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Cornel Lucas' Celebrity Portraits: Studio Stars of the Silver Screen

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Legendary British photographer Cornel Lucas has photographed some of the most powerful and captivating film stars of the 20th century. With a career spanning 70 years, one can safely assume Lucas has ‘seen it all’ when it comes to stars—his glamorous portraits immortalize the iconic actors of the golden age of film. But it wasn’t always a piece of cake. The photographer—who celebrates his 92nd birthday on Sept. 12—fondly recounted some the highlights of his career for LightBox, including his shoots with names like Hepburn, Peck and Bardot.

Rusty Murphy
Firefighter Rusty Murphy wades through flood waters in a mobile home park in Pelham, Ala., on Monday, April 7, 2014.Fi McGhee

When movie star Marlene Dietrich arrived at Denham Studios for her portrait shoot with Lucas in 1948, she found a nervous photographer awaiting her arrival. Lucas had the idea to turn on a radio to break the ice for the star when she arrived—an idea quickly shot down by Dietrich’s publicist. “I was now more nervous than ever,” Lucas said. And it didn’t help his nerves that the publicity director announced to the photographer that her client was wearing a $40,000 coat.

But the Dietrich shoot went on without a hitch, save for the star’s creative direction. “She explained that she knew exactly where to sit, how to be lit and that her best pose was looking straight at the camera,” he said. “She was directing me!”

A day later, Dietrich arrived at the studio to examine Lucas’s contact sheets. Examining them with “an enormous magnifying glass”, she began marking the shots she liked most. Lucas then re-touched the images Dietrich chose and, the next day, showed her the final product.

“Pleased, she turned to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Join the club, Mr. Lucas!’,” he recalled. Perplexed, he asked the star’s publicist what she meant. His reply?

Diana Dors, 1955(c) Cornel Lucas

“Mr. Lucas, it means you’re on the road to success.”

And indeed he was. The photographer’s career eventually took him to the grandest film sets and studios across Europe and the United States. The style and glamour of his work ensured that his portraits became the iconic image of the stars he photographed.

This makes it surprising that Lucas’ work has never been exhibited in New York until this month. A retrospective exhibition of his work is showing now at Fiorentini + Baker, the flagship store of the Italian shoemaker. Lucas’ work is also part of the permananet collections at the National Portrait Gallery and Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Media Museum and London’s Photographers’ Gallery.

A retrospective exhibition of Cornel Lucas’s work will be held at the Fiorentini + Baker store and show room in New York from Sept. 5 to Oct. 28. View more of Lucas’ work here.

Marlene Dietrich, 1948"I first had the opportunity to photograph Marlene Dietrich whilst working at Denham Studios. I rushed into the studio and was given a set on a small corner of an enormous 120 ft. by 80 ft. stage. I was nervous. Once set up, I waited in the dark, with my radio at the ready thinking it might help ease the situation and, more importantly, calm my nerves. Suddenly a light came on in the entrance to the studio a hundred feet away, and she and her entourage proceeded across the stage. I only took five photographs of her that day. The shoot finished and she announced she would be back the next day to see the rough prints. I re-touched the prints following her explicit and detailed instructions to a tee. The next day Dietrich arrived, took out her magnifying glass again and re-examined the prints. Pleased, she turned to me, shook my hand and said, 'Join the club Mr. Lucas.' I was rather perplexed and wasn't sure what she meant so asked her publicist what she had implied. He simply sad 'Mr. Lucas it means, you’re on the road to success.' And I was!"(c) Cornel Lucas
Katherine Hepburn, 1950"When I was asked to photograph Hepburn, she told me, 'Cornel, I don’t want to be photographed in the studio. I’ve been shot all my life in the studio, I’d prefer it if you just follow me around and take pictures as you like.' We spent the whole day together. Every time I saw a moment to capture from my position in the background, I’d nod at the electrician above who would shed light on to her and then I could shoot away. After a few days observing Hepburn one thing that stood out was how she flushed her face with ice every time she walked on set. I asked her what she was doing and she said, 'for me this is better than any make-up, it makes my face glow.' This was a beauty secret Suzy Parker also swore by."(c) Cornel Lucas
David Niven, 1955"I was following a modeling assignment one afternoon at my studio in Chelsea when David Niven arrived. Seeing all the gorgeous women reminded him of his early days modeling in New York. Niven was a great raconteur and he explained how he, Erroll Flynn and two other out-of-work actors decided to form a modeling team with a difference. On the occasions they found work, they noticed how the photographers would exploit the session–with one quick change of scenery and some new props, a model was used for several different jobs while receiving just a single fee. The team decided that each of them were restricted to modeling one body part only, a quarter each–legs, torso, hands, head. Niven was given the first assignment. The job started as a straightforward trouser shot, but soon required him to hold a drink. 'Not my forte old chap,' he said, 'I'm left-handed and feel rather awkward–but do know just the man for the job.' Up popped Errol, to hold the glass, and hey presto, two models, twice the fee!"(c) Cornel Lucas
Diana Dors, 1955"Best known as the British Marilyn, Dors was a tremendous self-publicist. One occasion during the Venice film festival she approached me and mysteriously told me that I should get myself in position with my camera at the lido and await her appearance. A while later, the sea of boats parted and I saw Diana approaching on a gondola wearing a thick, long coat in the sweltering heat! Suddenly she dropped the coat to reveal an extraordinary mink bikini. This was very risqué at that time and the next day my photograph was on the front page of newspapers around the world."(c) Cornel Lucas
Gene Tierney, 1952"I first saw Gene Tierney in Preminger’s film, Laura, in 1944. A classic romance, full of passion, obsession and jealousy. Her performance and appearance was electrifying and her heart-shaped face had an astonishing impact in close-up as you can see from her portrait. She will always be remembered as a great beauty."(c) Cornel Lucas
Lauren Bacall, 1958 "20th Century Fox asked me to shoot her. I went to her flat and was greeted at the door by her maid who said 'oh yes she has been waiting for her passport picture to be taken for a week now.' I said, 'I’m not a passport photographer, I’m from the film company and I’m here to take her portrait!' This is the photo you see before you now."(c) Cornel Lucas
Gregory Peck, 1957"Gregory Peck was quite simply the most handsome of all the film stars I photographed. However, as handsome as he was, he was shy and nervous when it came to being photographed. It was on these occasions my prop man Ernie was a great help, making Peck smile and feel at ease in front of the camera, by calling him 'Guv’nor,' offering him lots of cups of 'cha' and telling endless Cockney jokes."(c) Cornel Lucas
Brigitte Bardot, 1955"In 1955 at the Pool Studio in Pinewood Studios, I photographed Brigitte Bardot. She was a shy, timid 21 year old who was going through her divorce from the French film director Roger Vadim. Bardot very nearly cancelled the photo shoot, as she was desperately homesick. I prevailed however, assured her it wouldn't take long and, on the advice of her publicity director, ordered a bottle of champagne. She was absolutely beautiful and gained more confidence as the shoot went on, aided by the champagne, and started to play-up for the camera. As beautiful as Bardot was, she was self conscious of her slightly buck teeth and, during the shoot often held her wrist up to her mouth to try and hide them. This action was similar to how cats use their paws to drink milk and, while watching her do this, Bardot's publicist announced, 'she is like a sex-kitten,' This was a nickname that stuck with Bardot throughout her career."(c) Cornel Lucas
Kay Kendall, 1952 "Kay was afraid of the 10 x 8 camera. She was paranoid about her long nose. So one day I spoke to Dirk Bogarde and asked him to tell her that I had bought a new fore shortening lens from America, which would work wonders on her nose. He passed on the information and she agreed to have her portrait taken. She loved the photos, but little did she know that I had no such lens and just used my ordinary lens! She loved them so much she took one of the shots as a reference for her surgeon!"(c) Cornel Lucas
Joan Collins, 1952"I first photographed Joan Collins for the Italian director Renato Castellani whilst casting for his movie 'Romeo and Juliet.' I went to his Baker Street flat where I was given one flash light and a simple backdrop with which to shoot Collins. She arrived with hair and make-up ready prepared for her beauty shot. However, Castellani wanted a natural beauty shot and asked me to tell her to remove all her makeup and to pull her hair back into a bun. I asked Collins this and she ran into the bathroom in floods of tears. When she arrived back she looked absolutely stunning, a true natural beauty. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the role of Juliet, but went on to be a huge success nevertheless.(c) Cornel Lucas
Jean Simmons, 1948 "I knew her from when she was only a young star at 16 and took numerous photos of her for publicity. One day Stewart Granger, a big MGM star, said he would like to meet her. I arranged it and shortly after they got married."(c) Cornel Lucas
Yvonne De Carlo, 1954 "After one of our sessions together, I asked Yvonne if she could give me a lift back into London. On the way back into town, I suggested that we should should have dinner together some time. 'There’s no time like the present,' she replied. I suddenly realised that I only had two shillings and sixpence in my pocket. Thinking quickly, I said that I wasn’t actually that hungry and maybe we should just grab a bite at the Lyons Corner House which was near to her apartment in Park Lane. After sandwiches and coffee, I walked her home and was pleased indeed when she said that she had just had her most enjoyable meal in London so far."(c) Cornel Lucas

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