Photographer Matthew Rolston documents California’s beloved Pageant of the Masters for The Wall Street Journal

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As an 8-year-old, photographer and director-to-be Matthew Rolston was taken by his family to see the Pageant of the Masters, a somewhat offbeat and much-cherished theatrical event in Laguna Beach, California, in which set designers, makeup artists, and amateur actors give their all to faithfully re-create famous paintings in the flesh. The tableaux vivants—or “living pictures,” as they are referred to by the pageant—with their vivid makeup and costumes, elaborate sets, and suspension of disbelief, made a powerful impression on Rolston.

“It had a tremendous effect on me,” he says of the event, which has been held in Laguna Beach since the Great Depression. “The lighting, the costumes, the magic of it. It was a formative childhood experience. I’ve gone back over the years many times. In fact, I’m a little bit obsessed with the pageant.”


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Performance of Winslow Homer’s “The Country School” at the Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach, California, June 25, 2015. Photo by Matthew Rolston.


Enter Christina Binkley, fashion and culture columnist for The Wall Street Journal, who last year covered Rolston’s fine-art project “Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits.” She and Rolston have stayed in touch since that article, and recently he mentioned the pageant to her. She was immediately intrigued and decided to write about this year’s pageant, which is being performed nightly through August 31 at the 2,600-seat Irvine Bowl amphitheater. (Details here.)

Binkley asked Rolston if he’d like to photograph the pageant for her story. Naturally, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to go behind the scenes of an event that has held his fascination for so many years. “To be able to go backstage, where they do the makeup and build the sets and sew the costumes—I was like a kid in a candy store,” Rolston says. “Pure joy.”


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Pageant poser Katie White being made up for her role of schoolmarm in Winslow Homer’s “The Country School,” backstage at the Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach, California, June 25, 2015. Photograph by Matthew Rolston.

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Pageant posers Elizabeth Keyser (left) and Michelle Blunk waiting to go on stage for their performance of Winslow Homer’s “The Country School” at the Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach, California, June 25, 2015. Photo by Matthew Rolston.


Rolston also collaborated with Binkley on a short documentary video about the making of the Pageant of the Masters, featuring Diane Challis Davy, the pageant’s director; Dan Duling, the scriptwriter; Allyson Doherty, the makeup director; and Richard Hill, the pageant’s technical director.

“The video is probably my favorite part of the project,” says Rolston. “It underscores the fact that the pageant is an artisanal operation and a labor of love for those who create it. Everything is made by hand and made on-site, and many of these gifted people have been working on the pageant for years.”


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The Pageant of the Masters is a summertime tradition for Southern Californians and, together with the concurrent Festival of Arts, draws an estimated 250,000 visitors to Laguna Beach each season. This year, Matthew Rolston was once again one of the admiring visitors, just as he was when he was 8 years old and attending for the very first time.

“Journalistic photography isn’t really my thing,” Rolston notes. “But with this project, I was able to relive a formative experience. It felt great.”

Read “Paintings Come to Life,” by Christina Binkley, at

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