Exercise: The Hollywood portrait

Todd McCarthy’s introduction to John Alton’s Painting with Light reminds us about the nocturnal world of the characters in film noir and how scenes were illuminated with single lamps “slanted and fragmented beams and pools of light, all separated by intense darkness in which the source of all fear could fester and finally thrive.” [1]

“Very often, the brightest object in the frame would be located at the furthest distance from the camera, in order to channel viewer concentration; often the light would just manage to catch the rim of a hat, the edge of a gun, the smoke from a cigarette…”

Alton talks about the purpose of illumination being for quantity and quality:

“In lighting for quantity we light for exposure, to make certain that a sufficient amount of light reaches every corner of the set, and that it is properly balanced, in order that no part of the film shall be underexposed or over-exposed.  In lighting for quality, we strive to bring out the following values:

  1. Orientation – to enable the audience to see where the story is taking place
  2. Mood or feeling (season of the year and time of day)
  3. Pictorial beauty, aesthetic pleasure
  4. Depth, perspective, third-dimensional illusion”

Of course, we don’t find reference to George Hurrell (1904-92) in any serious photography books but he was important in establishing icons and a distinct style which, like the cinematography of the time, aimed to create depth and atmosphere and often high glamour.  His trademark was to use sculptural shadows rather than washing out the face with light.  When his style began to seem old-fashioned in the West Coast movie industry, Hurrell went to New York and found work in advertising.  The shadowy approach and heavy contrasts came back in fashion in the 80s as can been seen in this image.

I was amazed to discover that Hurrell was the photographer for the cover art of Tom Waits album Foreign Affairs, released in 1977.  Many of the songs have a very film noir vibe about them – Small Change being a prime example –  so it sort of makes sense.


Hurrell certainly seems to have had an ability to capture a sense of what Hollywood stood for, then and now. In Mario Testino’s words:

“Around the middle of the 1980s I started going to Los Angeles to work with American publications, mainly, at that time, GQ magazine. In this new location my curiosity urged me to discover the photographers who had defined the glamour of Hollywood’s silver screen era. Only one stood out to me: George Hurrell. It became clear to me very quickly that he was the most important image-maker of that era in Hollywood. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to turn everything and everyone into the height of glamour. No one looked more famous, more magical, more powerful than in his photographs.” [2]

Recreating Hurrell’s Bogart image was much harder than it looked but one thing it did confirm was that nothing beats trial and error and just altering the positions and strengths of the light to find the (almost) right effect. Trying to follow the instructions in the course notes didn’t seem to get me very far. The first three images show the process of building up of the lights and I like having the key light from slightly behind. The kick light effect works beautifully but I wish I had managed to get the right side of the model’s face more in shadow.





  1. Alton, J. and McCarthy, T. (1995) Painting with light. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  2. http://www.vogue.com/article/mario-testino-george-hurrell-iconic-photographs
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One Response to Exercise: The Hollywood portrait

  1. Catherine says:

    You’ve certainly captured the style and created some distinctive portraits.


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