Around Town The iconic portraits of Cecil Beaton
wo extravagantly dressed women pose for a portrait in the opening photograph of the Cecil Beaton: Portraits exhibition at the Pera Museum. These women, we learn, are his sisters, and they would often sit for hours as Beaton dressed them and set the scene. In this photograph, the women and the scene shine with a certain kind of brilliance, and while it’s in black-and-white, it’s as if you could feel the color. It was one of his earliest portraits and a testament to his multi-faceted nature. From there, the portraits become increasingly familiar as Beaton’s network grew to include 20th century monarchs, actors, writers and intellectuals. Based on the exhibition alone and the sheer number of 20th century icons he photographed, you’d be inclined to think that Beaton was just a portrait photographer. The truth is that he was a war and fashion photographer, too, as well as a painter, interior designer and a praised set and costume designer who had the good fortune to win three Academy Awards for his work. Beaton got his start in photography thanks to a nanny who taught him how to develop film in the bath. With his newfound passion, he became friends with and photographed the socialites of his day. These portraits helped him to develop his style and he grew to be a much bandied about portrait photographer. He worked for Vogue and
Cecil Beaton was one of the most prolific portrait photographers of his day, and a collection of portraits of monarchs, actors, artists, writers and thinkers are on display at Pera. By Julius Motal Vanity Fair in the 1930s before returning to England after a small fiasco left him without a job. By the time the Second World War started, Beaton was hired by the Ministry of Education as a government photographer, which propelled him into
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taking pictures of the Middle East front. However, by the mid-to-late 1940s, he was taking portraits again. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Beaton’s portraiture is how he was able to go beyond the surface of his subjects'
very public face. These celebrities might have been photographed hundreds of times before, but Beaton was always able to get at something more. In a 1956 portrait of Marilyn Monroe, the actress lies on what looks like a Japanese tapestry. She’s holding a flower across her chest, and her hair billows out slightly. Her gaze is playful, soft, and intimate, a testament to her understanding of the spotlight and Beaton’s remarkable expertise. On the placard next to her portrait, we learn that Beaton was miffed that she was over an hour late to the shoot, but he forgave her immediately “for she has a completely disarming childlike freshness and ingenuity and her mischief is irresistible.” The portrait is both modest and immodest, perhaps a tribute to her status as one of the most desired women of her time. Each of Beaton’s portraits is a set piece. He had a complete mastery of design and aesthetics, so much so that each portrait looks like a still from a film. In a portrait of Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond series of novels, he is holding a lit cigarette in his hand and he’s looking off to the side of the frame. There’s Rembrandt lighting at play here. Fleming appears deep in contemplation, and it looks as though he could turn his head at any time to take another drag from his cigarette. Beaton mostly photographed in black-
and-white but the exhibition contains a few color portraits too like the one of Audrey Hepburn wearing a large floral hat whose elegance and painterly aesthetic recalls an era before photography. The placards that accompany each photograph provide some insight to the session, the subject and Beaton’s thoughts, in some cases. For instance, Beaton
photographed The Rolling Stones in Marrakesh in 1967 because the band fled there to get out of the limelight after they were arrested for drug possession. While the whole band was there, Mick Jagger was the only one that really held Beaton’s interest, which is what he wrote in his diaries. Among the things that survived Beaton’s death in 1980 was his collection of diaries in which he penned his thoughts on the people he photographed. Occasionally, his opinions were as outlandish as some of the personalities in his portraits. Beaton lamented Elizabeth Taylor’s rather sizable bosom, and he was taken aback by the dichotomous nature of
the Princess of Monaco’s face: one side beautiful, the other not so. On the other hand, he had deep affection for Greta Garbo, and thought Joan Crawford was one of the greats. These thoughts and their accompanying portraits form the basis for the book Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles. Despite the grandeur of his portraits, his words can be rather jarring, and as a result, they color your reception of the photograph, though it is a mix of praise and criticism. It’s best, both in the exhibition and the book, to take in the portrait first before reading the accompanying text because after all, it’s about the photographs.
Cecil Beaton: Portraits at Pera Museum until July 26
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