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Mary Hurlbut: Finding an outdoor joy in pictures

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Scott Brashier

As a photographer, Mary Hurlbut strives to capture more than just the face of her subjects.  “My strength is interacting with people. When you’re creating a portrait you need to make your subject feel comfortable, otherwise you’re not capturing their spirit.” 

Capturing someone’s spirit is no easy task, either visually or with words.  However, in describing a recent summer afternoon she spent at the beach, Mary provided a very clear picture of who she is and why she is so good at what she does.

A self-declared “ocean fanatic”

“I’m a third generation Lagunan.  Spence, my husband, is local, too.  One of the things that we share is we are both ocean fanatics – anything that has to do with the water: sailing, surfing, snorkeling.  One of our favorite things is just diving in the waves. The water has been so amazing! So Spence and I went down to Woods Cove and we’re just playing in the waves.  Every time it makes me feel like I’m 20 years old all over again.  And then my daughter and her husband just happen to show up, too, because they love to do that.  So there we were, all four of us, diving and playing in the waves.  It was wonderful.”  

Envisioning her and her husband of almost 33 years frolicking in the waves, to me, captured something that is extremely evident when meeting Hurlbut: her exuberance.  Whether talking about her craft, her family, her town or the many organizations she is involved with, there is an enthusiasm and joyousness that’s usually reserved for the new. But Hurlbut is not a newcomer, either to marriage or her art.  She is just someone who has a deep appreciation for what she has and who makes the most out of a day of sun, surf and warm water.

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Mary Hurlbut with her ever-present camera and smile

Hurlbut’s husband, Spence, was a brass sculptor who participated at the Sawdust Festival for 38 years, retiring when the physicality of brass sculpting became too much.  She credits him with helping her make a living as a working artist.  

“Spence taught me to think about things like what materials cost, how long it takes to complete something…things like that that are invaluable to an artist, but things not all artists think about.”

The Sawdust Festival and 27 years of dual booths

Although both went to Laguna Beach High School, Spence is four yeas older so their paths didn’t cross until after Mary returned to Laguna from college with her Bachelor of Fine Arts.  Two weeks after meeting Spence at a Halloween costume party, she got accepted to the Sawdust Festival as a stained glass artist.  The good news was that both of them were exhibitors.  The bad news was they had to build their own booths – a very labor-intensive project that they did together for 27 years, until Spence’s retirement. “Now we only have to build one booth,” Hurlbut says laughing.

New technology leads to a new medium

Hurlbut’s interest in stained glass began to wane when, for her “jubilee year”, as she calls it, she got a digital camera.  No more film.  No more dark room. And very soon after, no more stained glass.  “I did stained glass until 2008, but I always had a camera in my hand.  When I got my first DSLR camera I got really excited about it, and it changed my life. I found myself just going through the motions with the stained glass so I switched over to photography.”

This was around 2008.  Fortunately, Spence had been paying close attention to the economy.  Sensing things were going to get worse before they got better, he felt they could no longer support two separate studios, but they did erect a “mini-booth” at the Sawdust Festival, a set up that Mary has used for the last six years.  

“Two years ago was the first time I sold nothing.  The booth just became a storefront.  It’s great because people come by and say, ‘I take terrible pictures.’ I love showing them the difference between taking a picture and creating a portrait.  Once I show them what I can do for them they’re dumbfounded.”

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Mary Hurlbut in her home-office

Finding her style and the hazards of the camera phone

Her years of portraiture and wedding photography have helped her find her style.  “Photographers are artists, and we all have our own style.  You have to specialize.  I know my clients.  I know my style – natural, outdoorsy.  Not every photographer can work with everyone. I know my strengths.”  And, although Hurlbut loves what she does, she admits that photography is a very challenging market.  

“In hindsight I picked the wrong thing to go into from a business standpoint.  Everyone has a camera.”  And everyone thinks they’re a photographer.  She finds her work as a wedding photographer especially challenging in these days of the ubiquitous camera phone.  “You’ve got people stepping in front of you with their phones during ‘the kiss shot’ and things like that.  Weddings are exhausting!” she says emphatically.

Social media helps refine her craft

Ever the enterprising artist, Hurlbut has worked extensively in social media, which she credits with helping her refine her craft.  “I went to the Marketing Director of the Sawdust Festival and said, ‘We need a Facebook page.’  Because I’ve been there for so long – I know all the artists – I wanted to show the behind-the-scenes stuff.  It is a target rich environment.  So I honed my craft by producing product photos, portraits, everything like that.  Now it’s a sideline job that I’m really good at.”  She no longer handles the Facebook page for the Festival, but if you need a headshot for your page just let her know!

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Mary Hurlbut in work-mode

A post-workout chat with Stu provides a new opportunity

Another avenue for work is, of course, StuNews where she is called upon weekly to photograph the subjects of the Laguna Life and People section.  “I met Stu because my gym is right next door to Laguna Coffee, where he used to hold a lot of his weekly gatherings.  I had some questions about things that were going on in Laguna so I showed up one day all sweaty and we talked. After that I’d take a pretty picture and send it to him and that turned into a relationship.  I’m so grateful for the opportunity.  Plus I get to meet all these wonderful people.”

Hurlbut is currently gearing up for the Winter Festival at the Sawdust. “I just bought a new lens that I’m excited to use.  I will be photographing for Santa.  I did it last year.  You know, our Santa is the real Santa,” she says with authority.  The Winter Festival opens November 22 and runs for the next five weekends.

Living as an artist: a dream fulfilled

“What’s so wonderful is that my dream was to be an artist.  The Sawdust gave me that opportunity.  It allowed me to be an artist and stay at home and raise my daughter,” explains Hurlbut.  “When you’re self-employed you have to be very disciplined.”  

And it helps to be extremely busy.  Between the Sawdust Festival, the Winter Festival, weddings, portraits, teaching photo classes at the Sawdust, teaching different mediums at LOCA and managing social media sites for different organizations, Hurlbut’s plate is extremely full.  But when we finished our interview I left her contentedly roaming around The Ranch, camera in hand.  

She had appointments and other things lined up that day, but it was a lovely morning and she was going to spend some time enjoying it.