As photography ages it may take a greater role within museums, opening up exciting exhibition possibilities. The Imperial War Museum’s Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War is an example of what we might expect in the future.
For a museum dedicated to all things conflict, there is a surprising emphasis on Beaton as man and his creative development. Perhaps most surprising is that Cecil Beaton actually ‘went to war’ not the images that he took. Those wanting the untold story of an adrenalin fuelled bullet dodger will be disappointed.
The exhibition is extensive, with just as much space dedicated to Beaton’s life before and after the Second World War as his time spent in the various conflict zones. His illustration, set, and costume work in theatre and film is also documented, including an incredible two Oscars trophies for GiGi and My Fair Lady.
The prints are exquisite, with the deep blacks you expect of photography of this vintage. Someone also had the great idea to print several images absolutely huge; including Mary-le-Bow Church Debris from Bomb Damage, 1942
It is rare to see square, black-and-white images blown up in this way and it works, showing off Beaton’s skill for light and composition. Some less significant images are also printed large and mounted on a lightbox, again looking outstanding. Perhaps if the gallery space and budget had been bigger more relevant images would have benefited from this treatment. The only distraction is the occasional angled wall, distorting some images. If the walls were added for the exhibition, it was a mistake.
Beaton viewed his war work as his most important and it is perhaps in this period that he honed his skill. The imagery flows chronologically from the Blitz through North Africa, India and onto China, forming a master class in the photographic discipline. These are impeccably framed shots, perfect in pose, pattern and silhouette. I feel the impact of the work can be seen not just on his later work but on 60s fashion and portraiture, especially in images such as Wren, Portsmouth 1941
Strangely in one room, there is an interactive screen that charts the career of Don McCullin, including interviews with McCullin himself. This is a perplexing addition, perhaps leftover from a previous exhibition. It definitely led one group of school children to believe the man on the screen was Beaton.
However, it did provide an interesting comparison of two famous photographers. On one hand there is the upper-class Beaton, a theatrical socialite who found acclaim photographing ‘the great and the good’ and created beautifully formal war imagery. In stark contrast there is Don McCullin, the poor East End kid who got his break with gritty pictures of local gangs and took an equally gritty approach to his war photographs.
A reductive summary of both careers, perhaps, but a contrast which suggests why Beaton’s work stands out from other conflict photography especially that of the Second World War. Many of the most famous images of Second World War were captured by Life photographers, including the likes of Rovert Capa and Eugene Smith. There is a significant difference in kit, employer and attitude between these photographers and Beaton.
Part of the aesthetic difference is due to cameras. Beaton mostly used a waist level Rollieflex medium format, with 12 exposures to roll and lengthy reload, a camera suited for more considered and static image taking. The Life photographers—as McCullin later would—mainly used eye level 35mm cameras with far more exposures to a roll. These were perfect for heart-of-the-action decisive moments.
Life was all about embedding, getting the story from the front; Beaton was employed by the Ministry of Information, a government body working for the greater war effort. The images they desired from Beaton were not of exhausted solders, screaming civilians and dead bodies. For all intents and purposes Beaton’s images are propaganda, images to inspire a nation at war. Even if given free will Beaton probably would not photographed the horror: his was a career concerned with beauty, even if it was found in a bomb-damaged London.
With an exhibition of war photography you expect to be shocked; you expect to see explosions, bodies and shell-shocked soldiers. It is refreshing not to. The key is in the title, ‘theatre of war’. The subjects are actors performing for Beaton’s lens, it just happens that the stage was one of the bloodiest conflicts known to man.
Beaton himself summed it up when in 1974 he looking back on his war images:
I had not realised that I had taken so many documentary pictures, some of purely technical interest. Looking at them today, I spotted ideas that are now ‘accepted’, but which, thirty years ago, were before their time. The sheer amount of work I had done confounded me.
For me, the exhibition was not one of war, but of portraits. Above all it is a portrait of an extremely talented man, certainly one of the greatest photographers the UK has ever known.
Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War at the Imperial War Museum runs until the 13th of January 2013, for more information: