Old Hollywood Glamour Photography: Collectibility & Value

February 28, 2024

In 1932, as MGM’s newest sensation, Jean Harlow was poised to take Hollywood by storm.

Seeking to capture her luminous beauty and fiery spirit, photographer George Hurrell orchestrated a photoshoot that would redefine glamour photography. The resulting portrait, featuring Harlow draped in satin against a backdrop of soft light, became an instant sensation, catapulting both the original “Blonde Bombshell” and the photographer to legendary status.

This was the heyday of Hollywood glamour photography, and though many talented photographers have attempted to recapture this glorious look, few have succeeded as these masters did. Through their lenses, old Hollywood glamour photographers like Hurrell not only immortalized the faces of the silver screen but also shaped the very essence of cinematic history.

In this article, we’ll look into the lives and legacies of these skilled artists, uncovering the stories behind the images that continue to define an era of unparalleled glamour.

Table of Contents:

The Pioneers of Glamour Photography
Glamour Photography Techniques and Style
Legendary Movie Star Subjects
Cultural Impact of Glamour Photography
Collectibility and Values of Vintage Hollywood Glamour

The Pioneers of Glamour Photography

Joining the ranks of icons like George Hurrell are a short list of visionaries like Elmer Fryer (Warner Brothers), Ernest Bachrach (MGM), Scotty Welbourne (Warner Brothers) and George Hommel (MGM), among others.

These photographers played crucial roles in shaping the look of Hollywood’s early days, immortalizing the era’s iconic stars through their lens.

George Hurrell (1904-1992)

A legend among the legends, George Hurrell, renowned for his captivating portraits, made an indelible mark as a studio photographer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

His stunning images adorned the promotional materials of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including the likes of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Clark Gable. Hurrell’s mastery of light and shadow elevated glamour photography to an art form, immortalizing the stars of the silver screen.

Clarence Sinclair Bull (1896-1979)

Clarence Sinclair Bull’s tenure as a studio photographer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) coincided with the golden age of Hollywood.

His striking portraits captured the essence of actresses like Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford, defining the glamorous aesthetic of the era. Bull’s attention to detail and ability to evoke emotion through his lens solidified his legacy as one of the most celebrated photographers of his time.

Robert Coburn (1900-1990)

At Warner Bros., Robert Coburn captured images of stars such as Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, and Bette Davis. His photographs graced the covers of fan magazines and movie posters. Coburn’s keen eye for composition and his knack for capturing the essence of his subjects made him a sought-after photographer during this period.

Laszlo Willinger (1909-1989)

Laszlo Willinger’s tenure as a studio photographer at Paramount Pictures saw him immortalize some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His evocative portraits of luminaries like Marlene Dietrich, Veronica Lake, and Dorothy Lamour captured the essence of glamour and sophistication. Willinger’s ability to convey both the beauty and complexity of his subjects made him a revered figure in the world of Hollywood photography.

Bert Six (1912-1996)

As a photographer at Columbia Pictures, Bert Six played a pivotal role in shaping the public image of Hollywood’s leading ladies. His iconic portraits of Rita Hayworth and later Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, graced the covers of magazines and promotional materials, solidifying their status as timeless icons.

Six’s talent for capturing the essence of his subjects in a single frame earned him widespread acclaim and cemented his place among the legends of Hollywood photography.

MGM Reigns as Hollywood’s Original “Glamour Factory”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) earned its reputation as the “glamour factory” due to its unparalleled ability to produce cinematic spectacles and cultivate the image of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

While other studios also employed talented photographers, MGM’s emphasis on glamour photography and its commitment to cultivating the images of its stars set it apart. The studio’s expansive roster of photographers, including luminaries like George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, and Ruth Harriet Louise, contributed to its reputation as the “glamour factory” of Hollywood.

MGM’s dedication to crafting the perfect image for its stars played a significant role in shaping the studio’s identity and solidifying its status as a powerhouse in the entertainment industry.

Norma Shearer Transformed by Glamour Portraiture

In the early 1930s, Shearer was already an established actress at MGM, but she yearned for a breakout role that would showcase her versatility and elevate her status in the industry. It was during this pivotal moment that George Hurrell, renowned for his glamorous portraits, captured Shearer in a sultry and alluring pose.

George Hurrell Glamour Portraits of Norma Shearer
c1930 seductive George Hurrell portraits of Norma Shearer. This “new look” changed the course of the actress’ career at MGM.

The iconic photograph caught the attention of MGM executives, who recognized its potential to redefine Shearer’s image and propel her career to new heights. Impressed by the seductive allure conveyed in Hurrell’s image, studio head (and Shearer’s husband) Irving Thalberg saw an opportunity to cast the actress in a provocative role that would challenge her established persona. Thus, Shearer was cast in the film “The Divorcee” (1930), a groundbreaking pre-Code drama that explored themes of infidelity and sexual liberation.

“The Divorcee” proved to be a turning point in Shearer’s career, earning her critical acclaim and establishing her as one of Hollywood’s leading actresses.

The film’s success, fueled in part by the buzz surrounding Hurrell’s captivating portrait of Shearer, cemented her status as a trailblazer in the evolving landscape of early sound cinema. The synergy between Shearer’s talent and Hurrell’s artistry not only elevated her career but also left a mark on the history of Hollywood glamour photography.

Behind the Lens: Photography Techniques and Style

During the golden age of Hollywood, from the 1920s to the 1940s, photographers played a major role in shaping the public image of movie stars. Their mastery of lighting, composition, and set design transformed actors and actresses into iconic symbols of elegance and allure.

Lighting Mastery:

One of the foremost pioneers of Hollywood glamour photography, George Hurrell, was renowned for his mastery of lighting. He often used dramatic lighting techniques, such as chiaroscuro, to sculpt his subjects’ features and create a sense of depth and mystery in his photographs.

Hurrell’s use of high-contrast lighting accentuated the contours of the face and added a sense of drama to his images, elevating the status of Hollywood stars like Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford to mythic proportions.

Composition and Pose:

Clarence Sinclair Bull, the chief portrait photographer at MGM Studios, was celebrated for his impeccable composition and ability to capture the essence of his subjects. Bull often posed his subjects against luxurious backdrops, using props and accessories to enhance the glamour of the scene. His attention to detail and flair for composition resulted in timeless portraits of stars like Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer, which continue to captivate fans and collectors years later.

Set Design and Atmosphere:

Ruth Harriet Louise, the first female photographer to work for a major Hollywood studio, brought a unique perspective to glamour photography. She collaborated closely with set designers and art directors to create lavish sets that reflected the glamour and sophistication of the silver screen. Louise’s attention to detail extended beyond the subjects themselves, capturing the opulence of Hollywood’s golden era in her photographs of stars like Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino.

By understanding the technical mastery and artistic vision of early Hollywood glamour photographers, we gain insight into the enduring allure of their work and its lasting impact on popular culture.

Legendary Movie Star Portrait Subjects 

Certain movie stars stood out for their collaboration with these renowned portrait photographers.

Icons like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Carole Lombard worked closely with photographers such as George Hurrell and Ruth Harriet Louise to create stunning images.

These collaborations not only showcased the stars’ allure but also demonstrated the skill and artistry of the photographers behind the lens. Through their partnership, they produced the iconic portraits that continue to captivate decades later.

Greta Garbo and Ruth Harriet Louise

Ruth Harriet Louise, the first female photographer to work for a major Hollywood studio, began her association with Garbo in the late 1920s when Garbo was signed by MGM Studios.

Louise’s sensitive and artistic approach to photography perfectly complemented Garbo’s mystery, resulting in a series of portraits that captured the essence of the Swedish-born actress.

Ruth Harriet Louise Portraits of Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo portraits by Ruth Harriet Louise, dating to the late 1920s.

Louise’s photographs of Garbo are characterized by their soft lighting, elegant composition, and intimate portrayal of the actress’s inner emotions. She had a unique ability to capture Garbo’s ethereal beauty and inner turmoil, revealing the depth and complexity of her character.

However, despite Louise’s skill as a photographer, she did find it difficult to elicit smiles from Garbo during their sessions together. George Hurrell famously captured Garbo smiling in a photograph taken by accident. According to legend, Hurrell made Garbo laugh during a shoot by telling a joke, resulting in a spontaneous and genuine smile that was captured on film.

Despite this challenge, Louise’s portraits of Garbo remain some of the most celebrated images of the actress. Her ability to capture Garbo’s vulnerability and inner strength helped to solidify Garbo’s status as one of the most iconic figures of Hollywood’s golden age.

Marlene Dietrich and Eugene Robert Richee

Eugene Robert Richee, known for his skillful portraiture and meticulous attention to detail, first worked with Marlene Dietrich in the early 1930s when she was under contract with Paramount Pictures. Their collaboration spanned several years and resulted in a series of glamorous and provocative photographs that captured Dietrich’s allure and sophistication.

Richee’s photographs of Dietrich are characterized by their striking composition, dramatic lighting, and meticulous styling. He had a keen eye for capturing Dietrich’s enigmatic persona, whether she was portraying a femme fatale or a sophisticated socialite.

Eugene Robert Richee Portraits of Marlene Dietrich
The many faces of Marlene Dietrich, captured by Eugene Robert Richee in the 1930s.

One of their most famous collaborations was for the film “Shanghai Express” (1932), directed by Josef von Sternberg. Richee’s promotional photographs for the film, featuring Dietrich draped in luxurious fabrics and dripping with elaborate jewelry, perfectly captured the film’s exotic and sensual atmosphere.

Their partnership extended beyond the confines of the studio, with Richee often photographing Dietrich in more intimate settings, such as her home or at social events. These candid portraits provided audiences with a glimpse into Dietrich’s off-screen persona and further solidified her status as a style icon.

Clark Gable and George Hurrell

George Hurrell, renowned for his mastery of lighting and composition, first began working with Clark Gable in the 1930s when Gable was at the height of his career as the “King of Hollywood.” Hurrell’s distinctive style, characterized by dramatic lighting and bold contrasts, perfectly complemented Gable’s rugged masculinity and charisma.

Hurrell had a unique ability to capture Gable’s commanding presence and magnetic charm, whether portraying him as a dashing leading man or a rugged hero.

One of their most famous collaborations was for “Gone with the Wind” (1939), where Hurrell’s promotional photographs helped to cement Gable’s status as one of the greatest stars of the silver screen.

George Hurrell Portraits of Clark Gable
Clark Gable, captured by George Hurrell in the 1930s.

Their working relationship was characterized by mutual respect and collaboration. Gable trusted Hurrell to capture his best angles and convey his personality through the lens, while Hurrell relied on Gable’s natural charisma and versatility as a performer to bring his vision to life.

One notable aspect of their collaboration was Hurrell’s ability to evoke genuine emotion from Gable during their sessions. While Gable was known for his stoic demeanor on screen, Hurrell was able to capture moments of vulnerability and introspection that revealed the depth of Gable’s character.

Joan Crawford and Clarence Sinclair Bull

In the late 1920s, during Joan Crawford’s rise to stardom at MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Clarence Sinclair Bull, serving as the chief portrait photographer at the studio, immediately recognized Crawford’s star potential.

Bull’s signature style, characterized by dramatic lighting and elegant compositions, became synonymous with Crawford’s image, capturing both her strength and vulnerability with unparalleled finesse.

Joan Crawford Glamour Photography by Clarence Sinclair Bull
Early 1930s portraits of Joan Crawford by Clarence Sinclair Bull (MGM).

Bull’s portraits played a pivotal role in promoting Crawford’s films starting with “Our Dancing Daughters” (1928). Shortly afterwards, Bull’s portrait of Crawford for the film “Letty Lynton” (1932) is perhaps one of their most famous collaborations. Crawford’s striking pose and expression convey her character’s strength and determination, perfectly encapsulating the essence of the film.

Perhaps even more famously, Bull’s portraits of Joan Crawford for the classic “Mildred Pierce” (1945) captured the complexity of her character and earned her critical acclaim. One particular portrait, featuring Crawford in a fur coat with a steely gaze, became synonymous with the film’s noir look.

Cultural Impact of Glamour Photography

Hollywood glamour photography had a global impact, shaping perceptions of American culture and influencing beauty standards all over the world. Images of glamorous Hollywood stars were distributed internationally, contributing to the spread of American cultural influence and the idea of the “American Dream.”

Celebrity Worship:

Hollywood glamour photography elevated actors and actresses to the status of cultural icons.

These highly crafted images presented movie stars as glamorous and flawless figures, fueling public fascination and adoration. Magazine covers and studio publicity photos adorned the walls of fans over the world, elevating stars to mythical status.

Fashion Trends:

The glamorous personas of Hollywood stars depicted in photographs influenced fashion trends of the era, as audiences sought to emulate the style and elegance of their favorite celebrities. 

For instance, when Clark Gable famously removed his shirt in the 1934 film “It Happened One Night,” revealing he wasn’t wearing an undershirt, sales of men’s undershirts reportedly plummeted. This unexpected fashion statement made by Gable had a ripple effect, demonstrating the power of Hollywood to shape men’s fashion choices. 

It showcases how Hollywood stars, whether through on-screen performances or glamorous photography, had a profound influence on the trends of the time, inspiring audiences to emulate their favorite icons.

Popular Culture:

The iconic pin-up girls of the 1940s, immortalized by artists like Alberto Vargas and Gil Elvgren, became symbols of feminine allure and sensuality.

These images adorned the walls of soldiers’ barracks during World War II, providing not just comfort, but also a little extra ‘inspiration’ for the troops. Amidst the chaos of war, these pin-up girls stirred up more than just patriotic feelings—they fueled the soldiers’ desires and kept thoughts of home burning bright.

The cultural impact of Hollywood glamour photography transcended the silver screen, leaving a imprint on fashion, beauty standards, and popular culture for decades to come.

Collectible Auction Value of Vintage Glamour Photography

The legacy of old Hollywood glamour photographers endures in contemporary photography and celebrity culture, shaping the way we perceive and celebrate the icons of the silver screen.

Collectibility and Auction Values of Vintage Hollywood Glamour:

Photographs by early Hollywood glamour photographers have become highly sought-after collectibles, commanding significant prices at auction houses around the world.

Certain original glamour portraits can hold significant value in the auction market, attracting seasoned collectors of the photographers or the stars pictured.

What Makes a Valuable Glamour Portrait?

Several factors contribute to the desirability of these portraits. Those captured by renowned photographers such as George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, and Edward Steichen fetch particular interest due to their skillful portrayal of stars’ charisma and beauty. But the one-two punch of a major photographer coupled with a legendary star is where the money’s at.

George Hurrell Portrait of Joan Crawford Sells for $7,888

Notable auctions have seen remarkable prices for vintage glamour portraits. For instance, George Hurrell’s 1931 oversized portrait of Joan Crawford sold for $7,888 back in 2008, highlighting the picture’s explosive mix of star power and mastery behind the camera.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Tuxedo Portrait of Marlene Dietrich Sells for $28,680

Even more astounding was a tuxedoed portrait of Marlene Dietrich by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1929) that fetched $28,680 at Heritage in 2018.

It’s interesting to note the various factors that came into play to achieve such a staggering price.

The portrait was oversized at 16″ x 20″ inches, making it a standout even among other original gelatin silver prints, and it was both stamped and signed by a highly collected photographer. The combination of the star, the photographer, the size, the signature, the stamp and the portrait itself elevate this piece to the level of fine art.

These record-breaking prices underscore the rarity and cultural significance of vintage glamour portraits, affirming their status as highly sought-after collectibles.

Reasonable Auction Values for Glamour Portraits

On the more ordinary but still desirable end of the spectrum are fine original glamour portraits that sell in a more affordable range. A gorgeous gelatin-silver publicity portrait of Tyrone Power, lit masterfully by Laszlo Willinger sold for $162, and a lovely sitting of Marion Davies by Clarence Sinclair Bull fetched just $51.

In valuing these types of photographs, it’s important to take note of all of the many points which can make a decent sale of a vintage photo, and which can skyrocket the collectible value of a very special piece.

Get a Free Auction Valuation for Vintage Hollywood Glamour Photos

If you’re interested in selling a vintage Hollywood glamour portrait or collection of photos, we invite you to submit a consignment inquiry to receive a complimentary auction valuation for your photos. Explore the benefits of auction consignment, including our single, all-inclusive consignment fee.

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