Cornel Lucas: Glitz and glamour is black and white

The photographer captured stars of the stage and screen in a unique way

�The saying “Every picture tells a story” is flipped in the catalogue for Cornel Lucas’s intriguing exhibition of black and white portraits of stars of stage and screen at Chris Beetles Fine Photographs in Piccadilly. Lucas adds an extra dimension to many of these stylish, perfectly composed photographs – mostly from the 40s and 50s – with delightful anecdotes and observations about his glamorous sitters.

Marlene Dietrich was his first commission and understandably he was nervous. To break the intense atmosphere he put on the radio and it blasted out the Colonel Bogey March. Dietrich looked him straight in the eye, said “Mr Lucas, this is unnecessary,” switched it off, then began directing him on how to take the shots.

Next day she came to his studio to see the prints, armed with an enormous magnifying glass. She marked each print with her own code of symbols to indicate how they should be retouched. Lucas did this to perfection and she shook his hand and said “Join the club, Mr Lucas” – meaning he was on the road to success.

And he was – the floods of commissions included Brigitte Bardot, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Collins, Dirk Bogarde, David Niven and Gregory Peck, whom Lucas thinks the most handsome of all the stars he photographed. The exhibition includes portraits of Lucas’ wives, the actresses Belinda Lee and Susan Travers.

He describes Diana Dors (pictured) as the British Marilyn Monroe and a great self-publicist. One hot day in 1955, when both were in Venice for a film festival, Diana told Lucas to position himself on the lido with camera at the ready. He saw her approach on a gondola wearing a long thick coat. “Suddenly she whipped off the coat to reveal an extraordinary mink bikini!” he says. “This was very risqu� at the time and the next day my photograph was on the front page of newspapers all over the world.”

Cornel Lucas was born in Highbury on 12 September 1920. His mother bought him a Kodak Box Brownie for his 11th birthday, not suspecting the discomfort this would bring to the rest of the family as he turned their lavatory into his darkroom. He had six sisters – early models – and a brother who was the production manager of a film lab.

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Cornel left school at 15 to join him there before studying photography at the Regent Street Polytechnic. He served in the RAF in the war, joining its experimental School of Photography in 1942, and took publicity shots of the squadrons. After the war he worked in the film industry – and got his big break with Dietrich in 1948.

My first encounter with his work, in 2000, was through a series of curious fashion shots taken in St Ives in 1960 for Honey magazine. Famous artists posed in their studios with models sporting outfits that supposedly reflected their art: “In sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s studio, dramatic white shapes make a vivid contrast to the model’s red wool one-piece suit and belted black tunic top.”

The article’s chirpy tone is totally at odds with the photograph of Hepworth. Her baleful expression suggests she’d gladly topple the tall sculpture that she rests her hand on – Ascending Forms – to squish the model. It’s a bizarre variation on the signature brooding glamour of his movie star images.

n Until August 27 at 3-5 Swallow Street W1. Monday to Saturday 10am to 5.30pm. Catalogue �12.