The Glamorous World of Paul Hesse

During the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s glamor photography was all the rage in Hollywood. A good portrait could do wonders for an actor’s reputation and make them desirable to fans as well as directors and studio executives. Hundreds of talented photographers made a name for themselves by shooting beautiful portraits of Hollywood stars that fueled the imagination of the general public and helped sell lots of movie tickets.

One of the most interesting and prominent photographers from this period was the handsome and talented Paul Hesse. Hesse was born in New York in 1896 and experimented with photography while attending the Pratt Institute. After WWI Hesse became a professional poster illustrator and created covers for Collier’s Weekly. By 1918 he began to grow restless. Hesse was tired of the time-consuming aspects of illustration but he still wanted to pursue commercial art. He decided to purchase a secondhand camera and began focusing all of his attention on photography. Hesse immersed himself in the photographic process and read every photography book that he could get his hands on. By the mid-1920s he had opened up his own photography studio in New York City.

When Paul Hesse opened up his studio in New York commercial photography, as we know it today, was still in its infancy. Hesse was taking a real risk by devoting himself to a relatively new creative medium but his decision quickly began to pay off. By the late 1920s he was shooting portraits of prominent Broadway stars and in the early ’30s he got the opportunity to photograph his first Hollywood star, the infamous Marion Davies. As most film buffs probably know, Marion Davies maintained a relationship with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and their complicated relationship was depicted in the classic Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane (1941). When Paul Hesse photographed Marion Davis she was still making successful movies in Hollywood and Hesse took one of the first color photographs of the actress. At a time when many photographers were reluctant to use color film, Paul Hesse had become one of its pioneers.

Top: Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power
Middle: One of Hesse’s favorite photos shot for Studebaker
(1951)
Bottom: Ava Gardner and Lucille Ball

By 1938 Paul Hesse had earned his reputation as one of the best commercial photographers working in New York. He was traveling to Hollywood several times a year to shoot glamorous photos of the stars for Photoplay magazine and he became the first photographer to use color in a national advertising campaign. He enjoyed working with actors and he created many popular celebrity endorsed ad campaigns for companies such as Reignhold Beer, Chesterfield Cigarettes, Lipton Tea, Royal Crown Cola and Studebaker automobiles. He also shot many photos for American Magazine.

Paul Hesse became known for his meticulous attention to detail, personally designed sets and his creative use of lighting. He was even involved with selecting the clothing that his models would wear and assisted with makeup. He employed groundbreaking techniques such as using a specially designed rear projection screen for creating custom backgrounds that framed his subjects. His highly stylized and hyper-realistic color photos leaped off the pages of movie magazines. They captured the hearts and minds of the American public and gave shape to countless celluloid inspired dreams.

In 1940 Hesse decided to move to Los Angeles where he opened a new studio on Sunset Boulevard that became a gathering place for Hollywood stars and industry bigwigs. According to the book Masters of Starlight: Photographers In Hollywood, he was awarded the title of “Hollywood’s Photographic Ziegfeld” by a committee of unnamed movie stars in recognition of his contribution to their careers. The actress Greer Garson once said that Paul Hesse was, “greatly in demand by the leading national magazines to create cover-portraits to delight the eye. The result would be a true-to-life likeness but idealized, or glamorized if you will, by his superb technique in producing only delectable color values.” Hesse was so admired in Hollywood that the actor Bob Cummings modeled his television character on the popular Bob Cummings Show (1955-1959) after him.

Top: Bette Davis and Lana Turner
Middle: Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck

Bottom: Hedy Lamarr and Greer Garson

Paul Hesse didn’t just photograph the stars. He actually helped discover some. One of his most celebrated “discoveries” was the talented young child star Margaret O’Brian who modeled for Hesse before she became an actress. Hesse’s photographs of the adorable tyke undoubtedly helped her get Hollywood’s attention. Hesse can also be blamed for trying to discourage the career of some wonderful actresses such as the lovely Marilyn Monroe. The photographer William Burnside introduced young Norma Jean to Paul Hesse in the hope that he might offer her some modeling work but Hesse cruelly insulted her when they met with the thoughtless remark, “Darling, you’re too fat,” which made her burst into tears. It seems ridiculous now but Marilyn Monroe’s curvaceous and busty figure must have seemed somewhat intimidating to Hesse who was used to shooting petite and slender Hollywood starlets that were typical of the time. One of his favorite models was the beautiful Lana Turner. In Stephen Gundle’s book Glamour: A History, Hesse is quoted as saying, “Lana is so busy that whenever I have photographed her I have had the feeling of catching a bird on a wing.”

By the late ’40s Paul Hesse undoubtedly faced a lot of competition but he continued to be one of most highly sought after photographers in Hollywood throughout the ’50s and into the ‘60s. Glamor photography started to lose its appeal when the powerful Hollywood studio system that had been in place for decades began to crumble. Major studios were no longer interested in grooming young stars or signing long-term contracts with them. They were also forced to compete with television and the public demanded for more realistic role models. For commercial or spiritual purposes, or possibly both, Paul Hesse and his partner Harvey Prebel decided to invest in a three-dimensional camera and in the ’50s Hesse focused a lot of his attention on creating thousands of 3-D religious photographs for commercial products such as postcards and prints. In some respects it seems like a strange direction for a Hollywood glamor photographer to take but throughout his career Paul Hesse had clearly understood the power that an image can have over the public. The idea of using spiritual icons to sell religious ideas might have appealed to him in numerous ways.

Paul Hesse retired in 1963 at age 67. He lived for 10 more years but his photographs will undoubtedly live on forever. As far as I know, there is no definitive collection of Paul Hesse’s photography available in any form and biographical information about him seems sketchy at best. Most of my research for this piece was done with the help of a wonderful book called Masters of Starlight: Photographers In Hollywood by David Fahey and Linda Rich. In many ways Hesse’s fascinating career mirrors the rise and fall of the Hollywood studio system and you can trace the history of photography through his work. His photos present Hollywood as a mythical and slightly surreal place where blemish free beauties with perfect teeth smile endlessly for our pleasure. The Hollywood fantasy that Paul Hesse helped create is still being used to sell movie tickets today but it has lost some of its luster. Maybe the stars aren’t as fascinating? Maybe the movies aren’t as good? Whatever the case may be, I find Paul Hesse’s photography absolutely mesmerizing and I hope you will to.

43 Responses The Glamorous World of Paul Hesse
Posted By NCeddie : June 24, 2010 9:05 pm

Thank you! I’d been hoping someone would trace the parallels of golden era Hollywood and glamor photography. You just can’t have one without the other! I did not know Paul Hess was at the forefront of use of color photography for endorsement ads. Interesting that his work with Margaret O’Brien opened a way for her career. Great bit of trivia, re: The Bob Cummings Show.
I learned so much from this post.

Posted By NCeddie : June 24, 2010 9:05 pm

Thank you! I’d been hoping someone would trace the parallels of golden era Hollywood and glamor photography. You just can’t have one without the other! I did not know Paul Hess was at the forefront of use of color photography for endorsement ads. Interesting that his work with Margaret O’Brien opened a way for her career. Great bit of trivia, re: The Bob Cummings Show.
I learned so much from this post.

Posted By NCeddie : June 24, 2010 9:14 pm

Oh, and that Studebaker photo ad reminds me of a scene right out of Pleasantville(1998). Wonder if it served as inspiration?

Posted By NCeddie : June 24, 2010 9:14 pm

Oh, and that Studebaker photo ad reminds me of a scene right out of Pleasantville(1998). Wonder if it served as inspiration?

Posted By Suzi : June 24, 2010 9:57 pm

These are beautiful portraits. Great idea for a blog post and well written.

Posted By Suzi : June 24, 2010 9:57 pm

These are beautiful portraits. Great idea for a blog post and well written.

Posted By morlockjeff : June 24, 2010 10:21 pm

You cast a strange spell with this blog. Mesmerizing is the word indeed. The perfect world rendered by marketing’s finest and who wouldn’t want to look like Gregory Peck sticking his head out of the shower or Greer Garson preparing to generate some warmth? Paul Hesse! Hermann Hesse! We LOVE da Hesses!

Posted By morlockjeff : June 24, 2010 10:21 pm

You cast a strange spell with this blog. Mesmerizing is the word indeed. The perfect world rendered by marketing’s finest and who wouldn’t want to look like Gregory Peck sticking his head out of the shower or Greer Garson preparing to generate some warmth? Paul Hesse! Hermann Hesse! We LOVE da Hesses!

Posted By medusamorlock : June 25, 2010 10:51 am

Those color portraits look so luscious, especially since so many of the actors’ movies were in black and white. It must have been simply spectacular to have seen your favorite star in those gorgeous color photos if you only knew them in B&W.

Great post, Kimberly!

Posted By medusamorlock : June 25, 2010 10:51 am

Those color portraits look so luscious, especially since so many of the actors’ movies were in black and white. It must have been simply spectacular to have seen your favorite star in those gorgeous color photos if you only knew them in B&W.

Great post, Kimberly!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 25, 2010 2:51 pm

NCeddie – Glad you found the post informative! I’m afraid I’ve never seen Pleasantville but I should probably remedy that. Hesse’s color photos probably influence anyone who’s trying to recreate that dreamy Americana mood found in so many post WW2 magazines.

Suzi – Thank you!

Jeff – Hesse’s photos were really hypnotic. That Gregory Peck picture is one of my favorite portraits of the actor and pretty daring for the time. I’m sure his fans loved it. I know I do!

Medusa – This is so true! It must have been pretty amazing for some folks to come across a color picture of their favorite star if they’d only seen in them b&w movies. I love the red lips on all the actresses. They really stand out and seem to scream, “Kiss me!”

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 25, 2010 2:51 pm

NCeddie – Glad you found the post informative! I’m afraid I’ve never seen Pleasantville but I should probably remedy that. Hesse’s color photos probably influence anyone who’s trying to recreate that dreamy Americana mood found in so many post WW2 magazines.

Suzi – Thank you!

Jeff – Hesse’s photos were really hypnotic. That Gregory Peck picture is one of my favorite portraits of the actor and pretty daring for the time. I’m sure his fans loved it. I know I do!

Medusa – This is so true! It must have been pretty amazing for some folks to come across a color picture of their favorite star if they’d only seen in them b&w movies. I love the red lips on all the actresses. They really stand out and seem to scream, “Kiss me!”

Posted By Irvin Gelb : July 7, 2010 3:00 pm

Hi,
I was big fan of Mr. Hesse’s work and would like to contact his relatives. I’m a collector of Hollywood photos. Can you please send me the contact information of his heirs?
Thanks.

Posted By Irvin Gelb : July 7, 2010 3:00 pm

Hi,
I was big fan of Mr. Hesse’s work and would like to contact his relatives. I’m a collector of Hollywood photos. Can you please send me the contact information of his heirs?
Thanks.

Posted By Elisabeth Rappe : July 8, 2010 4:32 am

The photo of Gene Tierney is absolutely breathtaking — and the Peck one is so naughty. I love it! I’m going to have to find a full sized copy of that sometime. :)

Posted By Elisabeth Rappe : July 8, 2010 4:32 am

The photo of Gene Tierney is absolutely breathtaking — and the Peck one is so naughty. I love it! I’m going to have to find a full sized copy of that sometime. :)

Posted By Senor Corky : July 25, 2010 7:27 pm

UNBELIEVEABLE ! While attending to my late brothers estate,I discovered eleven of the most syunning colored original photographs of HOLLYWOOD starlets of the 1940s and 1950s. Six are
either signed, autographed or labled PAUL HESSE, HESSE PATSTON STUDIOS 480 LEXINGTON AVENUE NEW YORK, N.Y.

I had no idea who PAUL HESSE was. I went looking for him, and Thank GOD I found you. Let me know if you woulk to see the collection.
Senor Corky

Posted By Senor Corky : July 25, 2010 7:27 pm

UNBELIEVEABLE ! While attending to my late brothers estate,I discovered eleven of the most syunning colored original photographs of HOLLYWOOD starlets of the 1940s and 1950s. Six are
either signed, autographed or labled PAUL HESSE, HESSE PATSTON STUDIOS 480 LEXINGTON AVENUE NEW YORK, N.Y.

I had no idea who PAUL HESSE was. I went looking for him, and Thank GOD I found you. Let me know if you woulk to see the collection.
Senor Corky

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 29, 2010 10:51 pm

Irvin – I’m not familiar with Paul Hesse’ family or heirs.

Elisabeth – Aren’t they wonderful?! Hesse was an amazing talent.

Senor Corky – I’m glad this article helped you learn something new about Paul Hesse. I’m sure a lot of our blog readers would enjoy seeing the photos you have. Maybe you could post copies of them online at a free photo sharing site like Flickr or Photobucket and share the link here? That way everyone could enjoy them!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 29, 2010 10:51 pm

Irvin – I’m not familiar with Paul Hesse’ family or heirs.

Elisabeth – Aren’t they wonderful?! Hesse was an amazing talent.

Senor Corky – I’m glad this article helped you learn something new about Paul Hesse. I’m sure a lot of our blog readers would enjoy seeing the photos you have. Maybe you could post copies of them online at a free photo sharing site like Flickr or Photobucket and share the link here? That way everyone could enjoy them!

Posted By Jaine Fraser : November 3, 2010 8:52 pm

My parents vacationed in Hollywood in the early 1950′s and my mother arranged a photo shoot for them with Paul Hesse during that time. We’ve always loved these photographs, but it wasn’t until tonight that i decided to go online and see if I could learn anything about him. How lucky for us that you have done this research. We will treasure these even more now.

Posted By Jaine Fraser : November 3, 2010 8:52 pm

My parents vacationed in Hollywood in the early 1950′s and my mother arranged a photo shoot for them with Paul Hesse during that time. We’ve always loved these photographs, but it wasn’t until tonight that i decided to go online and see if I could learn anything about him. How lucky for us that you have done this research. We will treasure these even more now.

Posted By anne newman : December 17, 2010 11:42 am

Paul Hesse was the official photographer for the Rheingold contest from 1940 to 1964. He is seen in many of the ad’s photographing Miss Rhingold. I was a finalist in 1960 and have many tales about his extravagent shoots. I am so glad to find more information about him. I have found a dead end when trying to find any of his original work for a planned historical exhibit in New York in 2011. If you have any information, please contact me.

Posted By anne newman : December 17, 2010 11:42 am

Paul Hesse was the official photographer for the Rheingold contest from 1940 to 1964. He is seen in many of the ad’s photographing Miss Rhingold. I was a finalist in 1960 and have many tales about his extravagent shoots. I am so glad to find more information about him. I have found a dead end when trying to find any of his original work for a planned historical exhibit in New York in 2011. If you have any information, please contact me.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : December 17, 2010 2:30 pm

Thanks for the comments Jaine & Ann! I’m glad you both found this post helpful.

And thanks for the information about the Miss Reingold ads, Ann. That must have been a really interesting experience. I wish I new more about Hesse and his work but this article contains all the information I was able to find. It’s a shame that there isn’t more info available about him but I also hit a lot of dead ends when I was researching this. There’s a lot of museums and research libraries in Hollywood that might have more information about Hesse. I can only recommend trying to contact some of them. Good luck!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : December 17, 2010 2:30 pm

Thanks for the comments Jaine & Ann! I’m glad you both found this post helpful.

And thanks for the information about the Miss Reingold ads, Ann. That must have been a really interesting experience. I wish I new more about Hesse and his work but this article contains all the information I was able to find. It’s a shame that there isn’t more info available about him but I also hit a lot of dead ends when I was researching this. There’s a lot of museums and research libraries in Hollywood that might have more information about Hesse. I can only recommend trying to contact some of them. Good luck!

Posted By bettijane pike : January 16, 2011 1:12 pm

I took a chance to google Paul Hesse and was pleased to find this site. I have fond memories of visiting Paul Hesse because my grandmother would go “calling” on him. We lived down the cove from him in Malibu. I would be visiting my grandmother at her home and she would take me for tea at his house. I was very young so I do not remember too much. I remember my grandmother saying he photographed Winston Churchill’s daughter or sister. Yesterday I was walking at the beach and decided to research more.

Posted By bettijane pike : January 16, 2011 1:12 pm

I took a chance to google Paul Hesse and was pleased to find this site. I have fond memories of visiting Paul Hesse because my grandmother would go “calling” on him. We lived down the cove from him in Malibu. I would be visiting my grandmother at her home and she would take me for tea at his house. I was very young so I do not remember too much. I remember my grandmother saying he photographed Winston Churchill’s daughter or sister. Yesterday I was walking at the beach and decided to research more.

Posted By Ian Hesse : January 20, 2011 4:30 pm

I just found this page randomly with my mom and i thought that this was a very nice page written about my great grandfather. i never knew him but after reading this and seeing all these pictures i feel i have a better understanding of the type of man he was and i am proud to call him my great grandfather. thank you

Posted By Ian Hesse : January 20, 2011 4:30 pm

I just found this page randomly with my mom and i thought that this was a very nice page written about my great grandfather. i never knew him but after reading this and seeing all these pictures i feel i have a better understanding of the type of man he was and i am proud to call him my great grandfather. thank you

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 5, 2011 12:31 am

Thanks for sharing your personal stories about Paul Hesse with us! I’m glad that so many people found the piece helpful. Hopefully more information about his life and work will surface soon.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 5, 2011 12:31 am

Thanks for sharing your personal stories about Paul Hesse with us! I’m glad that so many people found the piece helpful. Hopefully more information about his life and work will surface soon.

Posted By senor corky : February 20, 2011 6:45 pm

Dear Kimberly, Its been 8 months since my last communication re:My Paul Hesse photo collection.I am interested in determining there authenticity as several indicate origin with signature and also help in identifying whos who.I believe these master pieces may have some value. Thank You again and enjoy the show.

Posted By senor corky : February 20, 2011 6:45 pm

Dear Kimberly, Its been 8 months since my last communication re:My Paul Hesse photo collection.I am interested in determining there authenticity as several indicate origin with signature and also help in identifying whos who.I believe these master pieces may have some value. Thank You again and enjoy the show.

Posted By IRV GELB : February 21, 2011 1:49 am

Hi Senor Corky,
I may be able to help you. Please email me at irvingelb@dslextreme.com.
Take care,
irv

Posted By IRV GELB : February 21, 2011 1:49 am

Hi Senor Corky,
I may be able to help you. Please email me at irvingelb@dslextreme.com.
Take care,
irv

Posted By senor corky : February 21, 2011 7:20 pm

Hi Irv I have attempted to email you but its not going through. email me @ senorcorkygill@yahoo.com

Posted By senor corky : February 21, 2011 7:20 pm

Hi Irv I have attempted to email you but its not going through. email me @ senorcorkygill@yahoo.com

Posted By Mike Newton : August 27, 2013 10:31 am

I knew Helen Talbot who had been a Republic Pictures actress in the Forties. However, before then, she was known as Helen Darling and had not only modeled for fashio designer Don Loper, but also had been a model/secretary for Paul Hesse. She told me about working in his studio which was on Sunset Boulevard right next to Mike Romanoff’s Restaurant. Once, Hesse had been waiting for an important call but wanted to go to lunch. He told Helen to contact him immediately at the restaurant. When the call came, Helen tried to get through on the phone but the line was busy. She then hired a man to walk through Romanoff’s with a bunch of balloons that said “Mr. Hesse…call your office.” Helen was as sweet and charming in private life as she was on the screen. In some ways, she resembled Shirley Temple and could have passed for her sister.

Posted By James : March 14, 2014 8:16 pm

I came across this picture of my father when he worked at Paul Hesse’s studio in Hollywood. Can you confirm that the picture is of Paul Hesse? I didn’t know how to attach a picture so I put it on YouTube: http://youtu.be/nLuuQ4-Q1ic

Posted By David L. Hesse : June 24, 2014 2:24 am

Paul Hesse was my grandfather, I didn’t realize how many fans are out there wondering what happen to him after retirement. I love reading the many stories of the models he photographed and anyone else who have crossed path with him. Here’s one that his son,(my dad) told me. My mom, dad and granpa were riding horses on a ranch above his home in Malibu, the hores were running towards a fence, spirits were high!,wanting to show off a little bit, he attempted to jump, the the horse abruptly stoped and he went flying over the horses head and the fence, landing flat on his back in a field of catus, my parents ran to his aid fearing the worst, all he said was ” Quick get the camera!”

Posted By Leigh Salisbury : June 16, 2015 10:47 pm

I have wonderful memories of visiting with Paul Hesse when I was a child, as he was a friend of my grandfather ,.. Who owned a ranch off Decker Rd. in the Malibu mountains. I hope it wasn’t one of our horses who threw him! I also remember going to see him at his beautiful ranch home in Templeton (near Paso Robles) and I believe this was in the late sixties. I’m remembering a gracious and charming man. Thank you for this site!

Posted By Jeff Sed!ik : October 10, 2016 12:23 am

I am fortunate to own Paul’s 8×10 camera. lenses, film holders and other equipment, which I still use today.

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