The vintage Hollywood glamour photographs taken by George Hurrell, mostly in the 1930s and 1940s, are on display through July 20 at the California Heritage Museum on Main Street.
The nonprofit La Senora Research Institute sponsored a private tour of the exhibit narrated by exhibition guest curator Dr. Louis F. D’Elia on Saturday, June 28, and his commentary provided background and context for the remarkable photographs.
Hurrell came to California in the 1020s, initially as a painter, at the invitation of plein air artist Edgar Payne of the Laguna school. His first photographic commission was a series of portraits of Ramon Navarro in opera roles, and Navarro then recommended him to Norma Shearer, who wanted sizzling photos to convince her husband, MGM Head of Production Irving Thalberg, that she could go beyond her wholesome girl-next-door image and play the sultry lead in The Divorcee. When she showed the photos to Thalberg, D’Elia said, two things happened – their marriage improved, and she got the part (for which she won the 1930 Academy Award).
Thalberg also made Hurrell the official portrait photographer at MGM, and Hurrell went on to photograph most of the leading actors of the era. The photos in this exhibit are, for the most part, rare vintage original prints, but they also include the iconic photos of Jean Harlow lying on a bearskin rug (1934) and Jane Russell lying on a bed of straw (1942), the latter having been used to promote the film The Outlaw.
Hurrell said, “The most essential thing about my style was working with shadows to design the face instead of flooding it with light.” He also used his training as a painter – he photographed all of his subjects without any makeup, and then he scraped and painted his negatives to produce flawless complexions, extraordinary eyelashes, and the luminous beauty of the screen idols he photographed.
The exhibit, beautifully staged by designer Michael Trotter, includes more than 50 portrait photographs, a recreation of Hurrell’s studio with his camera, screen, and the original boom light (which he invented), and a separate room of nude portraits never before seen in a museum context.
The La Senora Research Institute is engaged in scholarly research and education of the history of early California under Spain, Mexico, and the United States, particularly as it relates to Rancho Boca de Santa Monica, which included Santa Monica Canyon.
The California Heritage Museum is located in an 1894 Historic Landmark house at 2612 Main Street; hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. General admission is $5, students and seniors are $3, and children 12 and under are free. The Hurrell exhibit has been extended through July 20.