Sitting Pretty : As Posed by Max Munn Autrey and George Hurrell, Hollywood Subjects Convey More Than Glamour


Some young artists today find themselves drawn to the financial rewards of cartoon or video work; yesterday, the commercial lures included photographing Hollywood stars.

“Still Men: The Glamour Photography of Max Munn Autrey and George Hurrell, 1920-1940,” at the Laguna Art Museum through Jan. 21, introduces two practitioners of the genre with prints drawn from the museum collection.

Most of the silent-movie stars photographed by a twentysomething Autrey in the 1920s for Fox Studio are forgotten today, with the exception of Clara Bow, the “It” girl. “It,” of course, really meant “sex,” and, even in the demure bathing suit of the time, Bow’s exuberant, upraised-arm stance in swirling surf gave her an air of ready-for-anything sauciness.


Other Autrey shots now look pretty silly, like the image of one Madge Bellamy coyly poised on tiptoe or Lanore De Lara awkwardly vamping in what appears to be a hastily constructed toga.

The soft, delicate shadow of a tree in the latter portrait represented a trickle-down effect from the art photography movement known as Pictorialism. (It seems apt that this supposedly high-minded, “painterly” style, used by early photographers in a Rodney Dangerfield-like bid for respect, was co-opted in turn by commercial photographers.)

Ohio-born Hurrell actually was trained as a painter and befriended the Laguna Beach art colony when he moved out here, at age 21, in 1925. But when his photo-portraits of fellow artists led to Hollywood commissions (and his first studio, in 1927), he seems to have let the paint dry on his brushes.


Well, no wonder. Although artist acquaintances may have made fascinating psychological studies (tense-looking Edger A. Payne, brooding Maynard Dixon), film stars were far more malleable. They were products of the combined talents of cosmetician, hairdresser, dressmaker and the man with the lights and big box camera--who in this case also had a sculptural, almost choreographic, awareness of the body’s potential.

In Hurrell’s hands, a posh white interior, a soft, sourceless glow and a precise pose (forearm propped on upraised knee, fingers “casually” splayed just so) gave Marlene Dietrich the aura of Olympian glamour in a 1937 photograph.

Five years earlier, Hurrell maximized the drama in Joan Crawford’s big-eyed gaze by obscuring her mouth and carefully aligning her upraised arm and the fall of a black cloak against her white dress.


Although you might think the men offered rather less to work with, Hurrell had his tricks. Dating from an era when the sexual symbolism of smoking was still open to new paradigms, a 1932 portrait of Gary Cooper shows him arching an eyebrow as he casually caresses a cigarette between his thumb and first and second fingers.

Hurrell’s other sitters included Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, as well as such luminous couples as Greta Garbo and John Barrymore (photographed with noble profiles almost touching) and Loretta Young and Tyrone Power (his chin inserted in the curve of her neck). Dreamy.

* “Still Men: The Glamour Photography of Max Munn Autrey and George Hurrell, 1920-1940,” through Jan. 21 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. $5 adults, $4 seniors and students, children under 12 free. (714) 494-8971.