George Hurrell’s Hollywood: An Interview with Author Mark A. Vieira

 

George Hurrell’s Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992
(Running Press)

 An Interview with author Mark A.Vieira

hurr_9780762450398_jkt_v3.indd  George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)

Sitting here in my living room, I can’t help but notice something: Mark A. Vieira’s latest book, George Hurrell’s Hollywood, does look awfully good on my coffee table. However, don’t let its aesthetic beauty fool you; the book may be filled with gorgeous photographs of Classic Hollywood’s most radiant stars, but to call it simple coffee table reading is to do Vieira a disservice. One part picture book, one part biography, and all parts a pleasurable reading experience, George Hurrell’s Hollywood meticulously chronicles the life, work, and working relationships of Classic Hollywood’s most influential portrait photographer, George Hurrell. Vieira manages to captivate his readers with an array of anecdotes and stories all revolving around the famed photographer, shedding light on both his manic genius and dedication to his work. At over 400 pages and with over 100 of Hurrell’s most stunning portraits, the book is a delight for both classic film aficionados and anyone interested in the art of photography.

I would like to extend my gratitude to Mark A. Vieira for taking the time to do this interview as well as to Running Press Publishers for supplying CMH with a copy of the book as well as the photos accompanying this post!

Mark A. Vieira with Hurrell's Camera [photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]Mark A. Vieira with Hurrell’s Camera.
[photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

CMH: You have a background in the visual arts, specifically filmmaking and photography. As an artist, what drew you to the portraits of George Hurrell?

I was a film student at USC Cinema in 1974 when I first saw vintage Hurrell prints. I was struck by the unorthodox ways in which he used light. Instead of aiming light in a conventional key-light-fill-light scheme, he had light spilling over his subject’s shoulders. It created contrast and depth, giving a feeling of hot sunlight or cool moonlight, depending on the photo. His photos were also very sharp and very sexy, a departure from the other photographers of the time. I had to know more about him.

CMH:  You currently do Hurrell-style portraits in the same studio that Hurrell began his photographic career. What’s it like working where Hurrell’s career started, doing the same type of work Hurrell did?

Hurrell’s studio was in Suite Number Nine from January 1928 through December 1929. I’m upstairs in Suite 48, but I do use his camera. What’s it like? I have the satisfaction of maintaining a tradition. I can make the subject look better with this technique than if I were shooting, say, with a digital camera and available light. Hurrell wanted his subjects to look their best; so do I.

Ramon Novarro by Hurrell 1929.  [photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]Ramon Novarro by Hurrell 1929. Novarro was Hurrell’s first big name client,
effectively starting his career in Hollywood.
[photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

CMH: Your book is quite impressive, chronicling not only Hurrell’s life and work, but also his relationship with his subjects as well as his creative and technical growth as a photographer. With so much material to cover, where did you begin? What was the process in writing this book?

I see my books as narratives. In order to tell the story, I have to see it on paper from beginning to end—as a story. So I begin by making a timeline. A detailed timeline. That’s how I got the great stuff about Hurrell’s later years, by tracing his activities from month to month.

CMH: I found it very interesting that Hurrell was trained as a painter and initially had little interest in photography outside of photographing his own paintings. How do you think his training as a painter affected his work as a photographer?

Having seen Hurrell’s paintings, which were mediocre landscapes, I have to conclude that he gravitated to photography because he was fascinated by light and could only explore that fascination by using film.

Norma Shearer by Hurrell 1932. [photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]Norma Shearer by Hurrell 1932. While under her patronage, Hurrell was hired
as MGM lead portrait photographer.
[photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

CMH: One of my favorite aspects of your book is the detailed technical description of how Hurrell achieved his photographic effects. How did you find this information? Did Hurrell keep notes of his technical experimentation?

If Hurrell kept notes, I never saw them. I asked him questions. I showed him his work. I showed him my work. I watched him shoot. I interviewed his contemporaries, photographers like Ted Allan. I learned much more from them than I did from him about Hollywood glamour photography in general, but what I learned from him I could not get from anyone else. He described himself as arrogant, and, while he could be difficult, he was also modest and forthcoming. He did explain things to me.

John Payne by Hurrell 1939.  [photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]John Payne by Hurrell 1939. Photographed during his Warner Brother years.
[photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

CMH: In the book, you separate Hurrell’s creative professional work into five separate periods, much akin to Picasso. In his final period, you state his portraits were more “gritty and real,” reflecting his new home at Warner Bros. This had me wondering. Do you feel these separate periods are a reflection on his own growth as an artist or are these differing periods of artistic creation wholly dependent on his studio surroundings?

That’s a difficult question to answer. But first I have to clarify something. Warner Bros. made urban melodramas that were gritty and hard-hitting but they never made their actors look unattractive. Nor did Hurrell adopt a “gritty style” for that studio. His photos were printed on glossy paper and were very sharp, but they were very heavily retouched, and groomed, and posed, so you can’t say that they were less glamorous. They were certainly more sexy. What would his work have been if he had been shooting exclusively for RKO Radio Pictures instead of for M-G-M or Warners? Who knows? I do think that the continuity of working in one location and having a simultaneous improvement in technology (film, paper, lighting implements) fired his imagination and propelled his growth as an artist. The one constant in the Hurrell story is that he could not stand doing the same thing or being in the same place for more than a few years.

CMH: Like many who venture to Hollywood, Hurrell seemed to be an eccentric, yet entirely charismatic creature. While researching the book, was there any anecdote or story about his life you found particularly engaging or entertaining?

I liked the story about the early 1936 portrait session at Joan Crawford’s home. She made Hurrell and his assistant work so hard that they exposed 500 sheets of 8×10 film. His assistant fainted. Hurrell gave him the next day off, but instead of doing the same thing, Hurrell spent the day painting landscapes, which relaxed him. Regarding Hollywood personalities, Hurrell did say that the biggest stars were unique people, even without glamour lighting. They had an inner glow.

Joan Crawford 1934 by Hurrell. [photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]Joan Crawford by Hurrell 1934. Crawford was considered by Hurrell to be
his greatest muse.
[photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

 CMH: While writing the book, you had access to people who knew Hurrell. Did you learn anything from these sources that surprised you?

Yes! Richard Settle rented his Santa Monica Boulevard studio to Hurrell in the 80s. Richard told me stories I’d never heard. These were related to him by Hurrell while they waited for subjects like Paul McCartney to show up. One story really hit me. Hurrell romanced a starlet in his darkroom at the studio on Sunset Boulevard in the late 30s. While his wife was at the front door — trying to get in. That’s in the book, as are the rest of the stories Richard shared with me.

Chevy Chase by Hurrell. [photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

Chevy Chase by Hurrell. Taking his glamorous style into the 1980′s.
[photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

CMH: And finally, do you have a favorite George Hurrell portrait or perhaps a “top 3”?

It would have to be a Top Four!

Anna May Wong by Hurrell 1938 [photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

Anna May Wong by Hurrell 1938.

Betty Grable by Hurrell 1937 [photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

Betty Grable by Hurrell 1937.

Norma Shearer by Hurrell 1935 [photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

Norma Shearer by Hurrell 1935.

Joan Crawford 1931 by Hurrell [photo: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

Joan Crawford by Hurrell 1931.

[all four photos above: George Hurrell's Hollywood (Running Press)]

…..

Thanks again to Mark A. Vieira and Running Press Publishers for this interview as well as the use of Hurrell’s stunning photographs. If you would like to see more of these photographs, or perhaps have a family member who might, you can order the book here. Trust me when I say any classic movie fan would love to see this book under the Christmas tree or next to the Festivus pole.

…..

Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub

For more information or to order the book, click here:

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