From Laguna to Hollywood

Joan Crawford. Katharine Hepburn. Loretta Young and Tyrone Power.

Pre-moustache Clark Gable.

A very young and dapper Ray Milland.

The list of Tinseltown's glitterati continues.

Movie buffs interested in striking photos of the glittering ones would do well to take in "George Hurrell: Laguna to Hollywood" at the Laguna Art Museum until April 28.

Black-and-white and sepia-toned photos Hurrell made of movieland's icons trace the artist's creative journey between 1925 and 1944, though Hurrell's run at glamour photography spanned more than six decades. Thirty-four images of the 72 on display come from the museum's permanent collection, while the rest are on loan from biographer Mark A. Vieira and collector Lou D'Elia.

Born in Cincinnati, Hurrell was a young boy when his family moved to Chicago. Growing up, he enjoyed photography, which provided an income to support his education, while harboring dreams of becoming a painter. A lecture by and conversation with California artist Edgar Payne had the 21-year-old Hurrell, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, veering westward in 1925.

Staying at a Laguna Beach cottage known as the Paint Box on Ramona Avenue until a fire broke out on March 1, 1926, Hurrell connected with the local community, including William Griffith, William Wendt and Florence Lowe Barnes. A familiar face at parties, he served as a portrait photographer for the area's local artists.

Backed by these friendships, Hurrell experimented with his 8-inch-by-10-inch view camera and tripod, using only natural light. Although he was only able to paint from time to time, his training in art influenced his visual aesthetic, with subjects artfully draped and their anatomy, from their cheekbones to the curves of their bodies, dramatized by the use of the light.

"Studios in the '30s were really pushing glamour," said Janet Blake, the Laguna Art Museum's 14-year curator of early California art. "The motion picture industry was trying to make people forget about the Depression. So, you have these fantasy movies and stars dressed like gods and goddesses. Part of Hurrell's work was what the studios wanted, but it became his specialty, since he really looked with an artist's eye. It is amazing to look at his creation of lights and darks."

Barnes, described by Hurrell as his "first enthusiastic supporter," introduced him to Ramon Novarro, a silent screen star who requested portraits to further his goal of becoming an opera star. When actress Norma Shearer saw Hurrell's handiwork, she solicited a series of photographs, which were shown to her husband, MGM producer Irving Thalberg, so she could secure a role in "The Divorcée."

Not only did she bag the part, but Hurrell signed a contract with MGM, launching his career in the company of Hollywood's biggest names.

"All you need to do is go to the Internet Movie Database and click on, for instance, Norma Shearer, and photo after photo after photo will say 'Hurrell' underneath," Blake said. "We know he didn't shoot Vivien Leigh and Marilyn Monroe. The studio system was very much in force in the '30s and '40s, so many of [the people] whom he photographed were MGM-contracted."

Despite settling in Los Angeles, Hurrell never cut his ties with Laguna Beach, staying in touch with friends and visiting often. His popularity was evidenced by the turnout of nearly 600 people at Saturday's opening reception, and a steady flow every day since.

"People are drawn to his work," Blake said. "We still want that little escape. It takes us to another fantasy kind of world."

According to a 1939 quote that is depicted on the exhibition wall, Hurrell said, "In this business, you have to concentrate on the face. You have to glorify the personality by showing what's in the face. In other words, it all boils down to anatomy, what I'm doing in my pictures. The job is to intensify the modeling, rather than subdue it.

"Maybe I manage this pretty well because I've done some drawing and I know where the bones and muscles of the face are and what they do. I think all photographers should put in a few years of studying and drawing anatomy."

Twitter: @RMahbubani

If You Go

What: "George Hurrell: Laguna to Hollywood"

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through April 28

Cost: $7 general; $5 students, seniors, and active military; free for children under 12 and museum members, also free on the first Thursday of every month from 5 to 9 p.m.

Information: or (949) 494-8971

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