When the Susi Q Senior Center was in the planning stage, the Laguna Beach Seniors board made a fateful decision: we would forego permanent art on the walls in favor of rotating exhibitions celebrating the work of community artists. (With six to seven shows a year, Gallery Q is exceeding our wildest expectations.) The sole exception is a small black-and-white photograph by the entrance. It’s of Susi Q—aka Elizabeth Quilter, aka Mom—and it was taken in 1984 by George Hurrell.
If you didn’t know that he invented Hollywood glamour photography in the golden era of the silver screen, don’t worry: Mom didn’t either, as she confessed in a “Diary of Susi Q” column around the time Hurrell was the focus of a 1995 Laguna Art Museum exhibit. She was a quick study, however, and Hurrell was good company—full of tales of Hollywood that made her laugh and later made for great copy. (Her column is reprinted here SusiQHurrellColumn1995 if you are already there.)
Hurrell had long been out of fashion in Hollywood, but his work was being showcased in museums around the world, starting with a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965. Still, I don’t think Mom fully appreciated his gifts until he took her picture.
Mom never considered herself a looker, and dealt with it either by hamming it up for the camera or freezing into earnest poses suitable for
Christmas cards. Hurrell eased her past all that and took the most flattering yet truthful pictures of her I’ve ever seen. She used the head shot for her column—although as the years went by, she’d occasionally pretend to want to change it in the interests of journalistic accuracy, which was our cue to shout her down. (Trust me: if I had a Hurrell picture taken years ago, you wouldn’t be looking at some grinning, pink-faced fool.)
What I hope to learn more about at “George Hurrell: From Laguna to Hollywood,” which runs at the Laguna Art Museum from Feb. 24 to April 28, is Hurrell’s swift transformation from his arrival in Laguna in 1925, just in time for his 21st birthday, to “the” photographer of the stars before he was 30. I know he shot the plein air painters whose names now grace many of our finest streets, aviatrix Pancho Barnes, the silent film heartthrob Ramon Novarro, and adventurer/author Richard Halliburton before signing on at MGM. But the backstory needs fleshing out.
Two lectures should do the trick. “George Hurrell in Laguna Beach: The Launching of a Career” will be presented on Thursday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. by Janet Blake, who curated LAM’s eye-opening Clarence Hinkle retrospective last year. Then on March 17 at 1p.m., photographer and Hurrell biographer Mark Vieira will present “From Laguna to Hollywood with George Hurrell: An Odyssey in Images and Anecdotes.”
With or without a bio, Hurrell’s work will speak for itself, which is the neat thing about art: the really good stuff jumps off the wall at us. I fondly recall the aesthetic slap I got as a very green 19-year old, when I turned a corner at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and saw Rembrandt’s “The Night Watchman” in the distance. More recently and more gently, I entered the Laguna museum’s main gallery where Isamu Noguchi’s light sculptures were hanging in the darkness. Thankfully, if you also feel that your understanding of art has been relatively unsullied by experience or education, all we need to do to get a similar charge from Hurrell is show up.
Laguna local Chris Quilter is reluctant to reveal the photographic evidence that proves he is one of the four sons of Susi Q.