Cornel Lucas

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28 Sep 2005
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Cornel  Lucas – Transcribed by Linda Marchant


Copyright interview – BECTU history project - Interview number 543.

Recording 15.05 (AP – anonymous person audience)

Interviewer: Cornel we’re here at BECTU headquarters . Thanks for coming to BECTU for this interview.  Maybe I should introduce myself my name is Nigel Arthur

CL: My name is Cornel Arthur (laughs)

NA: We’ve met before. I’m the curator of the stills library at the British Film Institute. Cornel you’re a world renowned stills photographer, so obviously there’s an affinity between us. I wondered if we could go right back to the beginning and tell us how you started off your interest in photography.  Was that a family thing did you have a family member who introduced you to photography or was it something you picked up yourself?

CL: I think it started when my brother Jack brought me a Kodak, one of the small Kodak cameras of the time. And I was thirteen and I had six sisters.

NA: (laughs) Six sisters!

CL: Which were all very photographic. So I had quite a model agency on my own. And I was able to take the most terrible pictures on this camera and expose them to sunlight and develop them in the lavatory just beyond the kitchen door and I can remember my mother complaining about the terrible smells of my camera fumes and so I had to cease doing it there. From there my brother thought that. When I was about fifteen my brother was managing a laboratory, or a section of it, called George Humphries laboratory off Tottenham Court Road. And he said ‘I think it’s time you started earning your living’. And I was only fifteen and he said ‘I think you should leave school and I’ve got a position for you at George Humphries lab’. And I said ‘what is it?’ and he said ‘an assistant in a laboratory for processing film.

NA: So was this connected to the film industry were they processing film publicity stills or?

CL: Oh no, no, they were doing they were doing newsreels and feature films for processing/

NA: yeah yeah.

CL: I think they were the top labs, laboratories in England, in Europe.

NA: It would’ve been at that time,

CL: it was a very high standard. And erm, I was placed into the laboratory as a junior technician. And erm during that period of time my interest in photography continued. Because I then was going to the, in my spare time, to the   Regent St Polytechnic and spending a lot of time there when I should’ve been at the laboratory, learning about photography. And that’s when I started thinking very seriously about it. And enjoying it. But in the labs I had an incident which was very serious and occurred to me when I was put onto night work at the age of sixteen, on processing. And during this night you had the developing machines and then you had the drying section. And I was in the drying section. And when a thousand feet of film came off the spool you have to break it and rejoin it. And erm...  I fell asleep. And during that sleep the reel over, over, ran and suddenly the red bell, which was a warning bell, I saw this bell, I dashed, I was covered in film. (laughter) I woke up from this terrible dream with all this film covering me from head to foot. And I panicked and I pushed the stop button and the film stopped on the developing side and I suddenly realised what had happened. There was a great panic. And erm.  I know the manager and I forget his name now and I think his name was Tim White. And he came with the shop steward into the room. And he said ‘you know what damage you’ve done’ I said ‘no’.  He said ‘you’ve ruined a reel of Brewster’s Millions’.

NA: oh gosh!

CL: He said ‘you’re fired’!  I had tears in my eyes. And the shop steward, which was great at the time, said ‘tell me Mr Lucas how old are you?’  and I said ‘sixteen’. He said ‘they can’t fire you, you are too young to be doing this job you should’ve been seventeen or eighteen’ ... (laughs) and I was reinstated.  So I still worked for them. And then obviously briefly the war came and the experience I had a GH lab helped me a great deal, wanting to be on the practical side of film making.

NA: presumably it gave you a discipline as well about sort of schedules and..

CL: and also you saw people come from the film studios to the labs. Particularly one I remember Julius  Hagen who ran I think Twickenham studios. He came in a white Rolls Royce and with a black chauffer.  And you saw him sitting outside in Chitty Street where it was. And it was a dream to see this car and this man who ran this film studio.  Well anyway, briefly, there was a newsreel camera man of I think he was a partner or George Humphrey, who was a newsreel cameraman from Hollywood America. And he said to me ‘I hear you are interested in photography your brother told me. Would you like to come with me to do some newsreel?’ so I said I’d love to.  So I took my camera with me and we went to photograph Neville Chamberlain’s return from Europe after meeting Hitler.

NA: Really? Goodness me.

CL: And I took this picture and I‘ve still got it today it’s in my rare? Rear? Specimen of all the cameramen. It wasn’t at Croydon I don’t think, I forget where it was. And then Lloyd said ‘did you enjoy your day?’  And I said ‘marvellous’.  I developed the glass negative and saw this wonderful image of all these, the airplane with the newsreel and my interest got more and more. I didn’t go into newsreel because I was too young at the time. And the war came so I then volunteered to become a fighter pilot, a night fighter pilot.  I was seventeen.  I told them I was nineteen. And when I went for my interview they said ‘we’re terribly sorry Lucas’ they said, ‘ but you not only failed on your eyesight because of the images you had to test on  but you’re lying about your age you’re only seventeen.  Go away and we’ll call you up.’ But briefly going back again to the Brewster’s Millions thing. I ruined this negative. Ten years later when I photograph Jack Buchanan in the studio at Pinewood ten years later 1954. I said to him ‘do you remember Jack when you were working on Brewster’s Millions?’ He said ‘yes very clearly’. I said ‘did you ever remember a time you were told you had to re-take?’ He said ‘yes the film got caught fire in a van’ (NA Laughs) so that’s what my brother said to the laboratory manager. And he said ‘if I’d known you’d ruined it Cornel I’d have claimed payment for it’ (laugh) but he said he gave it free of charge. So it’s interesting how ten years later.

And then when I was called into the air force I worked then at Farnborough experimental model photography which was top secret and came out after the war

NA: was this like reconnaissance?

CL: well it was doing things I think even now one can’t talk about.  But at that time I learnt that if you left the film industry they were compelled to take you back after the war. So I decided before doing that I would go to America.

NA: so during this time you have come into contact with high quality cameras, high quality processing facilities, so you were lucky with the very top end of film making.

CL: when you were doing experimental photography in the forces, I’d rather go over that. But I was most interested in getting into the film studios even though when I left I was in the laboratories by sheer saying they had to employ you back into the industry. So I went to America for two and a half months. And I intended to start my film career in Hollywood.

NA: You just packed your bags and decided to go?

CL : So I went to the American embassy and said ‘I’d like to emigrate’ and they told me to fill in all the papers and come back later. And when I went to America to see what I want to do I went to Hollywood.

NA: forgive me. You went to New York?

CL: I went to New York and Los Angeles and I had a good contact in New York and went onto Los Angeles where a friend put me up and I met this man called Bill Burnside who was Alexander Korda’s representative in Hollywood.  And also for Rank organisation. He was to sell English films during the war and shortly after.

NA: He was like a sales agent?


CL : He was a top publicity salesman and very well respected. And I met Bill and was introduced to him. And I told him what I wanted to do and could I get a job in Hollywood as a junior because he knew all the people and he knew everybody . And he said the only way you can start is to try to get a job on your own. I found it most difficult because there was a union restriction everywhere. After the war all the boys were coming back and I was one of them but I was not American. So the priority was you had to have a working permit and it was impossible.  So Bill said ‘never mind Cornel, go and see a friend of mine called Paul Hesse in New York’ he was a photographer who worked in Hollywood and New York.  And I went to see him in Madison Avenue. And I can remember knocking at his door, and the door opened to this enormous studio. And I told him I would like to be able to watch him work. And he said ‘yes come in but I’m photographing Gary Cooper for a ‘Camel’ ad. You can sit quietly at the back and after you’ve seen it push off.’ So that was my experience.


And I came back to England and thought this is what I’ve gotta do. Many other things happened over the period of time. My dreams were. Like when my brother took me to the film studios to pick up film. Coming towards me was this exotic woman. And it was Anthony Asquith and Gloria Swanson.  And as they passed his car. I was sitting on my own.  I could not believe it. That I could put my hand up and touch these people.  It was all a great illusion. And in those days it was because stars were untouchable you didn’t ever meet them.

NA: so when you were a kid did you go to the cinema a lot?

CL: Every Saturday

NA: So you always had this love affair with film and cinema?

CL: and I spent two pence every Saturday to watch film.

NA: with your brother presumably?

CL: No. No. On my own.

NA: Ok


CL: So my dream was film. And when I got back I had to get a job and Denham Studios, I wrote to them and told them my background and they said ‘yes by all means come in and work as an assistant.’ Which I did.

NA: That’s amazing you just wrote a letter to Denham and they responded?

CL: I wrote a letter . Writing letters. I wrote a letter to Cecil Beaton the great photographer who was in London at the time and he said come to see me when you are on leave and we will talk. And I remember going to this house in Knightsbridge, Pelham Crescent where he had this big house and it’s in my book the story. I don’t know if you know this. And when he took me into his parlour he had all these wonderful pictures of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo that he had taken . And then a butler or a maid came in with tea. And I remember him saying to me ‘what can I do for you?’  And I wanted to ask you if photography would be a good profession to take up. He said ‘I wouldn’t…’

NA:  Really he tried to put you off?

CL: He said ‘I wouldn’t it’s very lowly paid’

NA: He tried to discourage you ?

CL: I know but when I left that house

NA: there was no encouragement at all from Cecil Beaton not even a glimmer?

CL: No encouragement. I handled his pictures and thought how marvellous they were and he said  ‘my boy it’s over populated and it’s underpaid.’ Well  it was a foggy day in Oct and I walked out in the rain. I can remember it was foggy, misty and cold and I remember that my house that week had just been bombed and I was pretty well depressed.  And Jack was as well.  The family were. And erm  I was determined to ignore what he said.

NA: good for you. A lesser person probably would’ve given up then especially when someone like Cecil Beaton says no there’s no room for you go away.  Most people would stop I think . Yes it’s good.

CL: I met him again, Like Jack Buchanan at Denham studios when they asked me to assist him and he was photographing Sabu and I said to him ‘Mr Beaton’ and he didn’t know very much about technicalities of cameras. So you had to set the stop and take the reading and it was beep, beep, beep (demo)

NA: he had the eye for detail

CL: and for decor. And I said ‘Mr Beaton do you remember me coming to see you during the war in 1942. 1943. And you told me not to take up photography.’ He put his hand on my shoulder and he said ‘I knew you would you silly boy’.  (Laughter) and I thought what you can say. Any way during that period at Denham studios here I am walking around with my 5x4  graphic taking pictures of what was going on.

NA: So you were taking unauthorised photographs on the set?

CL: I was always rebellious. I nearly caused three or four strikes on filmsbecause I moved the lamps myself, I moved the decor myself, I wiped off makeup on people’s faces and ruined Brewster’s Millions so I was a name to be rebellious and be watched.  And I was told if I moved anymore lamps I’d go on strike.  I was walking between the stages a and b or g and d  and this man came up to me and said are you Cornel Lucas and I said yes and he said ‘I gather you like photographing women’. I said I did but I didn’t know where he’d got the recommendation from but  I must’ve been doing something naughty.  And he said would you like to photograph Marlene Dietrich? I said WHAT

NA: this is 1951?

CL I didn’t say what to him. To him I was very but I didn’t realise what I had taken on so my quick reaction was to talk to Jack Hibberd who was the lighting cameraman on Dietrich’s film. Jack was a friend of mine. Senior to me but very helpful.  He said Cornel she’s a very difficult woman so be careful what you do.  If I were you I would spend an hour looking up library stories and books and learn something about her.  She has a distinctive view on lighting. So I dashed away and went to the library and got all the books on Marlene Dietrich and her photographer

NA: Von Sternberg

CL; and he was her photographer as well.  And the publicity man said you can come and watch the rushes of the film and you can pick any props you want to do these photographs. And you’ve got the entire stage one hundred and forty feet by a hundred feet stage d and I had the corner of this vast stage which was unusual as it wasn’t a portrait studio so I had my lamps and the props taken from the film. And I set it up and then she appeared. And as she appeared through the stage door  where it said red light shooting coming through. And she walked across the stage. And I put a little tiny radio, because at that time you didn’t have tapes in those days, and I know that as I saw them walking towards to break the silence I turned the radio on and it was playing Colonel  Bogey and all these people were walking in step towards me. And she went straight over to the radio turned it off and said ‘it’s not necessary Mr Lucas’ (laugh).  So we started.


NA; that must’ve put you a bit ill at ease when she turned the radio off.

CL; well it was a cold sort of ‘let’s start’ and as she sat down on the props I had formed she looked at the lights, she looked at every light and I had four or five and she looked up and looked around and said let’s start.

NA: So she’s obviously really impressed with the lights

CL: impressed with the twelve o clock high which I remember to give her direct cheek bones and that was my main light and I thought I must get that light right because she had just fired the photographer that disagreed with her and that’s why I was employed because they had to have someone quickly.

NA: she has this amazing face doesn’t she you can see why she wanted that twelve o’clock high light

CL: and when I had taken because I only had time, it was on a ten eight camera and I only had time to do four pictures because she was so professional that she had to have a cigarette holder and you could see the ash was a half inch and I timed that to be a minute and a half posing which is quite a feat.  Without moving. She was a very disciplined and she knew exactly what she wanted to do.  And my job was to do my best with it. So I did about four shots five pictures and then the session finished as she could only give me an hour and a half. And off she went and said ‘I look forward to seeing the rough proofs tomorrow’. I took the roughs to her dressing room and thought ‘god now what‘s gonna happen?’ and she looked at them.  And in my book I say, she opened her handbag and out came the most enormous magnifying glass and she looked at these rough proof pictures with a ten eight form. And got a black eye pencil and started marking the picture as she wanted it retouched.  And of course this was all hidden language to me I had to ask what the signs were for I thought the crosses were for kisses. (ha ha). And the o for cuddles. She said you are right but for a different way. I want the x taking out and the o retouched.  And I learnt a lot from that and I regret never keeping those rough proofs of those pictures.  Because they were quite wonderful pictures to have.  But then I took them away and had them retouched by the most lovely girls in the retouching room. And I took these five pieces back to her the following day and she put her arms round me and said ‘join the club Cornel’.


Now I didn’t know what that meant (laugher) that I realised afterwards it meant reputation and it meant you were on your way to doing other things.

NA: what a fantastic portfolio.

CL: then she recommended me to various people and before I knew where I was Pinewood had just opened and now going into production and trying to emulate Hollywood.  Because they had forty nine to fifty two stars or actors and actresses under contract. And they said Cornel would you take over a studio which is a swimming pool and form your own unit. And we will encourage you as much as you want.

NA: so this was the beginning of the glamour

CL: the Rank, not glamour school

NA: so this is people like Dirk Bogarde and- j

CL: Well before him and others as well. I remember a man called Archibald who was John Davies’ right hand man and he was put in charge of giving me everything that I wanted. On my visit to America when I went there for a short time I bought two wonderful lenses in Ilex shutters of their day which were far advanced in what we had in England because we were still rationed and you couldn’t buy equipment like this. And I was able to get these back. I had to borrow money to buy them but they were my god send. You know to take a photograph your main apart from disciplined is to have the lens that can capture that picture on film. And the biggest problem with our equipment at that time was that it was antiquated. It either had pinholes in the bellows or non automatic shutters and there I am with two wonderful lenses 20 inch Ektar lens fitted to an Ilex shutter and I had a sixteen inch and they were the two lenses which I had.

NA: You had a tremendous advantage

CL: Only because by sheer luck I bought them. I always thought, seeing Paul Hesse photographing Gary Cooper seeing the lens he was using I thought the one thing I’ve got to take back to England is to take back the equipment s o I took back the two lenses.

NA: what a fantastic thing to do

cL: I took back the two lenses. And that actually was with me for a long time.  Thirty years erm.  When I come to think of that period of erm . Then they gave me a studio manager to arrange the sittings. They gave me an assistant, an electrician and a prop man, makeup and hair and a swimming pool.


NA: Gosh wow.

CL: and it was a marvellous swimming pool because they built the floor over the swimming pool and I remember when I said to David Niven ‘ do you remember this place as a club’ and he said ‘yes I used to spend weekends here with the most gorgeous women and I used to go swimming under this floor.’  And when I left the Rank organisation I think it went.


NA : Do you remember many of those early Rank photographic sessions?

CL: I was literally doing four sessions a day of contract artists and some were very difficult and some very easy.  But the difficult ones turned out to be the most interesting ones. I can remember A.E. Matthews and people like that who didn’t want to be photographed.  Men were not easy to photograph but women loved it.  They loved posing and looking at themselves in the mirror. And seeing their images. When they looked at my lens they could see themselves because the lenses were so big but the names which came to me was.  .... the actual fact was Dirk Bogarde was under contract for fourteen years and I photographed him for seven years.

NA: Wow and Diana Dors that name comes up you photographed her many times?

CL: Yes I did two or three years on Diana Dors as a promotion. And she had erm a husband who was called Dennis Hamilton who was most troublesome.

NA: you were at this film festival and assigned to take photos of Diana Dors on the canal. Could you quickly tell us that story.


CL: Diana and Dennis Hamilton. See he was a past master of publicity for her. And he used to be a little bit troublesome as he always wanted to come into the studio.  And the point was on this occasion we went to Venice Diana Dors would never tell you what she had planned.  Because she was slightly independent of the ~Rank org even though she was under contract to them to make films, she always wanted to arrange her own publicity.  And she said ‘Cornel we’re going to Venice for three days I hear you’re going would you take a special picture of me?’ I said ‘yes’ and ‘what will it be?’ she said ‘I’m not telling you when we get there I will tell you.’  When we got there she said ‘Cornel at nine o’clock tomorrow I will be on a gondola or boat on the lido’ and I will come out at ten o clock and take the picture.  Well what did I think I saw this gondola coming towards me a girl with a fur coat on?

NA:  it was presumably quite hot. 00.31.00

CL: and it was quite a hot day. And as she got near to me she stood up and she took this coat off and I thought she would appear nude but she had this tiny little bikini on, this mink bikini and  what a scoop because that picture gave her world publicity. Diana Dors in a mink bikini in the middle of August and I said a mink bikini and she said no it’s just rabbit.  But also there was an occasion where she got me on a thing at the Cannes film festival. and I had along the erm boulevard outside the Carlton Hotel was a picture of mine, of an actress, a large picture on a boarding and I had two or three of my portraits along the front.   But this one was particularly outside the front entrance. And when I looked out of my window on the morning after I got there, I saw my picture and the girl had a moustache and a beard on. I could not believe this so I dashed down to the concierge and I spoke to a man called Theo Kahn who was a publicity man and Theo said let’s get a ladder and try and wipe it off because the film festival had only just started and we got this ladder and I was taking this moustache off. I climbed the ladder and Theo was at the bottom and as I am wiping this moustache off this gendarme arrested us for disfiguring a poster. He took his book out and arrested us in French. And the hotel concierge had to rescue us by telling him the thing had been disfigured and we were taking the thing off. So that was forgotten. But that was a sort of trick and he said to Dennis why did you do that and he just laughed.  And that’s the sort of man he was.  He was in competition to her.  So he did that.


And my final thing with Diana when I fell out with him was that Monroe was making a film at Pinewood called  The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and he was in the studio and said ‘Cornel I wonder if you could take a picture of Diana with Monroe’ and I said ‘no its all pictures have been forbidden’. By her manager who was a photographer at that time called Milton Green.  So he said ‘oh no I’ve arranged it I’ve been to Milton Green and they agreed that if you took Diana over to the makeup  when Marilyn Monroe comes along the corridor and Diana can go along and meet her and then you could take the picture.’  And it would’ve been a wonderful scoop because Diana had been in the studio and she looked very glamorous in fact she looked more glamorous than Marilyn Monroe.  And we went on the corridor and when the time came Diana walked down the corridor and I had my camera ready and just as I was going to take the picture Milton Green rushed forward and put his hand right over my lens said no photographs.  It had NEVER BEEN ARRANGED.  Never agreed to.  So when I got back to the studio and Dennis Hamilton took his seat I told him to leave, I put a black cloth over his head and told him to leave and took him to the door and threw him out. And that was my story with Diana.


NA: So you never photographed her again?

CL: If I’d have got that picture I think it would’ve been an outstanding picture of England’s Marilyn Monroe and America’s.  It’d been a wonderful picture because she was in the showgirl outfit of the film and Diana was in the most wonderful glittering, well it’s a picture in the book

NA: a missed opportunity that’s a shame


(Another voice that is not identified)

She was one of those unfortunate sad people because every one of her partners even the last one were? They absolutely manipulated her although Dennis worked with her a couple of times didn’t you and said she was fine to work with didn’t you as long as they were out of the way it was no problem.

CL: she was expecting a baby at the time and it was a sort of cabaret she just talked about her life but she was very nice she was a lovely girl but she was influenced and was slightly devious in many ways because she would get up to pranks and tricks and I wasn’t a person to get involved with tricks but the occasion where I did work with her it was wonderful because you know in those days whether you like it or not films were sold on sensuality and sexuality. And if the artist didn’t have sex on the screen it had the appeal of movies then and nowadays you don’t get that then. I emulated in my stills what it was wanted for people to see.

NA: I’ve become aware of that myself working in the stills archive. You are right a lot of the stills photographs are quite risqué in the forties and fifties and as you say it’s a way to sell the film. And that process hasn’t really changed that much.

CL: in those days the artists were untouchable and icons of their own.  And you only saw them in magazines or newspapers and they had to always look glamorous always well groomed.


NA: when you look at Joan Collins what a glamorous woman she was, well still is.  And that whole Rank operation really did glamorise her. You photographed her a few times.

CL: I photographed her for four years and from when she started I think she left the charm school. did she go to the charm school?

AV: I think the first couple of films were distributed by the Rank organisation a dual sort of connection there

CL what was extraordinary about Joan was that she kept her looks and her structure when I look at Joan in some pictures she looks today as she did when she was twenty.

AV always took pride in her appearance that’s the difference and I met her twice and even in a pair of jeans she still looked fabulous.

CL: she had good bone structure and a nice personality and that’s why I chose her for the poster in the National Portrait Gallery.  That picture assimilates shooting stars with a spotlight and I am hoping she’s coming to the exhibition.

NA: could we talk about what it is to be a stills photographer

Question: were you influenced at all by the American photographers.


CL I was influenced more by movie camera men and I was particularly influenced by was Georges Périnal.   And that’s what decided me on having my portraits low key heavy shadows and highlights.  Studies in a way of shadow and light.  Georges Périnal was photographing

NA: he did ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ didn’t he?

CL: Merle Oberon yes he was the cameraman for Korda and he was photographing Merle Oberon and I was watching the way he lit her and had pencils of light hitting just the eyes  -

NA: Really  that accurate?

CL: you know they sometimes took one hour to two hours doing a close up on a movie.  Nowadays you rarely see close ups or main scenes (?)  The actual images of portraits on the early movies was very important and if you look at the old movies about a quarter are close ups and the stars look gorgeous and I think when I saw him lighting Merle Oberon I was able to stand by and watch I was fascinated.  And that influenced me a great deal.


NA That’s interesting going back to what I was saying about being a stills photographer  the price for doing portraiture is different for stills  at the end of one scene the technicians are changing the lights to be ready for the next scene you’ve got to come in quickly with about two or three mins  to get your light / shot


? A shout and it frustrated me so much that when I shouted I used to sometimes shout at the director and he would say break and the gaffer would say all lights off or cut. And you were Cinderella that’s why I couldn’t stand it and I couldn’t stand production and I had to come off it.  And I would have left the industry if I had to stay on production.  And that is why by very good luck I was offered this wonderful opportunity. And I thought well now I am photographing individual people and doing the things I wanted to do all photographs should have the name of the star on the back of the pictures. And I assisted with Archibald and he said I give a directive to publicity that every picture taken by an individual photographer would give a credit.

NA: That’s true on the reverse of a lot of stills in the archive you turn them over and there is a caption that says the name of the photographer Cornel Lucas.

CL: A lot of photographers never got any credit for work they did there were extreme conditions and there was a side of the industry that was slightly neglected but it was very important. Marlene Dietrich said to me when I said to her ‘what made you see this particular lighting of your face was right for you?’ she said ‘well Cornel when I was in Berlin working on Blue Angel well before BA I went to a polyphoto booth and I had these pictures taken for passport’ and she said they were ‘so wonderful that’s where I got my lighting from and from then on I studied it’.  And she said ‘I can feel a light whether it’s going to over expose or under expose by just feeling it, looking at it and feeling it.’   ‘I am my own exposure meter’.


She was working with George Hurrell in America?

CL: yes I think she was.  And you know it was extraordinary how technically she was so far advanced to most artists. The only other artist who I found became capable of telling these things was Dirk Bogarde. And both those artists got clauses in their contracts to veto any pictures they didn’t like. Dirk Bogarde was the only one.

Second file

NA I know you said you didn’t like the production floor and the speed you had to work under on ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948) and you had this opportunity to do this ballet sequence and how that was slightly different  I wondered if you go through that.

CL: when I was in the pool studio if there were cancellations of sittings and there was nothing to do I was asked if I would like to go and take some publicity pictures of a sequence of something.  Just to keep me busy. I think on I had just photographed in 1959 Paul Czinner ‘Day at the Ballet’ at the Royal Opera House and he had asked me to do it because he had seen the work I had done on ‘Red Shoes’ and you seem to have an affinity for ballet which I and I am not sure to this day what I had. And he said will you come and photograph Firebird, Ondine and erm  Swan Lake.  And he said what I am trying to do Cornel is to impart on to movie film ballet which will be appreciated by the public and it wasn’t unfortunately it never took over.  He had ten cameras all automatically in different angles and he photographed the ballet from ten different angles and my job was to try to photograph that ballet from the same stage angles every so often when he was photographing a sequence. And I think Mickey Parr who knew Emeric and he said those lovely pictures we’ve seen on Paul Czinner’s thing would you like to do a sequence on ‘Red Shoes’.  And Jack relates in the book when I did it for the first time on 35mm camera which was absolutely taboo. You know. I tried taking it on plate but I couldn’t do it all on plate and Mickey Parr loved them

NA: I  think what’s great about them is you’ve got that life haven’t you that energy in the still photograph  or you’ve got that sort of movement thing  what ballet is all about.

CL: well I think that is due to Jack Cardiff’s lighting I mean. What I recorded on the ballet was what Jack lit and he was a great experimentation photographer and he would try different things.  And if you were behind him you could capture the image at the same time.  But I couldn’t capture it on plate. They asked me to do it on ten eight and I did a few shots it wasn’t possible so I timed it on 35mm in the book these pictures of the red shoes are two or three of them on 35mm.

NA: That was a one off thing you didn’t work on Powell and Pressburger and Jack Cardiff again.


CL: The next time I worked with Mickey Powell was as an actor but no I didn’t well he asked me to become a photographer in one of his films which I did.  I don’t think it was very successful.  00.03.39

Myself as an actor or the film. I think Daniel Massey was the film lead in it and I think it was called ‘the Queens Guard’  so it was it was one of the later ones 1963 and then he had broken away from the organisation and Emeric was making his films and Mickey Powell was making his films and his studio was where I lived in Melbury road he was working the Melbury studios. Do you remember that studios?

I’ve heard of it

CL   and him and Emeric worked there and that’s where he made that film from. And as a neighbour and I passed him every morning and he was quite a character Mickey.

NA; You did the portraiture of Powell and Pressburger and they are like these bookends and they are sitting away from each other and was that in any way contended  as it was almost like the end of their careers  so they are both sort of sitting outwards is that significant anyway so where was the tension between them all?


cL: If I did do that it was accidental but I can remember the session and I did it in my Chelsea studio and I know that the session for the film was eleven o clock . Emeric turned up as always at ten thirty because he was a disciplined producer as well and Mickey Powell didn’t turn up until 12.30. So maybe it’s a thing you see in their expressions.

Question: how long did it take you to take the photographs?

CL: Mickey Powell and Emeric about an hour and a half.  I took many studies of them at the time in black and white and I think Mickey was working independently then following the two of them were working independently. But I can remember David Lean coming to my studio and erm he also came in, in a very bad mood because he had come down to Monck Street to find my studio and I was in Flood St.  And he had been given the wrong. And when he came in he said ‘you’ve got ten minutes to take my picture’ And I knew very well from what I did with him that when he got into the studio and saw the technical equipment he got so involved technically that he was there for three hours.

NA: gosh that was a great sitting

CL: well it was the only sitting that he liked. And obviously he used it as a fan mail picture.  You could see how grumpy he was and on that occasion he ‘you know the picture Karsh took of Winston Churchill Cornel’ and he did this pose and when he did it I started and when he did it it’s the picture that looks just like Churchill  -

NA: sitting in an armchair that’s interesting.  So I suppose every Actor and director there’s a different story .

CL: Every artist has a different story

Question: Did you ever work with Frank Buckingham or Ronnie Pilgrim

CL: I only met them it’s a strange thing. They were doing similar work at their studios but I don’t think unfortunately they didn’t have the vast backing Rank had.  You see Rank gave a lot of people a great deal of liberties and also facilities. He was a great man and I’m sure many people would think the same. I think these other studios I knew of them but I knew Ted Dooley I think it was Ted Dooley at Shepperton and Frank Buckingham  and Johnny Jay I remember.  I never really met them and I was so busy that and then I left and opened my own studios.

AP: I never really knew until I saw an exhibition about something big about twenty years ago that Frank Buckingham was their main stills producer.  And remember that happy pictorial (?) we saw in the sixties or fifties that showed (?) work on the big plate camera and I studied it for four years and I never knew he was the actual main publicity photographer at one time.

CL: isn’t it strange?

AP: it’s quite interesting to see all the work they did.


CL: Also opportunities open and when I was doing this work you meet so many producers and directors somehow who are involved with film and you are photographing them as well as the artist.  And I remember the lovely man who was in charge of newsreels  erm ... Castleton KnightAnd he was an extraordinary man and he said to me ... he had seen my picture I had taken at the Munich thing  ... erm..  And he said ‘Cornel I’m gonna fix up a cinema thing like that with all the newsreel camera men’ would it be in Europe? I don’t’ know GB movietone and he said there is gonna be fifty cameramen all gonna photograph it in the Derby and they only come once a year. He said ‘do you think you can take a picture of it?’ and I said ‘sure I can’.  And what a historical picture it is because this mind of Castleton Knight was very very clever and he gave me that opportunity of doing that picture in 1950 on colour.  And I got them to the stain and they’re really something I. now that came in to my mind when I started photographing the camera men for Oscar winners. The sound people and I thought all these wonderful technicians and none of them ever get any publicity why don’t I as a photographer outside the system  of the studio , which has now collapsed, why don’t  I show these people who make films. And do you know it took me two years to do those four, five, pictures. And I collected them they were all over the world and I wrote to them. And they all met in my studio on a Sunday morning.

NA: Wow.

CL: and most of them got pissed and they all collected their friends and they hadn’t met each other for years.  And they all met on that occasion and with their different ways to their films.  But they were all over the world. And erm I feel actually so pleased I was able to do those things.

AP: ? When you’ve got Freddie Underhand (?) Jackson sitting there and Jack D and all the crew you got them there whilst they are all still alive.  But a lot have passed on (?)

CL: passed on and also what was a shame. The last person I put in. The only way I could do those pictures was not all at once I was doing a form of digital in , oh yes, sometimes the men were on  like Johnny Allcott was working  xx and he couldn’t get to London. And when I did get him I had left a space in my picture to put him in. And I carefully put him in digitally. Not digitally optically. I know faces of people I couldn’t get in at the time. And put them in. So my background was common.   And all I had to do was take them and superimpose them on to my black background.  To the blue screen. And in fact I was doing digital in a very naive way. And if I hadn’t have done that I wouldn’t have got them all in one picture.  And in this book I did the editors, art directors and cinematographers and special effects.  And Johnny who was a man who did special effects.

AP: Johnny Richardson?


CL I could only get about eight of those because there weren’t many of them.  And I think the veteran magazines are bringing them out in September.  They were historical and never will be done again  never because it’s a different world we are in now.


NA: we were talking earlier about digital photography. And what’s your views on digital photography.

CL:  I’ve never used a digital camera and people I‘ve been photographed by who have used a digital camera  I can’t understand why they take so many pictures and so many without necessary thinking about when we used to think about one. And take three to get one.  They take three hundred to get one.  And I don’t think it’s, it’s made them lazy

NA: the spontaneity you would lose that presumably if you take three hundred.


AP: I used to take reels and reels of the same thing we would do takes. I was doing a schools programme once and he lit it and the light was burning through and I thought why has he done that? And two nights shooting on that looking at the rushes. It’s silly they haven’t got a lot of confidence these people.  A lot of mainstream photographers shoot reels and reels of stuff

NA? : What a wonderful shot at the National Portrait gallery of camera men on a rock

CL: oh yes that is with Geoff Unsworth and Arthur Ibbetson and Johnny Alcott all three are dead.

NA: how long did it take you to get that?

cL: it took me exactly two mins before I drowned as I actually was standing on a coral reef and they were on a rock and I was up to my waist in water and I wanted to get nearer to them and I stepped forward and I could remember this clearly Frank Launder Was on a launch because he had broken his leg he could only direct from a boat and they were on a rock doing a scene from ‘Blue Lagoon’ (1949). And as I stepped forward I vanished. I had two cameras and I put the cameras above my head before I went down and I didn’t know I would land on a lower coral reef but the cameras were just out of the water. And I can remember coming up and seeing Frank Launder who was in a great pain with his broken leg, laughing at this scene. And I was able to capture this scene with my cameras. And if I had gone under water they were on a Rollieflex.

NA: it was a wonderful shot

CL: They were. You know it’s a lot of luck and timing. You know I never knew I was going to get such an effective picture and the more you printed the more effective it becomes.  And you could use such contrast on these pictures that you could make night or day and it looks effective. But those amazing thing all the men in that picture Oscar winners. Or award winners. Ibbetson  I don’t know if he won or not I think he did.  But they’ve all gone and great friends.

NA: And talking about Oscar winners you went to Hollywood you photographed Spielberg that was quite a special photo shoot?


CL: Spielberg was difficult and I took two years on getting him. What I used to do was write to these people and never hear a reply and when I did get a reply it was to the negative they were too busy on films and that they very much appreciate but then you lost that period and five months later you would get a connection again. And I can remember talking to the representative of Spielberg in London and saying I’ve been trying for eighteen months and he said I’ll arrange it for you.  I said ‘thank you.’  So when he arranged it for me this went for another six months because Spielberg was very busy at the time on films. And then I was going to Hollywood to visit my son who was an editor. And I had with me no cameras at all and just my luggage to go and see him for a week. And suddenly over the tannoy at London airport it said ‘Cornel Lucas wanted at information,’ and I went over to information and a voice said ‘hello this is Mr Spielberg’s manager he is ready to be photographed on Monday at nine o’clock’. Well this is on Saturday afternoon and I had no cameras and I’ve waited two years. I went on my way and phoned my son and he said I’ve got a couple of 35mm in my flat wait till you get out. So I went out and in California you could hire things really quickly, umbrellas, and reflectors.   And he came with these two old 35mm Nikon cameras at nine o clock and I can remember this clearly.  Dashing in his car to get to Universal studios at Dreamworks. And on the way there was a flood from a street hydrant.  And they were diverting everybody  round the area and this was about quarter to nine and I was supposed to be there at nine. A nod I only had fifteen mins to get there.   And when we got there Spielberg was surrounded by lieutenants and managers and they asked where you will photograph him. And I said I wanted to photo outside near Dreamworks entrance.  They said you can’t go out of the studios security won’t allow that.  So I said ‘why’ and they said he had been threatened with being kidnapped.  I had no lighting. I had two reflectors I had hired and my son who was an editor as an assistant who didn’t know very much about assisting. And when the staff of Spielberg came up there were three people all prepared me for when he walked in (laughter). I forget their names but if you could call them a b or c . A if you could hold this reflector and C you take that and I got them all working. And when Spielberg walked through he said ‘I’m so bloody glad you got them all working’.


They said fifteen mins you’ve got before he has to do another commercial or advertising.  And I can remember putting the camera on the tripod and as I was photographing the centre column was going down.  And I can remember seeing Spielberg look at this so I said to my son what’s wrong with your tripod and he said well Dad you’ve got it screwed on tight and off it came again. And I think he enjoyed himself and I had to break the silence and say ‘could you put one of your hats on’. You know he saw the pictures a week later and I had them printed in Hollywood  and he used it as a fan mail it’s the one in the show and that was taken in this tiny little garden it couldn’t have been more square [demo].   I took it as a close up and tried to light it like it was done in the studio.  But I was confined to an area ten foot square.

NA: it’s got a real naturalness to it. Was he aware of who you were one of the great British stills photographers?


CL: He said any friend of the lighting camera man who did he’s still alive the old boy erm Douglas Slocombe and Freddie Young then he said I don’t want any more recommendation.  And it’s extraordinary when he saw my camera going down and having to put my glasses on to do the F number .

Discussion unclear

CL: but I think it was a pity David Putnam told me on films now it’s very different as you don’t have production photographers now you have specials? And the actual erm profession has gone hasn’t it.

NA: You were saying you had this studio at Denham or Pinewood when you had a whole studio.

CL: this was Pinewood called the pool studio.  It’s a pity it’s been forgotten now.  But we were turning out five or six pictures a day on contract and people who visited.  They weren’t all working there.  A lot of people came from Hollywood to be photographed to make films but they never made them.  And Lauren Bacall was one of them.  But she never made the film.   So one was recording all the time various figures.  And some were very easy and some very difficult.  She came across after her husband, Bogart’s death and she intended to make a film here and I was recommended to photograph her in London.  In a flat.  She never made the film but she was a lovely lady.  But as you know with all my pictures everybody had got cigarettes it was a symbol of

NA: Sophistication

CL: of the day

NA: she is sort of putting her hand on a mantel piece

CL: I think one of the most wonderful characters I ever met, I remember Gregory Peck saying to me ‘you know Cornel the one actor I’d love to meet is A E Mathews’ and I said ‘well I only photographed him last week’. And he did meet him on his film I think Million Pound Note (1954)

Ap: I always wanted to meet him but didn’t

CL: well you’re another Gregory Peck.  A E Matthews I met at the Dorchester as I was doing personality pictures and I was so fascinated with his face and I was so fascinated with his craggy face and I said ‘can I photograph you Mr Mathews’ . He was very blunt and abrupt ‘yes you can but come down to Edgeware’,

NA: do you remember the name of his dog


NA / AP Bastard.

CL: no I didn’t. He said come to Edgeware or somewhere like that.  And before coming phone me.  I remember this clearly my Rollieflex and it was raining. And I got into the telephone box at the end of his road and dialled his number. And he said ‘hello’ (gruff) and I said this is Cornel Lucas photographer. He said ‘what do you want?’ And I said ‘your photograph’.  He said ‘I will send you one through the post.’ I said Mr Matthews I’ve come all this way and I am at the end of your road.’  He said go and get a bottle of gin and I will be photographed. I didn’t have the money for a bottle of gin. I didn’t have much money so I went and bought a quarter of a bottle.  And I went along to his house and I remember knocking on his door. No response. Knocked again.  And a window opened on this little terraced house and this head came out ‘what do you want?’ and I said ‘I’m the photographer’ and he said ‘climb through the basement window if you want to enter. I’m not coming down,’ so I had to climb through this basement window.  And I climbed into this most untidy room and down the stairs came A E Matthews with his dressing gown on which was covered with yoke of egg.  And I remember saying ‘where will we photograph’ and he said ‘where’s the gin?’ and I gave him the bottle and he said ‘that’s small’.  And I said ‘I’m sorry I can’t afford any more’.  And somehow something happened. He said ‘all right I will go and change.’  He got mellow and took the gin up.  I waited about ten or fifteen mins and no appearance.  When he came down he had the same dressing gown on.  And he said ‘photograph me here.’ And he sat in this chair in the kitchen and there was a window light F4 25/02 and I took this one roll of him.  Sitting like this . I don’t think it is in the exhibition but it is in the book.  A wonderful study.


CL I mean again I couldn’t have planned that. And the events leading up to it allowed me to get one picture which conveyed A E Matthews.

AP: Did he want you to leave after you had taken the photo?

CL: Oh yes.  He had done his job.  He was so abrupt that I had to leave.


NA: I notice something in your character you are very persistent.

CL: I think that’s the only way you can get any work done which you want to do is to persist and work hard at it and nothing is easy. The easy things are the worst results and the most interesting things happen by accident.  Or by persistence and this goes for film making generally

(Difficult to hear) something about Mary Wood

CL yes she died at a young age. And Mary was a friend. And somehow when you took pictures of people you get to know each other and you have to understand that artists are very sensitive. And they do have this great quality of acting but they also have insecurity. And a still photograph is reflecting part of them. Which they try to cover up.

AP: Not clear name of person woman only wanted to be shot from one side

CL: one side and I had to photograph her erm and I had to do a double shot of someone who had the same side. They didn’t look at it so I did them looking the same way (laughs).  And trying to keep as much character as possible but she had this determination and you know I think she applied this in her films.

AP: oh she did most of her shots were one sided.

CL: oh yes she had one side she would not turn. I tried to manoeuvre but every time

I manoeuvred she was like a clock she moved ?  I even got to the point of trying to take a candid but –

NA: one of the most candid photos in the exhibition is the one of Katherine Hepburn which is not a posed photograph.

CL: well Katherine Hepburn was a character who had done all the gallery pictures in Hollywood and she had obviously got tired of going to the gallery to be photographed.  And she was like Marlene Dietrich and she thought her pictures were as important as her films. So she said to me ‘Cornel if you want to photograph me I am no longer going to come into the studio’ she said ‘you can spend two days with me’

NA: gosh two days.

CL: when I say two days you must realise I mean one hour when it’s interesting and she’s doing things.  And she said ‘if you follow me take pictures’.   I had to adapt myself again away from the plate camera to a small camera so I spoke to chief electrician and gaffer and I said I have got a difficult assignment here.  Katherine Hepburn is working with Bob Hope.  Bob Hope is easy but not Hepburn and I’ve got to photograph various parts off the picture. Do you think you could instruct some of the boys up top that when they see me and she’s doing. Because she used to be. Stop a lot and think.  And do things. And I said can they put a light on. And they had the yard lamps and as she stopped the yard lamp came on she was slightly unaware, she may have been aware. And she said ‘one thing before you photograph me I must splash my face with ice water.’ So I asked what about makeup and she said ‘I’m not wearing makeup’.  And she did she used to splash her face with ice cubes. To give her a glow. And she would dab it and then go into some little corner and do something. And I had to deal with that.

NA: did you find lots of actresses had their own technique like Dietrich knew about lighting and Hepburn with the cold water.

CL: You had to appreciate that you knew more about what they wanted from the past than me as I term a recorder of their image.  I mean it was difficult for directors to tell them and that’s what made her do the films she made, it made her distinctive. Because she was different and erm again the interesting story with her is that when I took her photograph many years before. I had septicaemia from a film I caught on ‘Blue Lagoon’ (1949) and I nearly died.. And what saved my life was Fleming’s Penicillin.   In Honolulu they said Mr Lucas we will have to take your leg off you have septicaemia up to your knee.  I remember clearly I was delirious at the time that a man called Smedley Ashton he was a production manager and he said I’m terribly sorry Cornel but we can’t afford to keep you in hospital.  We only had an allowance and ‘Blue Lagoon’ was the first film out of England on location.

AP: did you catch this from the water?

CL: I was bitten by a scorpion.  Whilst I was photographing Jean on an island.  And I didn’t know how serious it was until the humidity and heat and it started itching.  Then it became sore and we didn’t have a doctor just a medication box.  And in those days you didn’t have the protection you got today this was the first film out of England after clearing the minefields of the Pacific war.  We’re talking forty eight or forty nine.

NA; so they injected penicillin?

CL: No they said they would try something.


This new thing penicillin which we’ve got from the war. And Fleming saved many lives in the forces.  And they pumped me full of penicillin.  And I can remember waking up and feeling like the Elephant man.  I was covered with large lumps and they said you’ve got penicillin poisoning.  And my foot was black by then but we have some pure penicillin but we will have to inject you with, I don’t know but anyway they put me on pure penicillin.  And low and behold the colour started coming back to my leg.  And Smedley said we had to leave two days later because it was costing a lot. I think the embassy the consul said they didn’t have the money either.

NA: what about the film unit?


CL: The film unit only had the money to complete the film and get back.  I mean these things happen I was unfortunate to be one of those individuals who got this.  And I was out of commission for about six months and when I got to England erm I still had blood poisoning, septicaemia, an enlarged heart I had so many things happening to my body. Only because I was young and fit that I am here today.

NA: You didn’t receive any compensation?

CL No none but they kept me on pay.  I was trying to think where we related this to.  That picture what did you say about blood poisoning (re trace chat)

Oh Katherine Hepburn so we go back to professor Fleming.  And when I got back and Katherine Hepburn says ‘you know who my biggest fan is Cornel?’ I said ‘no’ and she said ‘professor Fleming’. And ‘he’s got your picture on his desk.’  A picture I’d taken of her is on his desk.  So I wrote him a letter at St Marys and said not only have you given me a great honour of having my picture on your desk but you saved my life. And he wrote back and said what a lovely picture and I am her greatest fan and you are my greatest fan.

00.40.37. laugh

CL: so any weird connections I relate to that period in time.

Question: any particular photographers in the past or now that you have admired or met? Who was the one during the war who did all that abstract stuff with Vivien Leigh?

CL: Angus McBean . I was a great friend of Angus McBean and a great friend of John French who was. When I went to London in my own studio I realised all these people were specialists in their own particular. Angus McBean was on theatre and stage, John French fashion.  Peter Clark fashion.  Myself I was doing film personalities and whenever they got a requirement for a particular thing I would recommend. So Angus and I got together and photographed each other and had great discussions about artists and he had the same things happen to him in the theatre.

AP: I remember they did a documentary on him and he said they don’t make em on black and white papers that we used to have.   They were still making them up to the 1960’s but they faded away and you get multigrain a lot these days.

CL what would he say today?

AP: he’d have a fit

CL I remember him saying to me don’t do what I did and sold all my pictures to Harvard university and he said  they came down to see me and I had a room  12 x 12 full of glass negatives in trays.  And they had the choice of picking what they wanted.  And they picked possibly a hundred pictures and they paid me well and I could repair my house. He lived in the country.  The rest was destroyed.

AP: gosh terrible insane all this.

CL: Norman Parkinson was the other name I was trying to find.

Question; do you prefer to shoot in Black and White or colour?

CL: black and white. I was able to see things in black and white more. I was taking chances. I remember my first shots after Dietrich. The publicity dept wouldn’t accept shadows. They said ‘Cornel we are having great trouble with magazines and newspapers who can’t reproduce such heavy shadows.’ I said well ‘that’s the way I do it’.  After about two years it became very popular.  The printers got better and the papers got better. It was similar to the movement of colour we were able to get specially imported ecto? Paper from New York because you couldn’t buy it.  Ten eight. I’ve still got them today.

AP: I saw some shots of Ava Gardner and they were on transparencies  (at MGM)

CL: Dave Bolton was the photographer.  He was American and came from Hollywood

AP: so you all had your own territories?

CL: we can’t get away from the fact we emulated Hollywood.  Like sometimes they emulate us. In the past top technicians have been UK in special effects. And in those days we had a lot to learn.  Because they had the world distribution in pictures and they put sensuality and sexuality into pictures.  Which sold their pictures and we weren’t doing that.  Even our dialogue on films was too, too English.  We had to change. And I think actors did change.



Henry Cornel Lucas was a British film photographer born 12 September 1920 in London and was the first photographer to ever win a BAFTA in 1998 for services to British Film Industry. He was a pioneer of black and white film portraiture during the 1940s and 1950s and his technique and artistic style was respected internationally. Cornel Lucas photographed many movie stars during his career, including Marlene Dietrich, David Niven, Joan Collins and Diana Dors. He was the man in charge of the photographic studies which were set up by the Rank Organisation. He married twice during his life. In 1954, he married actress Belinda Lee, and then in 1959, he married Susan Travers with whom he fathered four children and spent the rest of his days. His work is exhibited internationally and permanent collections can be found at the National Portrait Gallery, National Media Museum and London’s Photographer’s Gallery. Cornel Lucas died aged 92, 8 November 2012.