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Rev. Joey N. Welsh - Keen eyes, striking images: Part 2

Another Angle, the occasional musings of a Kentucky pastor. Keen eyes, striking images: Part 2 was first published 3 September 2006 Hart County News-Herald., and is about George Hurrell, Kentucky photographer.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. The next earlier Another Angle: Keen eyes, striking images: Part 1

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

Ansel Adams (1902-1984), the famed photographer who is probably best known for his awe-filled images of Yosemite Valley, had some choice words to share about good photographs. He said, "You don't take a photograph, you make it." Adams' contemporary, Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995), the photographer famed for capturing the sailor and nurse kissing on V-J Day in Times Square, once quipped, "It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter."

If these words are true, then George Hurrell (1904-1992) certainly made a lot of fabulous photos and clicked with some of the best known people of the 20th century. The body of his work is winsome and magical, containing portraits that shimmer with the kind of technical perfection that few camera artists ever attain, even now in the era of computer processing.

George Hurrell, Covington native

Born on June 1, 1904 in Covington, Kentucky, Hurrell was fascinated with visual arts from childhood. He loved to draw. He grew up contemplating a career as a painter, and he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. He began to photograph the various stages of his own paintings, and soon he was invited to capture on film the works-in-progress of other painters. He became quite good as a photographer.

In 1925 he was commissioned to come to Laguna Beach, California to document the ongoing work in the arts colony there. Photographing portraits at first for fun, he grew to love capturing the personalities of folks on film. Hurrell became friends with pioneer woman aviator Pancho Barnes, taking many portraits of her that caught the attention of folks in the Hollywood film community. Barnes introduced Hurrell to the silent movie star Ramon Novarro.

Hurrell took some stylish portraits of Novarro, some of them showing the star next to a white horse. Novarro was stunned with the beauty of the pictures, and he showed them all around the M-G-M Studio, where one of the other stars exclaimed that Hurrell had even made the horse look glamorous.

Photo capturing the stars at M-G-M

M-G-M star Norma Shearer asked Hurrell to take her picture and make her look as alluring as possible. Shearer, who had a wholesome image at the time, was going after the lead role in an upcoming film, The Divorcee. Many people thought Shearer was too sweet-looking for the part, but Hurrell's pictures made her look as though she sizzled with sex appeal. Shearer won the role, which earned her an Oscar, and Hurrell became the head portrait photographer at M-G-M.

The M-G-M Studio was known as the place in Hollywood where there were, "more stars than in the heavens." Hurrell captured them and their personas on film: Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Marie Dressler, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and so many others. After a dispute with the studio he left to run an independent business on Sunset Boulevard. In later years he worked at the Warner Brothers and Columbia film lots.

He became the favorite photographer of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn. While he worked at Columbia Pictures his photographs helped to launch the career of a new actress, Rita Hayworth.

Top glamour photographer before age 30

Not bad at all for a kid from Covington -- I say kid because he had reached the top of his profession before the age of 30! His field of endeavor was called glamour photography only after Hurrell's arrival on the scene; he brought glamour and elegance to the Hollywood publicity mill.

He did photography for the Air Force during WW II, and he continued to find steady work even after the decline of the movie studio system. He worked in both New York and California in the 1950's and 1960's. In 1965 the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a show of his work. Photography critics began referring to the "Hurrell style" of portraiture. Museums too numerous to list have bought his works for their photography collections.

Photographs from days of silent film to CD covers

Hurrell continued photographing the new stars of Hollywood in each successive generation: Liza Minnelli, Paul Newman, Sean Penn, Robert Redford, Sharon Stone, John Travolta, and others, often in connection with the release of new movies (including The Sting, the Oscar winner in 1973 that was photographed by fellow Covington native Robert L. Surtees). Hurrell's work also showed up on record album liners and then on CD covers, marking quite a span of photographic history stretching back into the days of the silent film studios. Though he retired officially in 1976, he continued to take on projects that he found interesting or fun, right up until the year of his death.

He lived long enough to cooperate on a documentary film of his life and work. As he succumbed to cancer and was told he had only a day or two to live, he replied, "Well, the party is over. Time to go home." Indeed, George Hurrell's life had been a swell party. He died on May 17, 1992. He had made a lot of wonderful portraits, and he had clicked with a lot of fascinating people. And, like Robert L. Surtees, he left a fine visual legacy. Hurrell does not have a highway historic marker, but perhaps some who appreciate his work will spark interest in such a project. Can't you imagine a marker a few steps away from the one noting Surtees? His work deserves such a gesture.


This story was posted on 2011-08-14 13:14:33
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