At one time, George Hurrell’s photos were bought for several dollars at the most. Now Hurrell’s work is worth thousands upon thousands of dollars to collectors. Although digital photography has evolved the craftsmanship of photography, the methods and work produced by Hurrell are being rediscovered every day by new generations of photographers.
It all started with meeting his first famous client through his friend Poncho Barnes. The famous client was none other than silent film actor Ramon Navarro. After his session with Hurrell, Navarro was so pleased with the photos, word got around MGM Studios that Hurrell was the best photographer in town. At the time, actress Norma Shearer was coveting the role of “Jerry Martin” in “The Divorcee” (1930), but her husband and MGM Studios head producer Irving Thalberg refused to cast her in the film. Determined to land the role, Shearer made an appointment with Hurrell. Before the session, Shearer said, “Make me a vamp.” That he did. The set of photographs consisted of Shearer posing by or on a chaise in nothing but a loose, flowered robe, slippers and earrings. Some of the sultry poses included a sizable amount of Shearer’s nude legs revealed beneath the robe. Thalberg was so impressed by the photographs that, not only did he give the role Shearer wanted to play, but hired Hurrell as MGM Studios’ Head Portrait Photographer. Within his first year, Hurrell photographed over forty of the studios top stars including Buster Keaton, Anita Page, Marie Dressler, in addition to more photos for Norma Shearer and Ramon Navarro.
Actress Carole Lombard was another famous subject Hurrell photographed for publicity photos. One of the photos featured Lombard in a beautiful side profile of the actress leaning against the wall, looking off camera. It was the one photograph Clark Gable kept with him, years after Lombard’s tragic death.
For a brief period Hurrell left the movie studios to open his own photography studio on Sunset Blvd. When Hurrell returned, he first worked at Warner Bros. then at Columbia Pictures, using his unique ambiance and shadow play to create iconic photographs of Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Gary Cooper and many other stars.
In 1992, a documentary was made about his life and work titled, “Legends In Light.” Stars from past and present were featured in the documentary to celebrate George Hurrell. Hurrell’s voice-overs for the documentary were recorded from his hospital bed during his longtime fight with bladder cancer. On May 17, 1992 Hurrell passed away at the age of 88 years old with a legacy of beautiful photography Hurrell’s methods and unique technique of providing ambiance and shadow to play across the icons’ faces.