Cornel Lucas: Creating Icons

NPG x127031, Self-portrait, 1952, © estate of Cornel Lucas

Cornel Lucas, one of Britain’s foremost and best-loved portrait photographers has died aged 92. One of eight children, he was born in Highbury, London in 1920. Lucas studied photography at the Regent Street Polytechnic. During World War Two he worked at the RAF Photographic School at Farnborough, before joining Denham Studios in 1945.

His career was firmly established by his now legendary sitting with Marlene Dietrich, while she was in England to film No Highway in the Sky (1951) opposite James Stewart. Dietrich had fallen out with the first photographer assigned to her, and Lucas recalled this pivotal encounter for Time magazine (11 September 2012):

“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!

Dietrich went on to introduce Lucas to many of his future subjects. His success as a portrait and stills photographer throughout the 1940s later led the Rank Organization to recruit him to run a specially created studio at Pinewood. Here, and at other studios and on film locations, he created defining portraits of the leading film stars of the era, including studies of Lauren Bacall, Brigitte Bardot, Stewart Granger, Katherine Hepburn, Virginia McKenna, Gregory Peck and David Niven.

In 1959, Lucas left Pinewood to open his own studio in Flood Street in Chelsea where he continued to specialise in portraiture, and also advertising and fashion photography. In recent years, interest in his career was renewed when film director David Puttnam commissioned him to work on films including The Mission (1986). Lucas was the first Stills Photographer ever to be awarded a Bafta for his services to the British Film industry (1998). In 2005 an 85th birthday exhibition ‘Cornel Lucas: Shooting Stars‘ was staged at the National Portrait Gallery, and in 2011 a retrospective exhibition was held at Chris Beetles Fine Photographs.

Lucas’s work can be enjoyed online at The Cornel Lucas Collection.

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