At age 18, George Hurrell started out as a fine art painter, studying at the prestigious Art Institute in Chicago. In 1925, while still attending the Art Institute, the famous landscape painter Edgar Alwyn Payne invited Hurrell to Laguna Beach, California to be a part of the Laguna Art Colony.
George Hurrell painting a picture
In 1925, Hurrell also met Florence Leontine Lowe (Pancho) Barnes, who went on to become a highly accomplished aviator. Pancho and George became great friends. Three years later Hurrell photographed Pancho at home in Laguna Beach. She couldn’t believe how beautiful he made her look, and loved the photos.
Ramon Novarro, a famous silent movie star at MGM, was one of Pancho’s best friends. With the transition to talking pictures, Novarro, who had a great operatic voice, was vacillating between staying in Hollywood or becoming a stage actor in Europe. Novarro wanted some dramatic photographs for his stage pursuits and Pancho recommended Hurrell. Novarro had a series of photographs taken by George Hurrell at Pancho’s homes in Pasadena and Laguna Beach, including one dressed as Percival, standing next to Pancho Barnes’ horse.
When Pancho saw the photograph, she exclaimed: “If George Hurrell can make my horse look as beautiful as the most handsome man in America, then everyone should be using George Hurrell as their photographer.”
Novarro soon introduced George to Norma Shearer. Norma was married to Irving Thalberg , the head of MGM Studios. MGM was casting for an upcoming movie, “The Divorcee” and Norma wanted the role. Irving Thalberg couldn’t see his “angelic” wife playing the part of some vampy divorcee. Shearer went to Hurrell and said “make me a vamp”. Hurrell did just that, and created the sultry images that won Norma the role.
Thalberg and Shearer were so impressed with Hurrell's work that he was hired as head of the MGM portrait gallery in 1930.
For the next two years, Hurrell photographed every star at M-G-M, from Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Greta Garbo to Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler. His work set a new standard for Hollywood portraits. It even inspired a new name for the genre - glamour photography.
After a disagreement with M-G-M publicity head Howard Strickling, Hurrell left to set up his own studio on Sunset Boulevard. The stars flocked to Hurrell for portraits.
It was the movies that remained Hurrell's first love. After six years, he moved to Warner Bros., helping build the careers of such stars as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn and James Cagney. Hurrell moved to Columbia, where he shaped Rita Hayworth's image.
During WW2 after he served in with the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Force, he shot training films and photographed generals at the Pentagon. After the war, Hurrell returned to Hollywood, but soon found glamour photography had fallen out of fashion. He relocated to New York and continued shooting advertising and fashion layouts through the 50's.
In 1952, Hurrell returned to Hollywood and started a television production company with his wife, Phyllis. It was located on the Disney lot. After two years, he returned to New York. He settled in Southern California permanently in 1956, eventually moving back into the film industry as a unit still man.
Beginning in 1965 with an exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern-art his work has been showcased at museums throughout the world. One of the first books published "The Hurrell Style" by John Day & Company, in 1976, was followed by other commemorative books and special-edition prints of his work. It was during these years that he shot stars like Liza Minelli, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford. Even after his retirement in 1976, he continued to shoot portraits, adding to his portfolio such representatives of the new Hollywood as Sharon Stone, Brooke Shields and John Travolta.
Among his last assignments were photographing Warren Beatty and Annette Benning for Bugsy, Natalie Cole for the best-selling "Unforgettable" album and a fashion layout with Jennifer Flavin, his last photographic subject.
George Hurrell died of cancer in 1992.