Photographer to a Gilded Age

Posted by Laura
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Bianca Jagger, 1978.

A year and a half prior to his death, Cecil Beaton gave an intimate and illuminating interview in 1978 to Dirk Wittenborn, a young American writer (later a novelist and screenwriter). The multi-talented Beaton (best described as a photographer/diarist/painter/interior designer/costume designer) was aware of the little time in front of him, yet did not look back at his decades-spanning career with nostalgia - more with a total understanding of the impermanence of everything and the constant evolution of society. Born in 1904, by the time of the interview he was 74 and had watched social mores and conventions dramatically shift and change, along with the advancing technology he used to create his work. As famous as his photos are, it is the man who took these images and his thoughts surrounding fashion photography that aids in their still transcendent beauty.

All quotes from Viva, September 1978.

(L) Cecil Beaton, Self-Portrait, 1937. (R) Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace Garden, 1939.


(L) The Wyndham Sisters, after John Singer Sargent, 1950. (R) 'Fashion is indestructible' — Digby Morton suit, in the ruined Middle Temple, 1941.


Wittenborn: What was the reaction to your fashion pictures of models in bombed-out buildings?
Beaton: I daresay I was very criticized. I got quite a few letters telling me it was in bad taste, making fashion of something so serious. I just liked the image.

W: Were your photographs ever censored?
B: Some fashion pictures I took in the thirties of women together were censored. There was a feeling of familiarity that fashion editors didn't approve of. When I first took pictures for American Vogue in Paris, they wouldn't print pictures of women with young men because they thought they were too sexual.


(L) Baba Beaton, 'A Symphony in Silver', 1925. (R) Baba Beaton with Wanda Baille-Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poullett,1930.


W: How did you learn to make people look so beautiful?
B: Trying to accomplish the feat with my sisters... and all I really had to use was light. I had terrific difficulty with them. I sometimes used the mirrors from a dozen dressers to get the light right on their necks or some other part of their bodies. I took a lot of very bad photographs, and I couldn't afford to throw many away, because they were ten shillings a dozen.


Twiggy, 1967.


W: Why is photography so popular now?
B: I can't think why it is now, and it wasn't twenty years ago, where there were very interesting photographers around to whom people never paid any attention. I suppose that people are twenty years behind the times.


Coco Chanel, 1937.


W: What does sex appeal have to do with fashion?
B: It has a lot to do with fashion... it's all linked up together. I've often said, though, that is isn't a reputable thing like charm, or taste, or style. It is something present. The trouble is, as soon as people become too intimate with it, they tire of it, and they look for something new.

W: Who is the sexiest person you've ever photographed?
B: I haven't necessarily ever tried to photograph just sex appeal. A lot of people have it and, in a strange way, don't know about it. One of the sexiest people I've ever photographed was...T.s. Eliot. He had very great sex appeal.

W: What was it about Eliot?
B: Eliot as shutting the door to everything, saying no, but opening it slightly. Also Aldous Huxley had great sex appeal.

W: Does being beautiful make life easier or more difficult?
B: At first, life is easier if you're beautiful; but middle age is harder once you've decided you're beautiful. It's hard to know when you're not beautiful, hard keeping an eye on something that's fleeting.


(L) T.S. Eliot, 1956. (R) Aldous Huxley, 1936.


W: Is there any similarity between the big stars of the thirties and forties and the popular film and rock stars of the sixties and seventies?
B: They all have a strange note of badness, or whatever you'd like to call it. The note is definitely recognizable in Garbo and Jagger. It's a wonderful thing... I think you have to have a strange not of badness if you are to have, to possess goodness.


Greta Garbo, 1937.


Mick Jagger, 1970.


B: [Marilyn Monroe] didn't know the ingredients that made her a myth, and that's strange in itself. She was very high, always playing with nature... with herself. And she had no idea of time, which was awful. I remember waiting for her, impatient that I would lose the light that was playing on the window. When she finally arrived, it was too late for anything. We didn't talk; I just told her to sit there. It was wonderful. She was in the end of the light; all you had to do was click. Two hundred pictures, all wonderful and different.


Marilyn Monroe, 1956.


B: [Marlene Dietrich] was wonderful in that she adored being photographed. I took a dozen different photographs of her in her apartment in Germany. She gave a terrific feeling of warmth, but was actually cold and calculating. She's been a cold person all her life. No heart. She was always putting on an act, and it wasn't a very sympathetic act, either. The whole time i was photographing her, I kept thinking, 'You're not fooling me.'

W: What does fashion mean to you?
B: It means being absolutely true to yourself... no matter what medium you're speaking of. Fashionable men and women don't just put on fashionable clothes, because they'd look like half-wits in them, and one who understands fashion never appears stupid. The truly fashionable are beyond fashion.


Marlene Dietrich.

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