The History of Glamour Photography
(Greta Garbo, photo by Ruth Harriet Louise)
A young Greta Garbo lays effortlessly within the frame. Her legs are angled to a point and her body twists and curves slightly upwards at the hip. Her dress fits her frame perfectly leaving a trail of feathers and beads. She looks directly at the camera. Her arms are outstretched beckoning the viewer to look closer. Look a little longer. She is all that appears. The white of her limbs shot in stark contrast against the completely black background. She is beautiful. She is alluring. She is glamorous.
There is something special about these images. The images that speak of the Golden-age of Hollywood. They are black and white, but are vivid in a way that other photography is not. What they lack in digital quality and resolution they make up for in their almost universal appeal and the story that they tell. They speak a language of memory, they induce waves of nostalgia. Their power lies in their ability to conjure images of times gone by, they are immediately both alive and timeless.
When you close your eyes and think of Hollywood glamour or the Golden Age of Cinema perhaps your mind wanders to the iconic images of femme fatales and sirens, Garbo, Davies, Hepburn or Crawford. Perhaps you think of those
handsome leads, Keaton, Bogart or Gable.
Wherever the mind wanders it remembers in black and white. It calls on the collective body of work that we refer to as early glamour photography. Your memory whether conscious of the connection or not almost certainly draws on the extensive bodies of work of two of the early pioneers of glamour photography, Americans Ruth Harriet Louise and George Hurrell.
These two loom large as the preeminent artists of the 1920s and 30s whose images and iconography are synonymous with Hollywood and glamour. The multi million dollar modern glamour industry owes a great debt to these two artists, whose work helped to forge a path forward, to establish and legitimise the glamour photography industry.
The Early Pioneers of Glamour Photography
Both Ruth Harriet Louise and George Hurrell arrived in Hollywood in the same year, 1925. This was a pivotal time in the Golden-age of cinema. The first ‘talkie’, a full sound film, ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927) was just around the corner and this advancement along with the improvement in production equipment meant that the movie landscape was about to explode and ultimately change forever.
MGM ( Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) famously advertised that it was the studio with ‘more stars than there are in heaven’. These stars were larger than life figures who represented an escape from the harsh realities of life in the Depression Era into the world of glitz and glamour that was Hollywood.
It was Hurrell and Louise’s photographs and portraits that captured this glamourous other world and it was their images that were circulated to millions of moviegoers, magazine and newspaper readers, around the world each year.
Ruth Harriet Louise
(Ruth Harriet Louise, Self portrait)
Movies, before the introduction of the video recorder and later the DVD and now the digital content stored in the cloud were typically seen by a member of the public only once or twice. The film’s stars lingered long in the memories of moviegoers thanks to the still shots, portraits and promotional material that accompanied a film and not solely through the fleeting images people saw on the screen.
Over the course of her short career at MGM from 1925 to 1929, Louise captured an incredible 100,000 stock images. The vast majority of her images were shot and used in the direct promotion of the studio’s films during this period but it would be unfair to treat them as secondary to the film, they were integral and critical to the movies’ success.
(Greta Garbo by Ruth Harriet Louise)
The promotion of movies during this period fell almost directly to artists like Ruth Harriet Louise. The cult of celebrity, after all, started at this time through the portrait photograph. These images were then transformed into promotional posters and imagery that filled theatre lobbies, pages in magazines and newspapers and promotional material sent out across the world.
Fans would plaster these images across bedroom walls and fill scrapbooks full of images of their favourite celebrities. Without the iconic photographs of Ruth Harriet Louise we would be without the foundation and cornerstones of what we associate with Hollywood, style, fashion and glamour.
For most of us, we would probably have encountered Louise’s work, if at all, through reproductions. She was the photographer to the best known 1920’s film stars like Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. These iconic faces featured in Hollywood histories and celebrity biographies that defined an era were shot for the most part by Ruth Harriet Louise.
Her natural style was typified by painstaking framing and composition of her subject as well as the ethereal and angelic qualities she captured within her female stars. She creatively played with lighting and shadow to reveal a depth of character and to enhance the beauty and allure of the stars she captured. Her photography oozed an elegance and sophistication that adds to the timeless nature of her work.
(Joan Crawford by Ruth Harriet Louise)
Louise’s work was pivotal in shaping MGM into the most important studio in Hollywood. MGM’s success was due to the fact that they had the most powerful publicity machine in the film industry and Louise’s images and iconography were what fed that machine. Her photographs bear witness to the early ages of celebrity when a single photograph was everything and a star’s career could be made, or broken, by a single picture.
At the same time that Ruth Harriet Louise was working shooting Hollywood’s elite another artist was making a name for himself. George Hurrell diverged from the cool elegance of Louise’s style and began to forge his own romantic and glamourous portraits that would become his own trademark style, the ‘Hurrell style’ of glamour photography.
Hurrell’s unique style of portraiture marked a departure from the type of imagery from those who came before him.
Hurrell is recognised as establishing the gold standard for the idealised Hollywood glamour portrait. Many of the trademarks of the ‘Hurrell style’ are the foundations and guiding principles that modern glamour relies upon to this day. His work forms the bedrock of what the average person associates with the term glamour photography andhis legacy lives on in this way long after his death.
For example, Hurrell was responsible for making the close-up an inextricable and defining component of glamour photography. Hurrell also introduced a bold and exciting new look to the genre, immediately sexier and more seductive. He used a mixture of clear focus, shadow, contrast and seductive and languorous poses to catapult the Hollywood glamour portrait into the hearts and minds of the average person.
(Joan Crawford by George Hurrell)
His style was also innovative in his use and application of lighting. He invented the boom light and made precision lighting, spotlights and heavy shadow his signature. Hurrell sculpted his subjects’ faces with light and shadow, using an easily movable boom light that he modeled on a boom microphone, to illuminate cheekbones and create shadows under the eyes and nose. This shadowing and soft lighting added a sense of intimacy and intrigue that was not typically seen in Hollywood glamour photography prior.
(Jane Russell by George Hurrell)
Most significantly Hurrell was able to reshape and redefine what it meant to be glamorous. He achieved this by turning his subjects into idealised versions of humanity, the living embodiments of glamour. His subjects, the stars of Hollywood became more remote and untouchable, idols to be adored and worshipped. His images have the type of seductive power and allure that have come to define glamour photography today.
The Vision of Hurrell and Louise
The true artistry of Ruth Harriet Louise and George Hurrell can be found in their eye for composition. Both of these artists took the photograph and elevated it beyond the ordinary or mundane. They were able to make photography beautiful and alluring and above all else they were able to create glamour through their lense. Both artists were able to showcase the inherent beauty of their subjects and allowed this to shine off the page.
In the process the two simultaneously helped to create and shape society’s expectations of beauty, fashion, glamour and prestige. This is the true genius of their vision.
Also significant is the understanding that Hurrell and Louise had of their unique place in time and history. The two artists were uniquely placed at a time where America entered into the dark hours of the Great Depression. At a time where unemployment skyrocketed and people were losing their homes and a general sense of dread and fear for the future clouded people’s day to day lives Hollywood shone brightly as a beacon of hope, and prosperity.
Hurrell and Louise as well as the studios and clients that they worked for understood the need for the average American to escape the grim reality of their circumstances, even if only fleetingly. Hurrell and Louise understood the power that they held and the ability that they had to create idealised visions of humanity that would speak of better times ahead. Through the lens they were able to create an image of America that spoke of prosperity, prestige and glamour in a time where the reality differed greatly.
Former United States President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt summed up this sentiment when he said, “During the Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an
American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”
It was the photography of Hurrell and Louise that helped to commodify this important brand of escapism, packaging stars as idols and symbols of hope in a brighter and better tomorrow.
The Golden Age of cinema of the 1920s and 1930s that bore the type of glamour photography synonymous with Louise and Hurrell gave way to a more liberal and sexualised form of glamour photography in the 1940s. Publishers of glamour photography were forced to meet the growing demand of their audience for increasingly seductive and provocative images, far removed from the relative innocence of the decades prior.
The associations with seduction and sexuality forged in this era have also endured and form yet another cornerstone of modern glamour photography today. Models like Bettie Page and Rita Hayworth helped to ease attitudes towards nudity and sex as glamour photography became increasingly risqué and overtly sexual.
(Bettie Page by Irving Klaw)
This new form of liberated glamour photography now focused largely on the female body as a source of attraction and temptation and was immediately more mischievous and playful. This progression away from innocence was marked from Louise to Hurrell and then into the type of glamour photography produced in the 1940s.
One of the chief artists working throughout the 1940s and 1950s was Bruno Bernard who moved glamour photography forward immortalising the ‘pin-up’ style of photography that is still popular today.
A German born photographer who moved to California in 1937 Bernard was able to open his own successful studio on Sunset Boulevard. This marked a major departure from the days of earlier photographers who were employed solely by the major Hollywood studios enabling both the photographer and the celebrity to gain greater control of the types of images they were creating.
Amongst his clientele were the likes of Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe.
Bruno Bernard who became known simply as Bernard of Hollywood’s biggest successes came with his connection with a young Hollywood hopeful named Norma Jean. It was his initial photographs that catapulted the young girl who would later become Marilyn Monroe into the spotlight and national consciousness. He shot Marilyn in candid poses even capturing one of her first nude shoots that emphasised her femininity and heightened her beauty and sex appeal.
(Marilyn Monroe by Bruno Bernard)
Today Bernard is remembered as the man who mastered the art of pin-up photography and has left a lasting legacy on the glamour photography industry. Aspects of his defining style have become synonymous with the glamour shot and have become part of the fabric of the genre.
He is attributed with being the pioneer of the portrait style, ‘the posed candid’. Here Bernard would film the subject in more casual, everyday settings aimed at capturing a moment rather than creating one. He was on the set of ‘The Seven Year Itch’ in 1955 to catch the iconic candid ‘flying dress’ shot that defines Hollywood and glamour.
Another feature of his style that stems from his directorial approach to photography evident in this shot is the ‘elongated leg.’ Bernard himself wrote in his diary that, ‘ photographers can create a similar illusion by elongating the legs from a low perspective, but not so low as to distort the proportions of the head too much,’ which demonstrates the exacting precision and skill he exercised in creating the perfect shot. The elongated leg, wrapped in a beautiful heel that seems to stretch on and on is one of the hallmarks of Bernard’s style of glamour photography that has endured and continues to be a major part of glamour photography today.
(Marilyn Monroe by Bruno Bernard)
Both ‘the posed candid’ and the ‘elongated leg’ are indelible marks of Bernard’s on the glamour photography industry.
Glamour Photography Today
Glamour photography as a term and as a style of photography is hard to pin down and define easily. It is because the genre is one with a deep historical and cultural legacy with a rich and diverse tapestry of images and iconography woven into it through generations and decades of images in this style.
It is simultaneously beautiful and alluring, sexy and provocative, fascinating and captivating and elegant and glamorous all at once. The fact that it can be all these things is a testament to the rich history of the genre and the early pioneers of the form. The fact that the glamour portrait is still as popular today as ever is testament to its enduring qualities. The glamour photograph is important today in recognising individual beauty and ultimately celebrating femininity.
Today glamour photography is the domain of a vast cross section of society and its uses range considerably from high end fashion labels, advertising companies, glossy magazines to the regular woman who might produce boudoir portraits for personal use and private enjoyment.
Boudoir photography as an offshoot of traditional glamour photography is one way that the form has evolved over time. The boudoir shoot also celebrates the feminine mystique, highlighting the beauty and allure of women’s bodies using many of the tried and tested methods of glamour photography throughout the decades.
Today modern glamour photography and boudoir photography is about creating a fantasy. It calls on the iconic imagery and power of the stars who sat in front of the camera beforehand, it evokes a sense of elegance, sophistication, beauty and glamour that lies in the associations with the past.
Today for a brief moment, a fleeting instance, any woman can become a glamour model, in front of the camera, creating her own piece of magic.
As for those early years of glamour photography – the years of Ruth Harriet Louise, George Hurrell and Bruno Bernard – their legacy lives on. This is in evidence in the retro glamour shoots still in proliferation today, the popularity of the pin-up style and in the modern divas, the Dita Von Teese’s of the world.
Without the iconic work of these and other early pioneers in the genre who knows what our definitions of
beauty, elegance and glamour would be today.
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