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GETTING ANOTHER IMPRESSION : It Seems Painters Weren't the Only Artists to Capture and Captivate Laguna

February 11, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

A little-known fact: The so-called California Impressionist painters were not the only artists who helped turn Laguna Beach into an art colony. Several photographers also contributed to the scene--and inspired a loosely linked group of artistic "descendants" who continue to produce work of note.

"Visions and Ecologies: Photography in Laguna Beach, 1918-1993" is the first of five Laguna Art Museum exhibitions this year that deal with the history of art and artists in Laguna Beach and environs.

The current show (through March 21) introduces viewers to photographers as distinctive as William Mortensen (the inimitable photo-satirist and kitsch-lover of the '30s) and Lewis Baltz, who developed a deadpan, deliberately neutral style in the early '70s to fit the industrial bleakness of the newly developed landscape, and has since photographed similar no-man's lands in many parts of the world.

Born in 1897, Mortensen studied at the Art Students League in New York and came out to the Coast in 1921 in hopes of working for the youthful movie industry. Was it just luck that he was hired as a set photographer for Cecil B. DeMille's "King of Kings"? As associate curator Susan Anderson notes in her entertaining and extensive wall texts, DeMille's extravagant style "had a decisive influence on Mortensen's developing aesthetic."

In his early 30s, Mortensen resettled in Laguna Beach, where he opened a photography school that attracted 3,000 students during the next three decades. Despite the growing hold of the new, sharp-focus "purist" photography exemplified by Edward Weston, Mortensen retained his belief in the freedom of the artist to stage little costume dramas and use any chemical or optical means available.

One self-portrait featuring his fatuously ironic expression shows him costumed as Italian Renaissance statesman Niccolo Machiavelli--famous for his credo that "The ends justify the means," which pretty well sums up Mortensen's approach to photography.

Mortensen's campy naughtiness produced such frothy scenes as "Preparation for the Sabbot," in which a young semi-nude woman poses as a playful nymph bestriding a palm frond, while an older woman with an array of kettles and pots incongruously sets about cleaning the younger lady's back.

In a different vein, Mortensen's early-'30s view of "Human Relations"--an anonymous hand poking two fingers into the photographer's eyes--offered a blunt response to a world he viewed as out of control. Surprisingly, landscape was not too tame for Mortensen's consideration, as evidenced in a romantic 1941 view of sycamore trees in Laguna Canyon.

Reversing Mortensen's professional journey, George Hurrell began photographing in Laguna Beach in the late '20s and then moved to Hollywood, where he became famous for his glamour shots. But he originally took up portrait photography as a way of bringing in cash while he tried his hand at painting.

In his soft-focus prints, some Laguna Beach artists of the '20s appear earnest and ill-at-ease (unsmiling, bespectacled Anna Hills clutching her brushes, tense-looking Edgar A. Payne) while others twinkle with the assurance of fine sporting fellows (Frank Cuprien in his silver Vandyke beard, Thomas Hunt relaxing in his shirt sleeves).

Maybe Payne was feeling guilty for having lured Hurrell to California (the two met when Payne was on his way back from a painting trip to Europe). He shouldn't have worried: Hurrell's candid portraits appealed to movie stars who motored down to fancy parties in Laguna Beach, and in just a few years he moved his studio north to cater to a larger-than-life clientele.

But, hey, Laguna Beach had its own kind of show biz--the Pageant of the Masters, for which Mortensen and, years later, Paul Outerbridge served as "official" photographers. (Aptly, this exhibition series is sponsored by the Festival of the Arts Foundation.)

Outerbridge came to town in 1943, when he was 48, after a New York-based career in commercial photography. His tiny, smartly modernist still lifes from the '20s were influenced by his awareness of European avant-garde art. In "H.O. Box," a cream of wheat box is lit so as to cast stylized geometric shadows (one looks like an International Style building).

One of the photo journal articles Outerbridge wrote during the last decades of his life in Laguna Beach was on William Current, a young man from Pasadena who came to town in 1949 after being severely wounded in World War II. Current taught himself photography and opened a camera shop at Broadway and Coast Highway, where he presided as raconteur-in-residence.

While Current inevitably photographed natural scenes (see his two graceful studies of a "California Sycamore"), architecture was his big passion. His crisp, no-frills images of archetypal California buildings, from Mission to Craftsman styles, inspired Lewis Baltz's early images of tract homes and industrial buildings in Southern California.

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