Hurrell's Johnny Weissmuller - John Boorman & Peter BreckFriday, December 22, 2006
Rebecca was hanging from the bannister a couple of years ago. She was imitating an ape. I grabbed her hand and told her, "Let's go and get a movie at Videomatica." We rented the 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan and saw it as soon as we got home. I then showed her a George Hurrell portrait of Johnny Weismuller (below).
In December of 1991 I waited for Duthie Books'after Christmas sale to buy one of the most expensive books I have ever bought. The asking price for Hurrell Hollywood - George Hurrell - Photographs 1928-1990 was $90. The 20% off discount made it more bearable. I bought two copies. One for me and one for art director Chris Dahl. I had been shooting in the Hurrell style since 1985 now and perhaps with the book Dahl might just allow me to keep at it for a while longer. Hurrell's photography made stars of actors and actresses who would have perhaps never made it. The most famous example was Norma Shearer. Hurrell made her shine and look far more glamourous than she was.
Some photographers, particularly the purists (and I have been one in my past), argue that we live in a one star planetary system so photographs should mimic the sun and a shadow in one direction is enough. Purists would abhor all those wonderful films noir with the projected venetian blinds, low angles and multiple and ominous shadows. Before the advent of Photoshop and the air brush, Hurrell's very large negatives were retouched by massive removal (as in scraping) of actor's skins (on the negative) and with red pens a gentle glowing skin replaced what was banished. A famous Hurrell portrait of Gary Cooper shows Cooper with a cigarette in mouth and his skin glows like Photoshop Diffuse Glow used by modern glamour photographers and on magazine covers to eliminate "annoying" skin pores.
It is that Weissmuller photograph by Hurrell that has always caught my eye. It is dark and you cannot really see his eyes. Rebecca often asks me to look at the picture in my Hurrell book. I am excited when Rebecca does different things from what I expect but I am also pleased when we seem to coincide in what we like. After staring at the picture she goes to the bannister and hangs and swings while bellowing out a pretty credible Weismuller/Tarzan yell.
While my 1985 portrait of Vancouver body builder Mike Hamill (top right) is not a Hurrell you might just see a passing resemblance. By 1987 I felt a bit stifled in my imitation of Hurrell and decided to go my own way. One of the results is this odd portrait of British film director John Boorman where I literally brought my studio lights to Boorman's room at the Vancouver Hotel.
It has all kinds of mistakes like the low angle (I have removed his nose hairs with Photoshop) and the light spills on his nose. I like it nonetheless.
By 1989, when I photographed Vancouver actor Peter Breck (top, left, he played Doc Holliday in the series Maverick) I had eliminated one of the three lights and started using a 3x4 ft softbox really close. This is now the style I am most comfortable with. I am able to worry less about light placement and I can concentrate on communication with my subject. I can say that Peter Breck was just about the easiest subject I ever had to photograph. I warned him that with my deep green filter I was going to make him look like a vampire. "Do it. I don't give a damn. Do your job," he told me.
I think I am going to rent some of his movies and show Rebecca. Will she want a toy 45?