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Cornel Lucas - The Gallery Munro House

11 August 2015
Cornel Lucas - The Gallery Munro House
The exhibition of renowned photographer Cornel Lucas is on show in The Gallery at Munro House, giving those around Leeds a chance to see a selection of the famed images from the award winning artist’s impressive career.

Gene Tierney 1952 Cornel Lucas Article

The images, are striking in predominantly black and white, their rich, velvety tones exuding glamour, nostalgia and a mystique that today’s paparazzi flash bulbs deny.

Lucas not only honed his own art, earning himself a Bafta in 1998 for his Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema through his work with still photography, but also fought for the spotlight to illuminate the art of photography in general, encouraging it to be considered as such, and its photographers not as technicians but artists.

The exhibition at Munro House is a smaller, curated selection of a larger series featured in London’s National Theatre but is still impressively vast. Past exhibitions have erred on the side of minimal in the gallery but the extent of Lucas’s work is visceral, pieces spilling vibrantly into the adjacent café 164. Ranging from his most prolific work in the nineteen forties and fifties, the images capture the glamour of the era and the fertile movie industry. We spoke briefly to Cornel’s son Linus who is also a photographer, who along with his mother, a former film star, curated the selection;

It is known that your father was warned against pursuing a career in photography by none other than Cecil Beaton. How did that occur?

My father contacted Cecil Beaton to seek advice on how to pursue a career in photography. Here's a quote from a BFI film produced to tell the story of Cornel's career in which my father recounts the story;

“It was on a very foggy October day I remember and a butler opened the door and I was asked to go to the parlour to have tea and I waited and then Cecil Beaton appeared and he said ‘What can I do for you?’ I said ‘Well I would very much like to look at some of your pictures. I am thinking about making this my profession.’ He said, ‘My boy, don’t make it your profession; there’s too many people doing it’. I went away from that house more determined to become a photographer than when I went there. Then a few years later whilst working on set at Denham Film Studios on an Alexander Korda film I met Beaton again and approached him. “I knew you wouldn’t listen to me, you silly boy!” Beaton said."

As the first photographer to win a Bafta and his determination to gain recognition for those behind the camera, to what extent did he change the face of photography as an art form and the idea of photographers as artists?

Cornel was technically brilliant, but he was definitely more of an artist at heart; inspired by beauty, he loved people and was fascinated by faces. His technical expertise paired with his creative flair is what really made him stand out from the crowd. Saying that, he was always at the cutting edge of the UK photographic industry, using the best equipment available to him in the UK and from abroad. Just after the war, following a trip to New York, he purchased two Kodak Ektar lenses, the quality of which hadn't been seen in the UK before. When paired with his 12” x 10” camera, these lenses gave him the edge over all of his British competitors. However, his imagination and ability to paint with light and shade is what really made him unique. This ability, paired with his natural charm and wicked sense of humour, always made his sitters feel completely relaxed and comfortable in front of the lens, helping him to capture such natural, atmospheric and beautiful imagery.

What was the highlight of his career?

I'd say the highlight of his career has to be when he was awarded a BAFTA for his "Outstanding Contribution to the British Film Industry". To this day he is the only stills photographer ever to be awarded a BAFTA; an amazing achievement and true recognition of his brilliant career.

In terms of meetings, I believe his session with Marlene Dietrich stands out the most. Aged just 29, his skill and expertise as a portrait photographer were truly tested when he was given the daunting task of shooting Dietrich's portrait during the making of the Henry Koster film 'No Highway'. After shooting just a handful of plates, Dietrich left the studio to continue filming and instructed my father to return the next day with the contacts for her to approve. With a large chinagraph, Dietrich marked the winning shots, then turned to my father, smiled and said, "Join the club." This was a turning point in his career and the success of these images lead to the Rank Organisation suggesting he leave Denham and set up a specially equipped studio at Pinewood to photograph the fifty plus major film stars they had under contract.

The exhibition will be available to see at The Gallery at Munro House all throughout August and September.

Emma is a Freelance Writer for Leeds Living. She has a degree in English literature from the University of Leeds and specialises in writing cultural editorials.