George Hurrell is the definitive photographer of Hollywood’s Golden Age. A master of black and white photography whose expertise in contrast and shadows was unparalleled at the time. His pictures are also very sharp with a quality of raw sexiness, which is drastically different from the contemporary photographers of this era.
His unorthodox usage of light was an intricate feature in his photographs. Hurrell wouldn’t light his subjects in a conventional way of the era. Instead, he had light spill over his subject’s shoulders. This created contrast and depth, which provides a visual feeling that evokes hot sunlight or cool moonlight, depending on the photo.
He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 1, 1904. His family moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1909 to open a shoe-making factory.
A devout Roman Catholic Hurrell planned on becoming a priest. However, he was also a gifted artist. He completed applications to both Chicago’s Quigley Seminary and the Chicago Art Institute. He is accepted to both but chooses to study painting at the latter.
In 1923, Hurrell met Eugene Hutchinson, who was a successful portrait photographer in Chicago. Hutchinson asked Hurrell to be his assistant, which he agreed to. This was the first step in Hurrell’s photography career.
In May 1925, Hurrell became acquainted with famous landscaper painter Edgar Alwin Payne at the Chicago Art Institute. Payne was there to give a lecture. Upon seeing Hurrell’s surrealistic paintings, he encouraged Hurrell to move to Laguna Beach, California which was then a famous artist colony. Hurrell drove cross-country with Payne, arriving in Laguna Beach on his birthday, June 1, 1925.
1926 saw Hurrell’s involvement in two events that would eventually send him on his way to his Hollywood photographic career.
The first was that he began attending the weekend pool parties held at “Dos Rocas,” Florence Barnes’ 40-acre estate on the bluffs of Laguna Beach, where he would meet her friends, including actors Ramon Novarro, Gigi Parrish as well as the writer Mary Frances Kennedy (M.F.K. Fisher). This catapulted him into the high society scene of Orange County. Mary Frances and her sister, Anne, become his first photography clients for his social portraits.
The second thing of importance to occur in 1926 was Hurrell being asked by Payne to photograph his paintings for a limited edition monograph “Edgar Alwin Payne and His Work” that served as the catalog for Payne’s solo exhibition at the Stendahl Gallery in Los Angeles.
The following year Hurrell moved to Los Angeles and opened a photography studio in a loft located at 672 S. LaFayette Park Place, Studio 9, where he also lived. His first real Hollywood portrait clients were Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer for whom he built photography portfolios.
By 1929 he was gaining a lot of attention. MGM aggressively pursued him to work for them and just a year later he was the head portrait photographer at the studio. Shearer was married to the head of production at MGM, Irving Thalberg. Legend has it that he loved the pictures he took of her so much he wanted him to work at his studio and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
During this time, Hurrell developed his ability for entertaining and relaxing the stars with jazz music, acrobatics, and other distractions during their day-long photo sessions.
From 1930 to 1932, Hurrell would do freelance work privately for stars of other studios on the weekends (His favorite person to photograph was Joan Crawford). When Howard Strickling, head of MGM’s publicity department contacts got wind of this they had a huge row about it. Hurrell quit on the spot and started his own freelance studio at 8706 Sunset Blvd. where he did portrait work for all of the studios, including MGM.
In 1938, Hurrell closed his studio in order to be exclusive to Warner Bros as their head of portrait photography. 2 years later he resigned and went back to freelance work.
He rented a studio at 333 Rodeo Dr. in Beverly Hills. His landlady was Greta Garbo, who owned the building.
In November 1942, Hurrell was drafted in the Armed Services. With the help of Pancho Barnes, who was close friends with General Hap Arnold, he was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Force in Culver City, California where he shot training films at Hal Roach Studios. He later became a staff photographer at the Pentagon.
Earlier that year Hurrell divorced his first wife, Katherine Cuddy, a beauty queen from Seattle after just 3 years of marriage.
The following year he was discharged from the military and returned home to Beverly Hills. He briefly worked at Columbia Pictures before he was drafted, and again after his return. During both periods he worked extensively with Rita Hayworth.
His pictures of Hayworth helped make her a star.
After reopening his studio he had a whirlwind romance with Walt Disney’s niece Phyllis Bounds and they were quickly married. They would have 3 children and then divorce after 11 years of marriage.
After he returned from the war effort his style of photography was considered passe by the studios. He did do some iconic picture of Jane Russell for The Outlaw around this time.
In 1946, he moved to 102 Park Avenue in New York City and worked exclusively in advertising for about the next 10 years. He divorced his second wife in 1954.
After the ink on his divorce had dried Hurrell returned to his studio in Beverly Hills. He had another whirlwind romance with a girl named Betty Willis. They quickly married and had 3 children.
In 1958, he teamed up with Walt Disney and formed Hurrell Production which produced television commercials for products like Sunkist and Kellogg’s.
After two years he transitioned into doing publicity photographs for TV series and movies including Gunsmoke, Planet of the Apes and The Towering Inferno. He worked in this capacity for the better part of a decade.
After this period Hurrell moved into a semi-retired phase. He did occasional work for some stars including some album covers such as Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage (1982), Queen’s The Works (1984), and Paul McCartney’s Press to Play (1986).
On May 17, 1992, Hurrell died of bladder cancer. He was 87 years old.