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Cornel Lucas

16 November 2012

The Times


Photographer at Pinewood Studios who after some tips from Marlene Dietrich became expert in capturing the glamour of film stars


 The only portrait photographer to be honoured with a Bafta for services to the film industry (in 1998), Cornel Lucas was the in-house photographer for the Rank Organisation during the 1950s when that company came closest to emulating the star-burnishing practices of a Hollywood studio.

 Like George Hurrell in Hollywood, Lucas was prized for his ability to convey the glamour and beauty of his subjects. When he started out he would photograph his subjects hurriedly on set. "Those film stills were very difficult," he said. "The actor and actress would be playing their hearts out and then it would all go cold and the poor photographer would have to run in with a plate camera and say, 'Can I have a still, please?' You were Cinderella and your only hope was to get friendly with the stars."

 Cornelius Lucas was born in Highbury, North London, in 1920. He started taking photos with a Kodak Box Brownie given to him by his mother, developing and printing in the bathroom at home. He attended elementary school until 14, thereafter studying photography at polytechnics in Norwell and Regent Street while working as a laboratory assistant. His brother, who worked for a film library, once drove him over to Twickenham Studios and the boy wandered around the sets, spotted Gloria Swanson and Anthony Asquith, the director, and was "enraptured". At 15 he got a job at George Hunter's Labs, off Tottenham Court Road.

 When war broke out, he applied for fighter pilot training in the RAF. He was turned down for being under age but was told that he could join the experimental photography branch at Farnborough School of Photography.

 He was familiar with the work of Hurrell in Hollywood, but perhaps the greatest influence on him was Cecil Beaton. He wrote to Beaton and was invited to tea in Pelham Crescent where a white-gloved butler showed him into the drawing-room. Beaton showed him some retouched negatives of his portraits "I asked him, 'Do you think I should make photography my career, Mr Beaton?' He replied: 'It's overcrowded. I wouldn't.' When I went out into the fog, in the flicker of the gas-lamps in the street, I thought, 'Sod it! I'm going to make this my career.' "

 After the war he was taken on at Denham Studios and his big break came when he took some portraits of Marlene Dietrich in 1948. Dietrich was well known for being extremely demanding and controlling when it came to her photographic image, and the 25-year-old Lucas did well to accommodate her. "She was adamant that her key light had to be in a certain position. She told me she had discovered the advantages of this '12 o'clock light' one day in Berlin after a show when she slipped out to a photo machine to get a passport photo. She could actually tell from the heat whether the light was right for her. She was a perfect technician."

 The following day she examined the rough proofs through a magnifying glass, selecting five and marking them with Xs for removal and Os for retouching.

 Dietrich and her American director liked the pictures and made their approval known. About nine months later, Lucas was given a long-term contract by Rank to photograph its artists.

 His studio included a fountain, a dressing room for his subjects, a team of assistants to do hair and make-up, an electrician and a couple of props men ("my thieves one and two").

 Partly because he hated being on the other side of the lens, Lucas showed great sympathy, even compassion, for his subjects, sometimes even resorting to mild deception. For example, Kay Kendall, the wife of Rex Harrison, fretted about sitting for him because she didn't like the way her nose appeared in photographs. "I told her my camera had attachments for distortion on the lens, and she believed me."

 Once the plates had been taken the negatives were retouched by pencil, using various softnesses of leads, on the emulsion side of the plate. "We were the plastic surgeons of our day because we made women look ten years younger than they were," Lucas said.

 His other female subjects included Brigitte Bardot, Jean Simmons, Joan Collins, Anouk Aimée, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Claudia Cardinale and Virginia McKenna.

 He also photographed the leading British matinée idols of the 1950s, such as Trevor Howard, Jack Hawkins, Dirk Bogarde, and Stanley Baxter, as well as Hollywood actors and directors filming at Pinewood, such as Gregory Peck and Rod Steiger. When Steiger arrived for a session he said that his psychiatrist had told him to behave exactly as he felt and proceeded to stand on his head. After a while Lucas said: "Rod, I don't suppose we could get on. I'll join you upside down later." As Lucas later wrote: "All aggression gone, he agreed and was a most responsive sitter."

 Occasionally, Lucas would go on special assignment and once found himself performing the role of a paparazzo (although the term was not yet coined).

 In 1955 Diana Dors attended the Venice Film Festival and urged Lucas to hire a motor launch and be positioned at a particular point at a particular time. She arrived on a gondola in an area packed with boats and suddenly removed her coat to reveal a mink bikini. The next day Lucas's photograph stole the front pages of many newspapers.

 He enjoyed a brief romance with Yvonne De Carlo after photographing her for her latest film. Later, the teenage actress Belinda Lee was being groomed as a Rank starlet when Lucas photographed her in 1954. They began dating and were soon married, but after five years together their careers forced them apart and they were divorced. Lee was killed in a car crash in 1961.

 In 1957 he met his second wife, the actress Susan Travers, when he photographed her for Rank. They were married two years later. "I have known a number of exceptional and beautiful women in my lifetime, but Susan has more than enough grace and beauty to inspire any artist," he said.

 He left Pinewood in 1959, just as the studio era was ending, to open his own studio in Flood Street, Chelsea, where he expanded from portraits into advertising and fashion photography.

 Lucas published three books of his photographs: Heads and Tales: The Film Portraits of Cornel Lucas (1988); Shooting Stars: Camera Portraits by Cornel Lucas (2005); and The Red Shoes and Ballet Studies (with Jack Cardiff, 2005). He exhibited internationally and his work is held by the National Portrait Gallery and the National Media Museum of Photography in Bradford. His portrait of David Niven adorned a British postage stamp in 1985.

 He is survived by his wife Susan and their four children.


Cornel Lucas, photographer, was born on September 12, 1920. He died on November 8, 2012, aged 92




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