The ultimate glamour photographer

George Hurrell's ability to infuse stars such as Carole Lombard with almost unworldly allure cemented his value with the studios. His work will be on display at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica beginning this Thursday. Photo Courtesy of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive, Copyright by the estate of George Hurrell

The alluring photography of George Hurrell is on display at the California Heritage Museum.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

With a permanent collection housing decorative local arts, the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica usually shows craftworks like California rainbow pottery, tiles, quilts, Hawaiiana, surfboards and Depression-era glass.

But a new show is opening this week that celebrates the golden era of the movie industry with an exhibit titled “Lights! Camera! Glamour! The Photography of George Hurrell.”

Hurrell was one of the first Hollywood photographers to bring ultimate glamour to the day’s movie stars and was the photographer of choice for the likes of Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable during the ’30s and ’40s.

This exhibit houses the Hurrell collection of an early pioneer of women’s aviation, Pancho Barnes-Barnes herself being an exhibit-worthy subject-and is guest curated by Louis D’Elia.

“George Hurrell started out as a painter,” D’Elia said. “But there was a lot of competition with other painters when he came out to California from Chicago, so he started archiving his and others’ paintings with photography.”

Hurrell arrived in the nascent artists’ colony of Laguna Beach in the late ’20s and met up with the fiery socialite tomboy, Pancho Barnes. She was keen to secure her pilot’s license during an era when women were not generally welcomed into the field.

“Orville Wright signed all licenses back then and he was notoriously against females flying,” D’Elia said. “So she dressed up as a man with dirt under her fingernails and had Hurrell photograph her in her pilot’s gear for the license application. She used her real name, Florence Lowe Barnes- a gender-indeterminate name then-and got her license.”

A long time friendship was established between Hurrell and Barnes.

Shortly thereafter, Barnes introduced Hurrell to movie star Ramon Navarro, who asked the artist to do some shots outside of studio purview. Navarro showed them to his then co-star Norma Shearer who was impressed.

“Shearer was on the outs with her husband, Universal Studios chief Irving Thalberg, because she wanted to move beyond her wholesome image as a star and he didn’t believe she could do it,” D’Elia said. “Hurrell’s photographs of her convinced Thalberg that she could, indeed, do sexy and he cast her in ‘The Divorcee,’ the movie that won her the second-ever Academy Award.”

Word quickly spread about Hurrell and he was invited to MGM to talk about a studio contract as head of the photography department.

“Pancho flew him from Laguna Beach up to Los Angeles for the meeting,” D’Elia said. “When he was given the contract, he was so elated that he went ‘wing-walking’ on her plane on the way back home.”

Hurrell’s ability to infuse the stars with almost unworldly allure cemented his value with the studios, starting with silent screen star Dorothy Jordan and including Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth.

“Hurrell also shot for Playboy magazine and we are showing a room of his early nudes, some of which have never been exhibited before,” D’Elia said. “His muse was a beautiful Laguna Beach girl named Gigi Parrish, who posed for many other painters and photographers. The studios sort of used these studies to discover new talent.”

Hurrell’s career continued into the ’80s and he photographed stars like Raquel Welch and John Travolta. He even shot a certain buffed-and-tan future California governor.

When Playboy wanted Joan Collins, at age 50, to pose for a pictorial, she insisted that the only photographer she would consider was Hurrell. As D’Elia said, “Hurrell developed the idiom of glamour in photography.”

Tobi Smith, the executive director of the California Heritage Museum, said the show is one of the most comprehensive exhibits of a Hurrell collection.

“We have one whole wall just for Joan Crawford,” Smith said. “We’ve also recreated a studio setting with one of his boom lights and his camera from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We even have one of his bear skin rugs.”

The exhibit also includes album covers Hurrell did for recording artists like Natalie Cole and the rock group “Queen,” some of his early (first-time exhibited) paintings and a film/lecture series in collaboration with Santa Monica Public Library.

“We’ll also be showing a documentary that was narrated by Sharon Stone-one of his favorite later stars to photograph,” Smith said.

The California Heritage Museum itself is housed in a Victorian residence originally built in 1894 by prominent architect Sumner P. Hunt for the son of Santa Monica’s founder, Roy Jones, and was then located on Ocean Avenue overlooking the park and the Pacific Ocean.

“We’re a historic landmark,” Smith said. “Right here in the middle of Santa Monica.”

The Photography of George Hurrell exhibit dates are Jan. 9 – June 29. The California Heritage Museum is located at 2612 Main Street, in Santa Monica. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11a.m. – 4p.m. General admission is $5, students and seniors are $3 and children 12 and under are free. More information can be obtained by calling at 310.392 8537.