What’s Going On December 12th?
I’ve been wanting to write today’s post for a while now, as it’s about a man who had such a great influence on the fashion world, and by whom I am fascinated; both in terms of his personal life, and a body of work which is as magical as it is stylish. I am talking about the acclaimed English photographer, Cecil Beaton; and, as it’s Christmas, I thought I’d treat myself, and get reacquainted with the beautiful work of one of my favourite fashion photographers.
Beaton first began his life-long love affair with Vogue in 1927, at the young age of twenty-three, with little more than some smatterings of experience and a Kodak 3A Folding Camera which he’d been using since he was eleven. His connections within the aristocratic world probably helped; he had befriended the decadent Stephen Tennant (great-uncle of model, Stella Tennant) who had introduced him the youthful socialites of a group which were to become known as “The Bright Young Things.”
Beaton’s association with these people are another reason I find him so interesting. The Bright Young Things, dubbed thus by the tabloids of the day, were a group of decadent aristocrats who threw outrageous fancy dress parties, raced the streets of London in the night, drank heavily and experimented with drugs; all of which were followed with great enthusiasm by the press. People of the day could follow the antics of these young hedonists, and watch their wild lifestyle with relish; a bit like the Made in Chelsea of the 1920s.
It was his documenting of this world which really put Beaton on the road to fame, and his photographs are considered some of the best of the Bright Young Things. He was always something of an outsider trying to get in, slightly apart from everything he was a part of, distanced in a way which provided him with the viewpoint from which to pass appropriate social comment; something which I believe shaped his work and his (often cynical) world view throughout the rest of his life.
Having secured his position with Vogue, Beaton moved to New York in 1928 to begin the fashion photography which would define his career. In the States, he soon became an aristocratic socialite photographing other aristocratic socialites, moving amongst their glittering world and rubbing shoulders with some of the most glamorous people in the world. In 1932, he met Greta Garbo, who (despite Beaton’s very fluid sexuality) was to become one of the great loves and obsessions of his life, at a party in Hollywood; she handed him a rose with the words “a rose that lives and dies and never again returns.”
By 1935, he had created the first of his eight Vogue covers; this elegant pastel of a lady with butterflies and flowers adorning her perfectly coiffured hair. I love this picture; the colours feel so fresh and summery, and the blue shadows on her face and neck remind me a little of early Matisse portraits of women. He had, by now, firmly established his place in both the fashion world, and amongst the social elite.
Part of the reason I like Beaton, apart from for his superb creativity, is down to his sharp wit and insightful social commentaries. It’s a shame that he doesn’t seem to have been a hugely nice person; from what I have read about Beaton, he seems like the kind of man you’d love if he loved you, but who would completely tread all over your face if you put one toe out of line. In his private notes, he sketched with an acid pen those very socialites with which he was so intimate, earning him the nickname “Malice in Wonderland” (which I secretly find quite amusing, as I imagine that much of the time he was just being honest). Katharine Hepburn was “a raddled, rash-ridden, freckled, burnt, mottled, bleached, and wizened piece of decaying matter.” Even Greta Garbo, who he truly loved, appeared “almost simian” at dinner one night, with “untidy hair and large, smudged red mouth.” I would not be happy if a boyfriend described me like that, even if it were true!
His callousness was to get him in trouble in 1938, however, when newspaper columnist Walter Winchell spotted a hand-scrawled anti-Semitic slur in the margin of one of Beaton’s illustration’s for Vogue; he was quickly forced to resign, and over 100,000 copies of the magazine were pulled and reprinted. A horrified Conde Nast announced “My periodicals have been free of attacks on race and creed. I was particularly distressed that these slurring comments should have been printed in Vogue, especially during these days of cruel, vicious, and unreasoning persecution of Jews.” Beaton apologised profusely, calling it “a silly little joke;” but there was nothing funny about it at all, and his career was (quite rightly) damaged for some time.
He left New York in humiliation, and returned to Britain. Here, he was to take some of the most iconic portraits of Queen Elizabeth II ever, and to become one of Britain’s leading war photographers. His photograph of a three-year-old air raid victim, which appeared on the cover of Life magazine, is said to have been instrumental in persuading the USA to join the war.
Around this time, he also began designing costumes for the theatre; an interest which he would pursue for the rest of his life. He also took a series of photographs of the ever-elusive Garbo, all of which were published in Vogue in 1946; despite the fact that Garbo had only approved one photo for publication. The star was not happy, but she must have gotten over it fairly quickly, because the pair would began an affair a year later which would go on for years.
In 1953, he was made the official photographer of Elizabeth II’s coronation; I think that his versatility as an artist is incredible, as he is able to take such wonderful photographs of anyone from debauched youths to the Queen of England.
In 1956, he worked briefly for Harper’s Bazaar, taking some of the most beautiful and iconic photographs of actress, Marilyn Monroe. The photos feel very natural, showing a slightly more delicate side of a star who had largely been viewed as little more than a sex symbol. The extent to which the actress’ personality shines through is a mark of both Beaton’s talent and Monroe’s skill before the lens; to me, these photographs show a relaxed side of a girlishly playful, yet romantically sophisticated, young woman.
Beaton’s own writings suggest the spontaneity of the shoot; although how he felt about the whole thing is ambiguous. “She romps, she squeals with delight, she leaps on the sofa, he says. “She puts a flower stem in her mouth, puffing on a daisy as though it were a cigarette. It is an artless, impromptu, high-spirited, infectiously gay performance. It will probably end in tears.”
As a big Audrey Hepburn fan, I couldn’t neglect to mention Beaton’s association with her. In 1954, right at the beginning of Hepburn’s career, he wrote an article about her in Vogue, saying that she “gives every indication of being the most interesting public embodiment of our new feminine ideal.” Beaton was always good at spotting future icons, and he was not wrong about Hepburn.
In 1964, he created the lavish costumes and sets for George Cukor’s film, My Fair Lady, and photographed Hepburn in her starring role of Eliza Doolittle.
Even in the 1960s, Beaton was still going strong. He was hanging with all the cool kids of the day, from the Rolling Stones to Andy Warhol and The Factory; as always, however, he was not quite part of “the scene,” forever trying to capture on celluloid that complete social belonging which had eluded him for so long. He was fascinated by Mick Jagger’s face, and took numerous portraits of the rockstar.
Two years after his knighthood in 1972, Beaton suffered a severe stroke which seriously affected his ability to work, although he was able to train himself to paint and use a camera with one hand. Six years later, and four days after his seventy-sixth birthday, he had died of a heart attack in his home. To Greta Garbo, he left a 19th Century painting of a single rose.
It is a testament to Beaton’s flexibility as a photographer that he was constantly able to reinvent himself to fit the changing times in which he was working, forever spotting the newest icons and discovering fresh ways to depict them. He was by no means skilled in any technical sense; indeed, he often insisted on sticking with his old Kodak 3A, rather than using the expensive technology which Vogue tried to thrust upon him. Instead, it was upon his natural eye and creativity which he relied, carefully placing his models before elaborate backdrops, hauling in a whole host of props, and constantly searching for the best angle, the most striking interplay between light and dark, anything that would capture some essence of what he saw in his mind, and which would bring that vision alive on paper.
I think this is what I like best about Beaton; he proved that a beautiful photograph is the result of something much more than impeccable technical knowledge and an expensive camera. A beautiful photograph is the result of a great imagination, of a knack for seeing people in a way which makes them into something more than they are; of an unstoppable drive to create something which takes us somewhere else entirely, which shows us a tiny spark of magic.
Happy December 12th!