Lately I’ve been doing some research into a specific genre of photography known as Hollywood glamour. Typically, when one thinks of Hollywood Glamour it’s a given that we’re talking about publicity photos from the so called Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s a very unique style of photography that was pioneered by photographers like George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull. Though there were others these two really exemplify the style of Hollywood glamour of the Golden Age. Arguably, George Hurrell is the defacto Hollywood glamour photographer that set the standard to which all others are compared.
One thing that is interesting to me is that although both Hurrell and Bull were both tasked with creating publicity photos and they were aesthetically similar at first glance, in reality they were actually quite different in some ways. Generally, although Bull could be as noir and contrasty as any of them, he tended to produce works that were less so; more open shadows than Hurrell. I have the feeling that Bull’s work is probably more aesthetically in line with today’s eye. That’s just a guess, though.
I will admit that, personally, I generally prefer Hurrell’s work over Bull’s, but they were both just amazing at what they did.
The shot above of Hedy Lamarr by Bull is quite representative of his work.
The one below of Jane Russell by Hurrell is, I believe, quite representative of his work:
You’ll notice that Hurrell’s pic of Russell really hits the contrast. He wasn’t afraid of shadows in the least. Now, of course, there are plenty of shots by either that are practically indistinguishable. But I think that these two are example of how they did differ.
Something that I find interesting is that I bet if Hurrell and Bull were alive today, not famous, and posted these exact same images on a portrait critique forum, they would be heavily criticized for all kinds of reasons; too hard of light, over processed skin, wonky cropping, etc.
Another thing that is apparent that is almost anathema for modern portraiture is the often missing catchlights in the eyes. Yes, there were often catchlights, but there were often no catchlights, too. Whatever the criticisms may be, there is just no denying that these two gentlemen created amazing works. Though they both were different from each other, they both managed to create almost otherworldly beings; something that was required by the Hollywood studios of the day. Their goal was to represent their talent as beyond and above the average person. And, boy, did they succeed in doing that.
Completely unrealistic, but oh so amazing.
Which brings me to the issue of post processing. Today a common refrain is the over use of post production. It’s often blamed on Photoshop or other post processing software; as if it’s a new phenomenon. We talk about the over use of Instagram filters and bemoan the lack of reality in today’s glamour portraiture. But the reality is that it’s nothing new at all. It’s just done in a different way. Both Hurrell and Bull relied extensively on post production. They spent hours in the dark room dodging and burning, shaping arms, cheeks, and bodies, and smoothing skin; all in an attempt to create a sort of perfection beyond the reality. In fact the movie studios employed many more retouchers than photographers.
When it comes to gear they used mostly 8×10 portrait boxes and repurposed film studio lights. Looking at the photos, generally, there seemed to be a key light, a hair light, and a background light to light up the background adding a more dimensional quality. A big limitation of the gear that they used was the fact that they typically had to rely on long exposure times, perhaps up to a couple of seconds. This is one of the reasons you see most of the poses like they are; seductively lounging, reclining, resting their heads on hands, etc. Yes, these kinds of poses tend to appear sensual, but they served a purpose, too. They are the kinds of poses that are easier to hold for long periods. So, when you look at the photo of Jane Russell above, lying back with a “I’m waiting” demeanor, there was more to it than that. It’s the perfect pose to exude sensuality and hold for a long exposure time.
When it comes to closely replicating the look of Golden Age Hollywood glamour it can certainly be done with modern cameras and lighting gear. Some would have you think that it just can’t be done without a spot and a Fresnel lens, but that just isn’t so. For example, Robert Harrington shows how it can be done using nothing more than speed lights in this video:
Is it exactly like a George Hurrell photo? Maybe not, but it certainly is very close to the style. The key, really, is to use a three light setup and choking down the light. Harrington uses snoots on both his key and hair light, and a grid on the background light. In the old days they used Fresnel lamp lenses to focus and concentrate the light, and barn doors as well as flags. Today it can be accomplished using grids and snoots along with flags if needed. Yes you could use barn doors and Fresnel lenses, too, but it’s not really necessary.
The one thing that I might do differently than Harrington would be to use studio strobes rather than speed lights, at least for the key. I think a modeling light would come in very handy in finding just the right shadow.
Something else that I notice is how the talent performed. Typically when shooting models they tend to get in a flow. By that I mean they sort of sync with the photographer and are moving a lot. The flash pops and they switch to a different pose. Flash pops, switch it up. It’s easy to bang off a lot of shots and then comb through them for the keepers.
Obviously the nature of digital more easily allows for that. However, in the day of Hurrell and Bull, each shot was almost a production in and of itself. They could take several minutes creating a single shot. They would have the talent assume a pose and hold it. They would then move lights around to create just the right shadows. Sharon Stone has talked about doing a shoot with Hurrell in which she was lying on a bed with a tea service, in her pose. Hurrell moved some lights around, looked at the scene and then went up to Stone and adjusted one of her fingers just so. He then finally took the shot.
Anyway, I think the whole thing is extremely interesting. And I think that there is a lot to be taken away from these masters of the Hollywood glamour shot; something that perhaps has been washed away a bit by technology and the ease in which photos can be taken in today’s world.