Collections

Skip navigation
Media File
George Hurrell
Date: American, 1904-1992
Biography:

Born in Kentucky and raised in Cincinnati, George Hurrell displayed an interest in drawing at an early age. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago briefly, then the neighboring Academy of Fine Arts in his teens, but he left school in 1922 and attempted a career as a painter. He took a job hand-painting photographs in a commercial studio, and accepted a series of temporary positions with other commercial studios, learning technical skills that didn't interest him. In 1925 he moved to California, where he discovered that his photographs sold better than his paintings; he cultivated a reputation for his photographic portraits. Hurrell met Edward Steichen in 1928, when the elder photographer borrowed his darkroom to develop his photographs of Greta Garbo. Hurrell's first major Hollywood commission was to photograph the actor Ramon Novarro. He went on to work as a freelance or staff photographer for five movie production companies between 1930 and 1956, and at the Pentagon during the World War II. Hurrell resumed freelance work between 1960 and 1975, when the demand for his portraits had waned. Rediscovered during the 1970s, he enjoyed a brief second career, and his work was the subject of several monographs, including The Hurrell Style: 50 Years of Photographing Hollywood (1976) and Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits: The Chapman Collection (1997).

Hurrell revolutionized Hollywood portraiture between 1925 and 1950 through his ability to capture and create the glamour, allure, and celebrity of his subjects. In many of his images, elegant artifice renders them almost as living sculptures. Before Hurrell's time, promotional stills throughout the movie industry were in a homogeneous style, characterized by soft-focus, generic studio settings, and standard lighting placement. Changing public tastes and the popularization of television altered Hollywood marketing priorities in the 1950s and 1960s, and Hurrell's approach to portraiture fell out of favor.

Meredith Fisher

Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 218.