaps most symptomatic was the rediscovery of the 1950s, the last time when, according to Didion, the American national narrative still functioned. For Didion, the principal legacy of the 1960s had been that she "began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself" growing up in the 1950s. This loss of a narrative paradigm mirrored the loss of home as a fixed social coordinate, a stable part of Americans' mental geography, and it fueled a look back to a time when such coordinates could be taken for granted. After 1973 nostalgia would become both a dominant aesthetic force in American film and a pervasive influence in American culture more generally, from Happy Days to the proliferation of theme parks and historical preservation projects. In Home From the War psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton analyzed the new nostalgia as a part of psycho-historical restoration, which used technology to recover 'an imagined past of total harmony.'

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Michaelangelo Matos writes for the Village Voice, Capital New York, and Resident Advisor. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is working on a history of American rave.

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