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Glamour of the Gods

Back before tabloid photography played such a major role in shaping the reputations of the Hollywood set, actors relied on real photography (i.e. the posed, carefully lit, artfully angled, softly focused studio portrait) to promote themselves. Far more than just a headshot, these portraits had a major impact on an actor’s career. Take Jean Harlow. She went from being an uncredited bit plater to a stunning leading lady opposite James Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY – virtually overnight – as the result of a particularly good portrait. Harlow was just 20-years-old and fresh off the bus from Kansas City, but under the lens of master photographers like George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull, she was transformed into the blonde bombshell we know her as today.

Hurrell and Bull were responsible for creating icons of glamour out of other Hollywood greats, too, like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Gary Cooper and Rock Hudson. These pivotal photographs are currently on exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery in London. All of the images come from the vast archives (22,000 pictures strong) of film historian John Kobal. Many of the portraits on display were taken as ads that circulated in film fan magazines (a picture of Brando, for instance, looking surly on set in his wardrobe from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE), whereas some have never seen the light of day.

Glamour of the Gods” runs through October 23, 2011 at The National Portrait Gallery in London.