George Hurrell's Hollywood portraits glow at Disney exhibit 

Although the faces are familiar, there is something unusual and striking about the old photos on view at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Taken some 80 years ago, they have a 21st-century look.

Black-and-white closeups of Norma Shearer, Buster Keaton, Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford and two dozen more Hollywood stars in the 1930s were shot by George Hurrell, a photographer who created the standard for glamour portraits.

Dr. Louis F. D’Elia, curator of "Lights! Camera! Glamour! The Photography of George Hurrell," calls Hurrell "the early master of photographic image manipulation, more than a half century before the invention of Photoshop.”

Classically trained as a painter, Hurrell combined his knowledge of lighting and composition with a unique talent for adding highlight and shadow, D’Elia says, “to focus on the beauty and sensuality of the human face and the human form."

Pictures of Disney, Jean Harlow, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ramon Novarro and Katharine Hepburn ilustrate Hurrell's signature flair for figure placement and artful lighting, and his ability to make his subjects look their very best yet still appear appear natural and believable.

Lighting techniques and retouching procedures he invented are still in use today.

Hurrell worked as a portrait photographer for major Hollywood film studios, beginning with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Later, he established a TV production studio located on the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank; animators and staff worked for both independent companies.

Disney and Hurrell were personally connected as well. Hurrell married Disney's niece Phyllis Bounds, who then employed her cousin Sharon, Disney's youngest daughter, as assistant. (Walt, a Red Cross ambulance driver in France just as World War I ended, used to drive Sharon to work.)

Vintage 1920s-1930s works by Hurrell, who died in 1992 at age 87, continue to appreciate in value. Museums and fine art collectors are paying as much as $30,000 for 10- by 13-inch and 11- by 14-inch prints.

D'Elia, a neuropsychologist and custodian of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive, which owns Hurrell’s collection (Hurrell was friendly with wealthy, pioneering aviator Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes) says Hurrell's photographs highlight the beauty of the human spirit.

“During his long career, Hurrell created images that launched a million fantasies,” D'Elia says.


Lights! Camera! Glamour! The Photography of George Hurrell

Where: Walt Disney Family Museum, 104 Montgomery St., The Presidio, S.F.

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except closed Tuesdays, show runs through June 29

Tickets: $12 to $20

Contact: (415) 345-6800,

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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