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Stars of the Silver Screen

Jane Russell by George Hurrell, 1946

Known as the “Grand Seigneur of the Hollywood Portrait,” George Hurrell transformed the vision of classic Hollywood and its actors. A native of Covington, Kentucky, he made his name in Hollywood as photographer to the stars, including luminaries such as Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, and Johnny Weissmuller.

Hurrell started his nearly 70-year career as a fluke, using photographs simply as reference for painting, which was his first passion.  After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute, and later moved to the Academy of Fine Arts to study painting. “As long as I remember I wanted to be an artist,” Hurrell said.

In 1925 Hurrell moved to Laguna Beach where plein air painting was flourishing. He began to photograph commercially, and one of his first subjects was his friend Poncho Barnes, a famed female aviator and founder of the motion picture stunt pilots’ union. Barnes connected Hurrell to silent-screen stars including Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer who hired Hurrell to photograph her in an attempt to land the leading role in The Divorcee. (She was successful, and won the Academy Award for Best Actress.) MGM was so impressed with the photographs that he was hired as the head of the MGM portrait gallery in 1930.

Hurrell set a new standard for Hollywood portraiture, creating an entirely new genre known as “glamour photography.”  His photographs used chiaroscuro and created a glow around the actors, as they emerged from the shadows. He later went on to work with Warner Brothers, advertising firms, and eventually started his own television production company.

In 1976 John Day & Company produced one of Hurrell’s first books The Hurrell Style, which was followed by commemorative editions and special edition prints. This led to his shooting modern-day stars such as Liza Minelli, Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

A 1965 exhibit of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City created global awareness of his work, now held in places such as the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Fine Art (Houston), the Getty Museum, The International Center for Photography, and the Smithsonian Institute.

A special reception for Stars of the Silver Screen will be held on Thursday, April 3, 2014, 5-8pm.