08/04/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
by Mark A. Viera
No one understood the allure of sex better than photographer George Hurrell (1904-1992); his seductive shots of Hollywood actresses in the 1930s helped turn stars into cultural icons. Hurrell's protégé Mark Viera has assembled 275 of the master's portraits (a pouty, lusty Jane Russell in a haystack, Marlene Dietrich with head feathers) and the stories behind them. Greta Garbo thought him mad; he called her a stone statue. Although his most frequent subject, Joan Crawford, said she would "scrub her skin until it shone" before sittings, it was Hurrell's peerless retouching techniques that turned her flawed, freckled complexion into alabaster.
His most erotic work was of Jean Harlow, their sittings lubricated by gin and the platinum beauty's insouciance. "She would just drop her dress and be nude," Hurrell said. "Not in a seductive way; she just had no shame or inhibition." The Harlow portraits are classic Hurrell: a supine siren shot from above, hair billowing, eyes heavy-lidded in surrender. At the time it was called glamor, but as he noted, "Glamor was nothing more than an excuse for sexy pictures." (Abrams, $39.95)