63 Years of Shooting the Legends : George Hurrell’s portrait photography has spanned Navarro to Schwarzenegger. At 87, he finds himself still in demand

<i> Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for Westside/Valley Calendar</i>

George Hurrell is well-known for his legendary portrait photographs taken in the 1930s of Hollywood’s most eternal stars--Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, to name only a few.

What is not so well-known is that he has continued to work ever since, photographing everyone from Walt Disney and David Bowie to Bette Midler and Arnold Schwarzenegger. At 87, he is still shooting.

“People call me and want me to shoot. Nothing dramatic about it,” Hurrell said during lunch late last month at the Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood, a restaurant he has frequented since 1926. “I’ve never done anything in a promotional way. It’s amazing how they keep me busy so much even at my old age. Wow!”


This year, he did a photo session with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in their “Bugsy” get-ups. He shot the “Oscar” for the cover of Entertainment Weekly’s Academy Awards issue, and the photographs of Natalie Cole that grace her enormously successful album, “Unforgettable.”

“She is nice and very charming, but she is not exactly a glamour girl, so trying to make her look glamorous was a challenge,” Hurrell said. “The idea is to glorify and glamorize, and to make a flattering image.”

That notion has been the basis of his photography since he made his first portraits of a movie star, those of Ramon Navarro in 1928. “There is a lot of argument today in regard to that because it involves retouching--all that purity business that photographers talk about,” he said. “We don’t see like a microscope, so why should the camera? And some of those shots where you see a microscopic image of a person--I just saw one the other day of Isamu Noguchi, the sculptor. I didn’t believe it was Noguchi.

“It’s interesting as a photograph, so I can’t argue about that. But as a picture of the man--I was quite friendly with Isamu in New York--I never saw him that way. If the camera does, well, I can’t conceive that argument about the camera as truthful. What is truthful? I don’t know. But not the microscope.

“You may not see an older woman’s wrinkles unless she twists a certain way and the light hits them. Sometimes she just looks so beautiful in the right kind of light. Why not have her look like she’s in the best of light?”

David Fahey of the Fahey/Klein gallery, which Hurrell recently engaged to represent him, said: “There is a cliche in photography about photographers ‘painting with light.’ George Hurrell is the quintessential example of a photographer who paints with light. He is the Rembrandt of photography.”

Hurrell explained: “My style, if there’s a style to be considered, is designing. If a portrait doesn’t have a design or a composition, it doesn’t have enough strength in the face. That’s why I use spotlights. Strobe lighting doesn’t have enough variety. It’s too flat and too much of one source.”

David Stenn, a 30-year-old screenwriter and author who is writing a biography of Harlow to be published in 1993, asked Hurrell to take the photograph of him that will appear on the book’s jacket. Stenn’s sitting took place in September.

“It was inspiring to watch a master in such command and control of his craft,” Stenn said enthusiastically. “He takes portraits in the truest sense of the word. They are done, lit and posed very carefully, as a great painter would have done. He studies your face, personality and the light, thinking about what is best for you. He doesn’t just put you in the same spot as everyone else and say ‘Smile.’ ”

Born in 1904 in Cincinnati, Hurrell moved to Chicago in 1920 to study painting and drawing at the Chicago Art Institute. “I had an interest in photography from the beginning, but I wanted to be a painter. I was just photographing to make a living.”

He’d had no formal training in photography. “I just knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “That’s why I don’t have any patience for people who want me to tell them how to shoot pictures--these kids who evidently think it’s something that you have to be told about. I don’t know what it is, but they think there’s an answer to everything.

“I tried a couple of times to teach, just for the heck of it, to find out what it was like. I would always have to quit after three or four sessions because of dumb questions like, ‘Why did you put the light there?’ I said, ‘Can’t you see? You see what the light’s doing! If you don’t see that, throw that camera away.’ That doesn’t make a teacher when you talk like that,” he said with a hearty laugh.

In 1925, Hurrell drove from Chicago to Laguna Beach with landscape painter Edgar Payne, the founder of the Laguna Beach Museum of Art. There, he turned what he terms a little shack into a darkroom.

Writer M. F. K. Fisher and her sister, Anne, were his first clients for what he calls social portraits. He didn’t have any lights at the time, so he had to shoot outside or with light coming through the window.

Aviator and socialite Florence (Pancho) Barnes introduced him to Ramon Navarro. “I had shot her when she was flying,” Hurrell said. “She was from the Loew family and had one of the most expensive airplanes in the world. She held the women’s speed record for a couple of years.

“She brought him into my studio on Lafayette Park Place. I had moved into town. Navarro wanted to be an opera star, but MGM didn’t want any part of it; they didn’t want him to even get interested in opera. He had to sneak to do it. That’s where I came in. I made pictures of him in different roles and attire. He went to Europe years later and tried to establish himself, but it didn’t work because his voice wasn’t good enough.”

Navarro showed his photographs to his friend, actress Norma Shearer. At that time, she wanted to play the lead in the movie “The Divorcee,” which her husband, Irving Thalberg, was producing. Thalberg thought that she was not alluring enough for the part. Shearer thought that Hurrell could change her image.

“She was a tough little gal, fighting her way to get the part,” Hurrell recalled. “She finally did with the pictures I shot of her. From then on, I was the only guy who could shoot pictures of her.”

Thus began Hurrell’s Hollywood career. Howard Strickling, the head of MGM’s publicity department, called him after seeing the Shearer photographs and asked him to come to work there. “I played hard to get ‘cause that’s the way I was in those days, but I went to work for them. In fact, I started Jan. 1, 1930,” he said.

He photographed all of MGM’s major stars during his 2 1/2-year stint--including Garbo, Gable, Harlow, Crawford, Hepburn and Tracy, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, William Powell and Myrna Loy.

“Right from the beginning, it was all lighting to me, and then keeping your people interested or catching them when they weren’t just staring,” Hurrell said. “I always play music because it gives us a kind of atmosphere. In those days, it was jazz. I never had a beat as rock does today, but more music and rhythm. That kept an atmosphere in there of jubilant excitement.

“And, too, I jumped and hollered, fell down and carried on because I had to get reactions. Half the time I didn’t know what I was doing, but it always worked. I’d get reactions. That’s what I’m after, to break down the tension that happens when you sit in front of a camera.”

From his sessions with Hollywood’s immortals, Hurrell has not only photographs, but impressions of them that remain vivid after all these years.

Garbo: “The studio always wanted happy and laughing pictures from her, but she just didn’t do it. That grim personality thing was established in her own mind, and righteously. It gave her a quality that nobody else was able to achieve, and was quite intriguing. She just sat there like a stone statue. You couldn’t get her to do anything like lean. Actually, in person, she was quite happy and frivolous, but she wouldn’t turn that on for the camera.”

Harlow: “At her age, Harlow wanted fun and youthful excitement. Being the great actress didn’t make much difference. She loved acting because it was self-expression. It was always a joy to have a sitting with her because you never stopped laughing. I didn’t have to fall on my face for her.”

Hepburn: “She’s such a spontaneous personality, a glib extrovert. She talked and talked; she’s amusing when she’s chattering away. I always thought of her as one of the most intellectual actresses I ever photographed.”

Gable: “Gable is best expressed in this situation I experienced with him. He, Tracy, a publicity man and I were going to lunch. In those days, they used to have young fellas take crowds of people to look at the stages. Here came a group--probably from Paducah or some place--toward us. Tracy says, ‘Uh oh, look what’s coming; let’s go Clark, take a side street,’ or something like that. Gable said something like, ‘Ah, c’mon Tracy.’ He let Tracy go off and he just stayed and faced those people. He signed autographs and turned on that big smile of his, asked, ‘Where ya from?’ and all that sort of thing. That was Gable--a real human being.”

Hurrell left MGM in 1932 over a brouhaha with Strickling. “I had gone out on a weekend to shoot Eddie Lowe and Lilyan Tashman at their beach house. When he discovered that I had been shooting other outside stars, my God, you’d think I had killed L. B. Mayer. They made such a big thing about it, so I told them to go to hell.

“Soon after I left MGM, Shearer wanted photographs for her new picture. Strickling tried to talk her out of it, but she didn’t care what the hell it was. She just wanted me.”

He went into partnership with an art director and opened a studio on the Sunset Strip. The stars came to him, among them Dietrich, Loretta Young and Shirley Temple. “Her mother wanted me to shoot the kid, and I liked the kid too. I liked working with her because she was so darn smart. We used to get along fine.”

A few years later, when he tired of being a businessman and worrying about the books, he signed a two-year contract with Warner Bros. There he photographed, among others, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, James Cagney and Bogart.

“Bogart didn’t like to pose particularly,” Hurrell said. “He’d come in and just slouch around. It was his character, so he looked right just being himself. We would always connect him with some role he had just finished doing or was going to do. As soon as you could get him into thinking of a character or personality, he responded. Bogey was a real charming guy in his rough way. He didn’t like being retouched. He wanted to look rugged and tough.”

Hurrell was hired by Columbia in 1942, but with World War II, he was sent to what, he said, “we used to call ‘Fort Roach,’ ” the Hal Roach Studio in Culver City. He was part of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Force, which made training films.

“Ronald Reagan was there too,” he said. “He was a First Louie. He used to wander around in a daze. He had some eyesight problems and could never see people coming toward him, so he was always saluting at the wrong time. We used to laugh about it.”

After his wartime service, Hurrell finished up his contract with Columbia and, for the next few years, worked independently in a studio built for him on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Then he moved to New York for six years, where he received assignments from various magazines and advertising agencies. He returned to his Rodeo Drive studio for two years, then went back to New York to work for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.

“I wanted to get out of portrait work. I was getting bored, which was my problem all the time out here,” he said. “That’s why I went to different studios. But then I got sick of New York.

“I was married to a niece of Walt Disney’s at the time. Walt wanted to get into television, and he decided to do it through commercials. I had had TV commercial experience at J. Walter Thompson. So we set up a commercial department on the Disney lot called Hurrell Productions.” When they parted, it was not on friendly terms, he added.

Hurrell has been married to his third wife, Elizabeth Willis, for more than 35 years and they have three children. He also has three children from his second marriage to Disney’s niece, Phyllis Bounds, to whom he was married for “about a decade.” His first marriage in the ‘30s was to Katherine Cuddy, a beauty contest winner from Seattle.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, Hurrell received television show and feature film assignments. He shot publicity stills for such programs as “Gunsmoke,” “Star Trek,” “MASH” and “Marcus Welby,” and movies including “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Towering Inferno” and “All the President’s Men.”

He shot the stars of the 1980s throughout the decade: Midler, Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas. He photographed Jessica Lange after she completed the film “Frances,” about the life of Frances Farmer (1982). His pictures of singer/songwriter and director David Byrne and of Schwarzenegger were for Esquire magazine.

“I liked David Byrne so well. I had to go to Dallas to shoot him, where he was making his movie “True Stories.” He’s a very introspective, creative-minded kind of guy. He doesn’t jabber; you have to pull things out of him. That was a surprise, because when he comes on stage, he’s such a wild man.”

Schwarzenegger was a different kind of sitter altogether. “He’s a mountain by himself,” Hurrell said. “He turns on that smile, and it’s real. It’s so strong, so full of life because he is so full of life. He’s hellbent on charming you. He doesn’t act grand or as if you are beneath him. He wants you to like him and you can’t help it.”

These Hurrell photographs of Byrne and Schwarzenegger, and more than 100 others that span the length of his career, can be found in “The Book of Stars,” published this year by Schirmer Art Books, a German book publisher.

Ever meticulous about his work, he still retouches directly on the negative, an uncommon practice today.

“His retouching is so adroit,” Stenn said. “The real person is there in the photograph, but you see the best version of that person. You wish you could look like that all the time. People, especially people my age, gasp when they see my pictures.”

On view at the G. Ray Hawkins gallery in Santa Monica is an exhibit of Hurrell photographs. However, Hurrell said he had no involvement with the organization of the show or the book that accompanies it.

He has made a “real serious tie-up” with Fahey/Klein gallery and is now thinking about what to do with his collection. “Maybe it’s time for me to stop shooting and concentrate on that,” he said.

Fahey, who said Hurrell’s signed, vintage prints of actresses such as Crawford, Dietrich and Harlow sell for $12,000 to $15,000, is talking with Hurrell about publishing a book from vintage prints and organizing a series of exhibitions. A production company in Vermont is preparing a television documentary on him. Producer Grier Clarke has been collecting Hurrell photographs for 10 years.

Yet, when asked if he would shoot an interesting assignment if one came along, the North Hollywood resident didn’t hesitate with his answer. “Oh, yes. It keeps me alert. As old Erte said when I shot him at age 90--I asked him what was the secret of his longevity, and he said it in one word-- activity. I couldn’t sit here and twiddle my thumbs. I’d go mad.”