Friday, March 16, 2018

Cecil Beaton

Cecil Beaton by Irving Penn, 1950

I OWNED A BOOK OF CECIL BEATON'S PHOTOGRAPHY BEFORE I OWNED A CAMERA. Beaton's work - or the collection of images in photography dealer James Danziger's 1980 collection, bought from a remainder table - was probably as important to me as a photographer as the family Bible with all the colour plates of old master biblical scenes - the only art book we had in the house for the whole of my childhood.

I discovered Beaton in college, when I was in thrall to Evelyn Waugh and the story of the Bright Young Things of London in the Twenties. It was that Brideshead Revisited TV miniseries moment at the beginning of the '80s, as significant culturally to the decade as the election of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA was politically, and his photos often illustrated magazine features explaining the era.

I found the book on sale at Edwards Books & Art (now long gone) on Queen Street West, and stared at his portraits of everyone from Stephen Tennant to General Carton de Wiart to Augustus John to Jean Shrimpton - many of whom I had never heard of until I bought the book. The first photographer whose name I recognized was probably Boris Spremo, the daredevil newspaper photogapher at the Toronto Star whose byline accompanied pictures taken hanging from ropes and construction cranes, but Beaton was the first photographer who I understood as an artist, creating work that had a style and a career-long trajectory.

Love, Cecil, a feature length documentary on Beaton's work and life is opening this week at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs theatre here in Toronto, and I spoke to the director, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, on the phone last week to share my thoughts about the man with someone who's spent at least as much time as I have thinking about him and his work.

Nancy Cunard by Cecil Beaton, 1927
Cassandra Wilson, Toronto, 1990

I have had Beaton's photos pasted to the inside of my head for over thirty years, so it's not surprising that they've found their way out many times in work I've shot, like this portrait of jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. I definitely recalled Beaton's very early portrait of Nancy Cunard as soon as Wilson brought her hand up to her face, with its thick beaded bracelet. Beaton's photo is dim and blurred, but it helped him make his early reputation as a society photographer, even at a time when there were plenty of other photographers who could be relied upon to hand in a technically superior portrait.

"He was no great master," Immordino Vreeland says over the phone. "He wasn't a photographer's photographer. He just did it."

"He's always been put down a bit because he wasn't in the darkroom, and he did so much more. Because he wasn't just a photographer - he was so much more than that."

Edith Sitwell by Cecil Beaton, 1927
Tilda Swinton, Toronto, 1992

I was an English student taking a minor in theatre when I discovered Beaton, which probably explains why I responded to strongly to the theatrical aspect of his work - the little stage sets he'd build or simply discovered, like the massive tapestry that he used for the background of his portrait of poet Edith Sitwell. I had the Sitwell photo in the front of my mind when I posed actress Tilda Swinton in front of one in the lobby of the Sutton Place hotel for a film festival shoot, another homage to his influence I was daring people to see.

"I love the portraits of the Bright Young Things," Immordino Vreeland says when we talk about his best work, "and the immediacy of him coming up with these fantastic backdrops out of nothing, but you see what I've chosen in the film. So much of it you'd recognize because it's so iconic, but the portraiture that I didn't pick that much was English society, because that doesn't interest me as much."

"It was incredible to me that you had this character, this personality who was vibrant and creative for decades, he found a way to fit into everything and every new trend that was going on. And he found a way to have a vernacular with all these different people, which isn't surprising because he made these things happen."

Serge Lifar by Cecil Beaton, 1938
Jane Bunnett, Parkdale, 1994

I've read Beaton biographies and diaries and it's hard to ignore how insecure he was, from the beginning of his career to the end of his life. He was hardly born poor, but he had little money or support despite his ambition, and the lush effects he achieved in his early work were often achieved on the cheap.

He often painted or built his theatrical portrait backdrops, and while I don't have a fraction of his talent as an artist, I was inspired by his resourcefulness for the session I did for the CD cover of my friend Jane Bunnett's The Water is Wide. The title gave me a pretty clear cue, and while I definitely drew on the look of an old Pacific Jazz or Contemporary album cover from the '50s, I can credit Beaton with the inspiration to create the backdrop with paint left over from the living room of my Parkdale loft.

T.S. Eliot by Cecil Beaton, 1956
Shyam Selvadurai, Parkdale, 1995

Right from the start, and before I had any inkling that I'd pursue a career in photography, I was impressed with the portfolio of people Beaton built up over his decades of work. Aside from his long access to the royal family, there are politicians and artists and writers (including his old nemesis, Waugh) and movie stars and the Rolling Stones, shot in styles that varied from studio glamour portraits to snapshots.

As befits a man who was as known at one point for his drawings as his photos, and who probably achieved his greatest fame as a film and theatre designer, Beaton had enormous creative resources to draw upon. Despite his avowed lack of technical expertise, he used multiple exposures many times in his career, as in his portrait of T.S. Eliot, which was definitely an inspiration when I was assigned to shoot Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai. While not an exact copy of Beaton's Eliot shot, it gave me the guts to try the only in-camera multiple exposure I ever attempted, if only to say that I'd followed Beaton's prompt and done it.

Nancy Beaton by Cecil Beaton, 1926
Norma Shearer by Cecil Beaton, 1930
Bjork, Toronto, 1997

The first photos that really struck me in Danziger's book were Beaton's dreamy tableaux from the '20s and '30s, featuring yards of draperies, scavenged props and crumpled cellophane - cheap materials meant to give the impression of fantasy and luxury. While similar effects were achieved by a more technically accomplished photographer like Angus McBean - a contemporary whom Beaton pointedly ignore in his many diaries - I couldn't help but be taken by the pantomime surrealism achieved in an early picture of his sister Nancy, or the much more modernist feel he gets from crumpled plastic sheeting in the Norma Shearer portrait.

I had Beaton in mind every time I pulled back the window curtains in a hotel room and draped them over a convenient floor lamp. I don't know how many times I resorted to this trick over the first decade of my career, but the best result was probably my portrait session with Bjork, probably because the singer was exactly the sort of quirky personality that Beaton would have responded to, if he'd ever gotten her in front of his camera.

Audrey Hepburn by Cecil Beaton, 1954
Liane Balaban, Toronto, 2004 

Years after I'd first opened the Danziger book, I began finding inspiration in the work Beaton did mid-career, shooting celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford and Garbo in his custom-designed suites at the Sherry-Netherland, St. Regis or Ambassador hotels in New York City. They were much more informal portraits than the high style glamour and society work he'd been doing a couple of decades earlier, and often did little to disguise the setting.

Working exclusively in hotel rooms during the 2000s, I drew on Beaton once again, using ad hoc or natural light in cramped, rushed conditions much as I imagined he might have. I didn't have the luxury of building up a rapport with subjects like Beaton did with Audrey Hepburn, star of My Fair Lady, the film that made his name as a set and costume designer. But when actress Liane Balaban entered the hotel room during the 2004 film festival looking very gamine - a word I probably learned from reading Beaton - I instinctively put her in a far corner of the room hoping to get something remotely like Beaton's 1954 portrait of Hepburn.

I've written before that I was disappointed with the portrayal of Beaton as a graying court toady in the Netflix miniseries The Crown, and Lisa Immordino Vreeland agreed with me.

"That character they chose - God, he was such an oldie! He looked so stodgy, didn't he?"

"At the same time," she reflects, "it's amazing that he was mentioned in four episodes. I was not happy with the portrayal. I loved the historical aspect of it, and then sometimes they'd show the real archival footage, like when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were with Hitler and Goebbels in Germany, it was fantastic. But I don't think we think of Beaton like that because, well, I think of him as one of the Bright Young Things. I think of him as the younger Beaton, and he was kind of frumpy when he was old. For some reason Snowdon is seen as more attractive."

I think Cecil Beaton is long overdue for rediscovery, and Lisa tells me that she's heard rumours of a biopic in the works. Rupert Everett, who reads Beaton's letters and diaries on the soundtrack of Love, Cecil, would have made a perfect young Beaton, but by the time the film actually gets made he might be more appropriate as the aging photographer, worried about his reputation and legacy and, even more sadly, haunted by loneliness and regret.

For her part, Immordino Vreeland says that she felt fortunate with her choice of a subject, who left such a massive visual legacy in addition to an in-depth written record of his life.

"We had all this material to be able to talk about his emotions, his insecurity, his sadness over love, his different friendships, his creativity. You're fortunate when you have material like this right from the start."

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