The Twentieth Century produced its fair share of Renaissance men and women, but few can match the scale and longevity of Cecil Beaton’s career. From the 1920s to the 1970s, he built quite the reputation as a renowned aesthete with the personality to match. Known primarily as a fashion and portrait photographer, Beaton was also an accomplished illustrator, writer, costume designer, and interior designer. Fueled by a desire to be anything but ordinary, he left behind thousands of iconic images throughout his near 70-year career.
Born in the suburbs of Northern London, Beaton grew up fairly middle-class, in a family that owned a timber trade business. From an early age, Cecil imagined a different life and he used his photography to create the world he desired. In 1926, he began his career as a freelance fashion and portrait photographer, and by 1930, he had secured a contract with Condé Nast to produce caricatures, illustrations, and photographs for Vogue and the company’s other fashion publications. Through his assignments for Condé Nast, Beaton quickly became famous on both sides of the pond.
Between 1930 and the start of World War II, Beaton photographed many of the women that built his early fame: Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and the Duchess of Windsor to name a few. While working with these women and other portrait subjects hailing from the upper crust of British and American society, Beaton built many friendships that would continue to help him ascend the social order. Some of these friendships ventured further – he had romantic trysts with actresses Greta Garbo and Coral Browne in addition to the several men he was intimate with throughout his life.
When World War II struck, Beaton put his career in fashion and celebrity on hold to work as a war photographer. His talent served him well during these years, and many historians credit his photographs as a nudge to the United States’ first involvement in the conflict. However, when the war ended, he focused his lens on the rich and famous once again.
Between the end of WWII and his death in 1980, he photographed some of the most recognizable faces in fashion, film, music and politics - Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Mick Jagger, Jackie Kennedy, and Diana Vreeland – transforming them into glamorous icons for the camera while laying all their faults to bear in his diaries. Many of the diary entries about his subjects were quite brutal, but the thousands of photographs he produced are quite the opposite. Beaton was an alchemist of glamour. He had a talent for masking flaws and capturing beauty rivaled by very few. Transforming a person into a visual icon requires some slight of hand, and in this art, Cecil Beaton was undoubtedly a magician.
Cecil Beaton 1904-1980
By Contributing Writer: Zack Huffman
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