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.
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?
“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.