Cecil Beaton: Photography's Knight Errant
by Jim Cornfield
The Condé Nast Publications, Ltd.
April 01, 2012 —
Red-haired 1950s cover girl, Suzy Parker, a model-turned actress-turned (briefly) photojournalist, once gave a amusing account of her introduction to Cecil Beaton, the man who first embodied the now familiar stereotype of the flamboyant, prima donna fashion photographer. More correctly, it’s Sir Cecil Beaton, though, at the time of his meeting with Parker, he was not yet anointed with the clutch of honors and titles that would eventually get tacked to his name (including Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneur, Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, winner of three Motion Picture Academy Awards and four Tony Awards).
At that first meeting, Parker was a teenager, on location in the English countryside to pose for a spread in Vogue alongside her older sister, the sultry angular-faced Dorian Leigh. To Parker, still a neophyte, the whole scene was charged with glamour and frenzy as a cluster of makeup artists, wardrobe and hair stylists and junior editors fluttered around the two girls, along with a small crowd of photo assistants taking meter readings and adjusting reflectors.
Then, it seemed to Parker, that all at once the group melted back, as if on cue, and a flashy limousine pulled to a stop nearby. The aristocratic Beaton, a black cape draped over his shoulders, swept out from the rear door, and strode to his place behind a tripod mounted 8 x 10 camera. He eyed the girls, murmured a couple of instructions, and squeezed the bulb of his shutter release. That was it. One exposure, and the celebrated artiste slipped back into his car and sped away. Thus, Cecil Beaton.
Parker’s recollections didn’t make it onto the pages of Beaton in Vogue, a newly-released title from Thames and Hudson, but many other anecdotes did. Most of these memories are woven into the richly textured cameos Beaton himself authored for the magazine. But his lasting contribution to Vogue was his prodigious body of stylized photography—mainly fashion illustration and portraiture—that decorated its spreads over 50 years of the last century. Part biography, part homage to Beaton’s multiple skills (including his celebrated movie and theatrical costume and set design), Beaton in Vogue is also among the most meticulously reproduced compilations of Beaton images to date, a tribute to the genius of the raffish, sometimes outrageous character who historically remains photography’s knight errant.
A Rake’s Progress
Beaton’s high-toned pedigree was quintessentially British: son of a wealthy family, descended from one of the conspirators in England’s historic Gunpowder Plot of 1605; educated at Heath Mount prep school (a classmate of author Evelyn Waugh), Harrow, and Cambridge, awash in upper crust school ties and family connections, and raised by a nanny who, to his good fortune, was a budding photo hobbyist.
The nanny eagerly imparted her new passion to young Cecil and he, in turn, began stubbornly bothering society editors with mostly amateurish snapshots of his blue-blooded friends and neighbors. He was a collegiate undergraduate before anyone started to detect a nugget of talent, one image in particular. It was a distinguished Cambridge don, costumed for the play Duchess of Malfi, and Beaton fondly recalled him as “slightly out of focus…standing in the subaqueous light outside the men’s lavatory of the [university] theater.” The picture was quirky enough to make it into an issue of Vogue, which was just then getting comfortable with its role as the publishing world’s leading arbiter of style and haute couture. Beaton had already developed a relationship with the editors, through both his untrained talent as a pen-and-ink caricaturist, and his cutting literary wit. (On photographing British fashions, he complained, “hats look like plumbing and shoes were surgical supporters.”).
On the cusp of an information technology that was becoming dominated by the printed photograph, Vogue publisher Condé Nast wanted to channel this young man’s rich imagination and his apparently unrestrained sense of upper class hauteur in another direction—one that would be more useful in the photo-hungry pages of his magazine. He prodded the exuberant newcomer to expand his technical skills and to abandon his folding Kodak 3A, for a serious Rollei twin lens reflex and large format view cameras. Soon after, Beaton began buying lighting equipment. “There was no retreat then,” he remembered, “so long as I possess a camera, there will be no rest. . . .”
If Beaton the photographer knew no rest, neither did his imagination. His fondness for lavishly ornate backgrounds and props in fashion imagery and portraiture was boundless—sumptuous fabric drapes and elaborate geometric cutouts, huge sheets of crumpled cellophane, filigrees of silhouetted wire (he photographed one model through upended bedsprings), experimental lighting tricks, often with little concern for the niceties of proper exposure or composition, but always arresting, even shocking. Beaton’s untrammeled creative spirit raised the bar for the boldly illustrated lifestyle magazines that would follow in Vogue’s wake. His elevated status in London and (eventually) New York and Hollywood’s social hierarchies gave him freedom of another kind—unlimited access to celebrities eager to sit for a Beaton portrait, no matter how unconventional.
Some of these border on high kitsch—actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Katherine Hepburn for instance, in moody, grotesque multiple exposures; others, later on, are frank and powerful: choreographer Martha Graham, the intense Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn (whom Beaton would later costume for her role in My Fair Lady), Pablo Picasso in the jumble of his studio, General Dwight Eisenhower in a bold, inches-away closeup. And then, of course, there were the royals. His natural affinity for Britain’s rowdy playboy prince, the Duke of Windsor, fast-tracked Beaton close to the scandal-ridden affair and marriage to Mrs. Wallace Simpson that cost the duke his crown. He socialized with and photographed them both, then went on to chronicle the rest of the Royal Family—George VI, Princess Elizabeth during wartime, and later as a new mother, and finally, in her coronation regalia as Queen of England.
If Beaton in Vogue makes any grand statement about this mercurial artist, it’s that he can’t be pigeonholed. The book artfully weaves his photographic imagery among the sketches and award-winning set and costume designs that cross-pollinated his entire canon of work. Critic Hilton Kramer called it all, “extravagant and overripe artifice,” and to many, Beaton is indeed a kind of campy museum piece. In fact, he was that and more—a hybrid of sorts, part pretentious wag part slightly mad genius. And no one would enjoy that description more than Beaton himself.
Veteran commercial photographer Jim Cornfield (www.jimcornfield.net ) is Rangefinder’s book critic and a contributing editor.
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