Book Review--George Hurrell's Hollywood: Glamour Portraits, 1925-1992


George Hurrell's Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992
Mark A. Vieira
2013, Running Press

Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits, photographer and writer Mark Vieira's 1997 tribute to the glamour photography legend has long been one of my favorite books. It was my first experience with the "smart" coffee table book, a large format publication with well-written and researched text to accompany Hurrell's drool-worthy shots. It was my introduction to an artist I already admired, though I didn't know he was the man behind those dreamy shots of swoonily supine actresses with shining skin, dabbled with halos of light and swathed in darkness.

Now Vieira has returned to the master with George Hurrell's Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992, a tribute with twice as many photos and a much deeper analysis of the talented, mercurial photographer. In addition to being an expansion, the book also sets the record straight, correcting errors that Vieira discovered after the publication of the earlier tribute. There's a bit of overlap in photos and information, but the overall presentation is more polished and detailed.

It is now so easy to see a photo of just about anything online, that it can be easy to forget how amazing beautifully printed and executed photography can be. In his introduction, Vieira makes clear his desire to share these images as they should be seen. If you can't make it to a gallery, this book will more than suffice.

Hurrell shot nearly everyone in studio age Hollywood, and many stars beyond. His first actor was silent film star Ramon Novarro. The success of their sessions together attracted Norma Shearer, who as queen of MGM did much to promote the man whose seductive images of the actress won her the much-desired lead in The Divorcee (1930). Joan Crawford wedged in as many sessions with the energetic photographer as she could, almost seeming to enjoy posing more than acting.

With a sexy, humorous line of patter, Hurrell would crank up his record player and break a sweat moving lights and grabbing shots with smooth subtlety. His erotic word pictures could result in some seriously steamy photos, as can be seen in several shots of Jean Harlow in the book (his shot of Harlow reclining on a polar bear rug is probably his most famous). Others were offended; Olivia de Havilland was famously uncomfortable with his antics. Garbo found him flat out weird and refused to work with him again after their first session.

In Hollywood Portraits, Vieira moves beyond the studio and photo shoot stories to reveal the rest of Hurrell's life and the collector culture he helped to inspire. Part of the reason the photographer worked for nearly every studio in town, was that he was too restless and demanding to stay in any one position for long. His talent, and Shearer's support, kept him working despite his sometimes outrageous behavior, but eventually his troublemaking caught up with him. He also became obsolete; his style an artifact of a very different age.

Vieira explores the ebb and flow of Hurrell's early career, his late life struggles and the huge comeback he made in the seventies when collectors began to understand the value of his work. His portraits of Bianca Jagger and Diana Ross fulfilled the need for glamour in a gritty age. He kept his touch to the end, in his final sessions with Sharon Stone, an actress he felt embodied the glow of the golden age.

I can't say I enjoyed Vieira's exploration of the world of collectors in the last part of the book, though I agree that it is an important part of Hurrell's story. After getting such a heavy dose of glamour, even throughout the photographer's more turbulent years, it was a bit dispiriting to learn of the grimy dishonesty among the men who rediscovered and began obsessively acquiring glamour portraits from the studio age. I had no idea there was a sort of collector's casting couch. There was, and probably still is, some repellant behavior in this fanatical community.

While Vieira doesn't hold back on the facts, he wisely emphasizes the contributions these determined, if often corrupt, collectors have made to the preservation of movie history. In his later years, Hurrell even committed fraud with his own images and those of other photographers that he claimed as his own. Vieira offsets these details with a view of the big picture, where the benefits outweigh the dishonesty and sleaze. He believes it's all for the greater good if these photos survive.

Though I still treasure Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits, George Hurrell's Hollywood is now the definitive record of his life, a beautiful and richly informative tribute.

Many thanks to Running Press for providing a review copy of the book.

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