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

(c) Cornel Lucas
(c) Cornel Lucas
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!"

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.

Fi McGhee

Cornel Lucas with his Plate Camera, 1986

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?

(c) Cornel Lucas

Diana Dors, 1955

“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.

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