Cecil Beaton, war photographer?
Who knew? I knew he was a portrait photographer who worked for Condé Nast and Vogue shooting massively elaborate images which took hours to set up. I sort of knew he was involved in the theatre and had written some books. I knew he was a favourite of the Royal Family and took the famous coronation photo in 1953. But a war photographer?
The current Imperial War Museum exhibition shows the best of his work for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. It is the work that Beaton regarded as his best and after 2 hours walking round the exhibit, I can see why. He moved from being a set-piece fashion photographer to being one of the greatest ever observational portrait photographers of all time. He didn’t take frontline photographs like Robert Capa or Don McCullin, but the photos he did take are remarkable, a sort of fine-art war documentary.
Whilst he hated propaganda, he loved documentary.
He started his war effort taking images of leaders like Churchill and Aneurin Bevan.
Then he moved to documenting the Blitz.
The photo of the child, published on the cover of Life, started to change opinion in the US. He then moved to look at the Home Front, visiting the Tyneside ship yards of Swan, Hunter and Wigham-Richardsons and various factories and RAF bases.
Next he shipped out to Cairo and had adventures across North Africa and the Middle East.
Before ending the war in China and India.
So yes, he was best known for taking photos of Greta Garbo, Noël Coward and Marilyn Monroe, for winning two costume design Oscars and for being a socialite. But his best work is his war time collection.
“Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War” is at the Imperial War Museum until 1st Jan 2013