Culture And Commerce July/August 2007

Starlight and Shadow

George Hurrell’s brilliantly orchestrated photographs helped define Hollywood glamour in the 1930s.

George Hurrell (1904–1992) was one of the most important American photographers of the 1930s, but you won’t find his work in many history books. He didn’t record the Great Depression or the Dust Bowl, celebrate Hitler or Stalin, or turn machines and buildings into powerful abstractions. Hurrell made commercial portraits of movie stars. Between 1930, when he became the primary portrait photographer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and 1942, when he was drafted to take photos for the Army, he developed the lighting techniques and visual vocabulary that gave Hollywood stars their special aura of grace, mystery, and perfection. He was the master of Hollywood glamour.

Until recently, his subjects’ celebrity overshadowed his art; even collectors generally paid more attention to Hurrell’s subjects than to his techniques. “If you had a photograph by Hurrell, it wasn’t because you thought it was great art but because it was the best photograph you’d seen of that star. It was more fan-based collecting,” says the Hurrell col-lector Louis F. D’Elia, a Pasadena neuropsychologist and an exception to the rule.

With memories of the era’s stars fading, however, museums and art collectors have begun to recognize the photographs’ aesthetic value. It’s the difference between revering a Madonna and Child as a devotional object and appreciating the artist’s use of perspective or sfumato.

“You concentrate less on ‘That’s Clark Gable’ or ‘That’s Greta Garbo,’ and you focus more on the lighting, the retouching, the extreme detail, the way the eyelashes are drawn in,” says Virginia Heckert, an associate curator of photography at the Getty Museum.

MYRNA LOY (1932)

One result of this new appreciation: much higher prices. In February, a vintage 10-by-13 photo of Norma Shearer sold for $4,094 on eBay, and one of Myrna Loy went for $6,768. Two years earlier, “you could pick some of these up for $500 or $550,” says D’Elia, who bought his first Hurrell—an elegant 1930 portrait of silent-era star Dorothy Jordan—as a teenager in 1967, bargaining the seller down from $8 to $5.

Hurrell sculpted his subjects’ faces with light and shadow, using an easily movable boom light that he modeled on a boom microphone, to illuminate cheekbones and create shadows under the eyes and nose. “The most essential thing about my style was working with shadows to design the face instead of flooding it with light,” he said.

Hurrell never intended to invent a new photographic idiom, or even to go to Hollywood. He dreamed of being a painter, and in 1925, shortly before his 21st birthday, he moved from Chicago to California, where he settled in the seaside artists’ colony of Laguna Beach. He soon found photography a more reliable source of income than painting, and began taking pictures of local artists, socialites, and other visitors, eventually opening a studio in Los Angeles. “I became a photographer because I had to make a living,” he explained. Hurrell had no qualms about mixing art and commerce.


One of his first friends in Southern California was Florence “Pancho” Barnes, a Pasadena heiress and free-spirited early aviator. (She appears in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.) She encouraged Hurrell’s photography and often posed for him. In the photo for her pilot’s license, he had her strike a masculine pose, complete with cigarette and grimy fingernails. The mannish persona was a dig at Orville Wright, who had to approve the license and supposedly didn’t care for female pilots. Through Hurrell’s lens, Barnes becomes a model of self-contained, modern femininity: She’s wearing a man’s shirt, but her dreamy eyes, bare throat, tousled bangs, slim fingers, and soft lips reveal her womanly nature. Avoiding the soft focus then in vogue, Hurrell used shadow to shape her face. “I was trying to get character into my work,” he later said. “That’s why I went sharp.”


In early 1929, Barnes’s best friend, the silent-film star Ramón Novarro, was worried that his career might not survive the talkies. The Mexican-born actor spoke English with an accent, and despite his success in hits like Ben-Hur, he thought he might be better off pursuing an opera career in Europe. He needed publicity photographs showing him in various roles, but didn’t want to tip off the bosses at MGM by using a studio photographer. Playing classical music on his Victrola, Hurrell photographed Novarro in costume, first at his tiny studio and later at Novarro’s home and at Barnes’s ranch. Compared with Hurrell’s later portraits, these soft-focus photographs look like sentimental pictorialism. But Novarro loved them. “You have captured my moods exactly,” he told the photographer.


Novarro recommended Hurrell to another MGM star who needed photos done on the sly. Norma Shearer, one of the studio’s most popular stars, wanted the title role in The Divorcée, but her own husband, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, thought she wasn’t sexy enough for the part—she had been typecast as a dignified lady. She hired Hurrell to prove otherwise. Playing jazz records and singing along as his wind-up gramophone slowed to a growl, Hurrell mussed her well-coiffed hair and made her show some shoulder and leg. Amused by his bad singing, she began to have fun playing the temptress. In the photos, Shearer looks the sophisticated seductress, completely at ease and enjoying herself. She got the Divorcée part—and won an Oscar for the role. And Hurrell, on the recommendation of the “queen of the lot,” got a job shooting publicity portraits at MGM.

All images copyright George Hurrell, Hurrell Enterprises
Photos from the collection of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive
Presented by

Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor. This article is adapted from her catalog essay for “Lights! Camera! Glamour!,” an exhibition of George Hurrell’s photographs, curated by Louis F. D’Elia, which travels to the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica in January 2008. She is writing a book on glamour. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Photos of New York City, in Motion

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this flip-book tour of the Big Apple.


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In