Hello Photoion students and photography fans and welcome to another instalment in our Masters of Photography series, where we look at the life and work of some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.
This time we’re looking at George Hurrell. You may not be familiar with the name, but you almost certainly will have seen Hurrell’s work at some point or another.
Hurrell is responsible for some of the most iconic celebrity photos of the 20th century, and his portrait work inspired celebrity photographers for decades to come.
Born in 1904 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Hurrell studied painting and at first only used photography as a way to create reference images for his work. He was encouraged by a friend to take photography more seriously and soon found that the medium offered him a more stable income.
In the late 20’s, Hurrell photographed the actress Norma Shearer. His provocative images of the actress garnered the attention of MGM Studios and Hurrell was hired as their head of photograph.
This began a log career of celebrity photography that included portraits of people such as Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, and David Bowie.
Hurrell’s style was one of romanticised glamour. His black and white images captured his subjects with an almost otherworldly quality. Many of his images had incredibly out of focus backgrounds, combined with bright but soft lighting on the subject’s faces that gave them an almost painted feeling.
Other pieces of his work used single light sources against a black background to create dramatic and larger than life characters.
Hurrell’s style was everywhere in the 30’s and 40’s but eventually fell out of fashion with Hollywood photography. Fortunately for Hurrell, his high-glamour style was still popular in fashion photography, and Hurrell found work in that industry until returning to Hollywood in the 60’s.
Hurrell semi-retired in 1976, but still took occasional work photographing celebrities such as Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, John Travolta, and many others for Hollywood and magazines.
Shortly before his death, Hurrell worked on a documentary about his life, Legends in Light. He passed away from Bladder Cancer shortly after completing his voice over for the film.
Since his death, Hurrell’s prints and images have continued to be sold for thousands and tens of thousands of dollars, and his work continues to be an inspiration for Hollywood and glamour photography.