George Hurrell was born in 1904 in Covington, Kentucky. He originally studied the art of painting and had no, if not very little, interest in photography. His first encounter with the medium was when he decided to use it to record his paintings.
In 1925 he moved to Laguna Beach in California and discovered photography as an art, soon realizing that it was a much more reliable source of income than painting.
His friend Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes, a Pasadena heiress and free-spirited early aviator, often posed for him and soon encouraged him to start a career in Hollywood. She introduced him to Ramon Novarro in the late 1920s who then posed for him and was very impressed with the result. Hurrell then showed them to Norma Shearer who was seeking for a new photographer to give a more glamorous image of her in order to land the title role in “The Divorcee”. The pictures ended in Irving Thalberg’s hands (her husband) then chief production for MGM, who was so impressed he decided to immediately sign Hurrell as head of the portrait photography department.
Hurrell left the job in 1932 due to differences with the publicity head. From then on until 1938 he ran his own studio at 8706 Sunset Boulevard.
Throughout the decade he photographed every star contracted to MGM and his Black and White images were used extensively in their marketing. Amongst them, he photographed Dorothy Jordan, Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. From that time onwards Norma Shear is said to have refused to work with any other photographer than Hurrell.
He also photographed Greta Garbo but the session didn’t go as planned and she never used his services again.
In the early 1940s he worked with the Warner Bros Studios for whom he photographed Betty Davis, Ann Sheridan, Errol Bogart and James Cagney. He then moved to Columbia Pictures where his photographs were used to help the studio build the career of Rita Hayworth.
He left the post war Hollywood to make army training films for the US Army. He came back in the 1950sbut his work wasn’t considered as the latest fashion anymore and he was no longer seen as an innovator.
He moved back to New York to work for fashion magazines and to take on some advertising work.
He finally returned to Hollywood in the 1960s. Five years later, an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art about his work brought a revival of interest for his photography.
Until the 1970s, he kept on taking pictures of celebrities – as Raquel Welsh, Farrah Fawcett, and John Travolta for example.
He officially retired in 1976 but still took some pictures when he felt the subject was interesting enough. For example, he shot Sharon Stone and Brooke Shields in the 1980s.
In 1984 Joan Collins said she’d agree to pose for Playboy Magazine but only if she could work with Hurrell. He agreed, and shot a nude 12 page layout. The issue became a best seller.
Hurrell died in 1992 after completing a documentary about his career due to complications from bladder cancer.