Books | Beaton Photographs

Photo: Stephen Terrant as Prince Charming, 1927.

“Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary,” the great British photographer Cecil Beaton said and his archive is a testament to depth of his commitment to this belief. With a career that spans six decades, from the 1920s through the ‘70s, Beaton was an arbiter of style and poise who captured the soul in a series of remarkable portraits that make him one of the best to wield the camera. Each photograph is the perfect moment in time, created as a collaboration between subject and artist. With a collection of sitters than includes everyone from Elizabeth II to Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote to Mick Jagger, Lucian Freud to Pablo Picasso, a sitting with Beaton was legendary, as the artist became as celebrated as those he photographed.

Also: Exhibit | Hiro at Pace/MacGill Gallery

Pablo Picasso

And what a shield to behold. Through Beaton’s lens we travel through the twentieth century, always comforted in the knowledge that beauty is always a sensible solution to any number of life’s troubling problems. There’s a sense of ease and repose that belies an underlying truth. Beaton’s photographs are perfect constructions of a dream world. There is an understanding that this reality exists as a metaphor for life itself: when in doubt two dimensions will do when three dimensions is not possible.

As Annie Leibovitz writes in the introduction to the book, “Beaton was not just a photographer, and he didn’t think of himself that way. He was a journalist, an artist, a set and costume designer, a memoirist, an historian, an actor. All of this went into his portraits. How can one not be impressed with what he accomplished? He had the wherewithal to stay in the game, as he said, for six decades. He knew what he was doing. He had a sense of the history he was creating and preserving. He was a force.”

Mick Jagger, Marrrakesh, Morocco, 1967

Indeed, and when given the opportunity, he unleashed his power with tremendous aplomb, never one to hold his tongue. Yet, his subjects adored him for whatever choice words he possessed did not appear in the final form of the photographs. In the word of Beaton himself, “Cocteau says I am Malice in Wonderland and I have succeeded in spending my life in an unreality made up of fun, so much too much fun and my interests are limited to the joys of certain superficial forms of beauty.”


All photos: © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.