“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.
|PANCHO BARNES (1928)
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.”
|RAMÓN NOVARRO (1929)
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.