Culture And Commerce July/August 2007

Starlight and Shadow

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

Such photos were a major element in the studio’s star-making process, establishing and updating actors’ public identities and promoting them between films. Studio publicity departments placed these photos in magazines and sent copies in reply to fan mail. Even more than the movies themselves, the stills depicted a grace that could transcend age and time. The goal was not to humanize stars but to elevate them: These were not down-to-earth pals but idealized screen gods and goddesses.


Yet these photos weren’t entirely artificial. Not even the most gifted photographer can create charisma with only lights and a retouching pencil. Hurrell didn’t invent Joan Crawford’s drive or Jean Harlow’s sexuality. Rather, he encouraged the stars to reveal their inner selves to his lens. Then he intensified their defining qualities, while creating mystery with light and shadow.

Crawford, who was just 26 when Hurrell first photographed her, became his most frequent subject. A famous clotheshorse, she often posed in Adrian’s trendsetting costume designs, but Hurrell’s most striking portraits of her downplay her outfits, focusing on her intense eyes and determined mouth. In their first meeting, she tried to stick to her practiced poses. Hurrell preferred to have his subjects relax and move more spontaneously, allowing him to add the photo’s artifice. (From his heavily retouched photos, you would never know that Crawford’s face was covered with freckles.) Crawford and Hurrell argued throughout the shoot, but the proofs persuaded her to trust him. Even after he left MGM in 1932 to work independently, she continued to use him. He consistently made her look like a sophisticated, powerful star.

His one session with Greta Garbo did not go as well. To shoot promotional photos for Romance, she came laden with heavy 19th-century costumes of velvet and fur, her hair done in period ringlets. And she already had her poses in mind. Hurrell played the cutup, dancing around the studio. He wanted the “real,” lighthearted Garbo. But the star refused to lift the veil that had created her glamour. As the session went on, she became stiffer and stiffer, while Hurrell acted sillier and sillier. Finally, he accidentally tripped, she cracked a spontaneous smile, and he hit the shutter. The shot was only a temporary triumph, though: Garbo never used that “crazy man” again, relying instead on MGM’s Clarence Bull.


Jean Harlow, by contrast, was Hurrell’s most malleable subject. Just 21 when MGM bought her contract from Howard Hughes in 1932, the platinum blonde had a straightforward appeal: Harlow was overtly sexual. In a 1933 shot whose composition works from any angle, Harlow lies on her back, with her hair spread above her head. She clutches her hair with her right hand and drapes the back of her left hand against the side of her head. Her face is shiny and flushed. This is, the photo suggests, either a postcoital moment or the contemplation of one.

To Harlow’s obvious sex appeal, Hurrell added mystery. In 1932, he shot her in a soft, oversized coat, making her look small and playing up her childlike vulnerability—while letting the viewer imagine that she had nothing on underneath. In an iconic 1935 shot, he used complex light and shadow to add depth to her hair and sharpen her soft features, giving her a stronger character and more rarefied sexuality than in her less- stylized portraits. Here, the down-to-earth good-time girl becomes a screen goddess, an “angel trapped on earth,” in the words of D’Elia.

After World War II, the studio system broke down, and screen deities went out of fashion. Actors were demystified and desexualized; they became “just like us,” only prettier. Technology also changed, as photographers adopted 35-millimeter film and stopped routinely retouching their shots. “When we stopped using those 8-by-10 cameras, the glamour was gone,” said Hurrell, who turned to shooting TV stills and fashion spreads.

GRACE JONES and Dolph Lundgren (1985)

He lived to see his distinctive style rediscovered in the 1980s. After the studied wholesomeness of postwar Hollywood and the gritty antiheroes of the Vietnam era, audiences were again ready for honest artifice and larger-than-life stars. As moviemakers discovered the appeal of sculpted bodies, Hurrell turned bodybuilders like Dolph Lundgren, Grace Jones, and Arnold Schwarzenegger into new icons, helping to redefine contemporary glamour.

Hurrell considered glamour an illusion intrinsic to photography. “All of us glamorize everything, including the [documentary photographers] who glamorize filth and squalor,” he said. “Even [Hurrell’s friend, the noted photographer Edward] Weston does it, taking a picture of a gnarled tree trunk. It’s a question of emphasizing … the dirt or the beauty.”

Hurrell’s work emphasized beauty. And it celebrated the human face. Now that we’ve largely forgotten the personas those faces represented, we can more fully appreciate the photographer’s art.

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

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