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Love, Cecil Delivers a Brilliant Tribute to an Icon

Baba Beaton, Wanda Ballie-Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poulett photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1930, © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary Love, Cecil delves into the vulnerable side of Cecil Beaton, capturing fleeting moments of his lauded career through snapshots and interviews from the likes of Manolo Blahnik to Mick Jagger.

Love, Cecil’s well-constructed production was apt for a photographer of Beaton’s caliber. The film follows Beaton’s career throughout five decades and explores his multiple vocations. He was first and foremost a photographer, and adapted elements of his theater background into evocative portraiture. Beaton’s portraits often included distinguished society families, where he frequently inserted himself into the shots. He thus established himself in a world he did not feel as though he belonged to. We follow his struggle with insecurity and social-climbing through Vreeland’s framing of a young Beaton. He describes his photography as “a means to an end” and felt the “torment of a static ambition.”

Photography gave way for Beaton to express individuality and self-expression, and perhaps to mask these insecurities. His early portraiture involves a great deal of self-portraits that often lended themselves to androgyny. Beaton favored the female figures in his life and in high society, that manifested into powerful images of women. Sometimes these would involve a portrayal of androgyny he found himself drawn to. While his self-portraiture would lean towards performative art, he even ventured to ask “am I vain?” Writer Truman Capote offered in an interview that Beaton’s vanity was “unique, and a part of his charm.” Beaton indulged in the whimsy of creating a world, where he’d take distinguished members of society and make them almost unrecognizable.

Self-portrait of Cecil Beaton in 1925

His foray into fashion photography brought elements from the Beaton universe of imagination and fantasty that transformed the pages of British, French, and American Vogue. The surrealist and baroque style of Beaton’s Vogue portfolio were accompanied by his numerous written pieces for the publications. Manolo Blahnik ventured to say that nobody “has captured the 20th century like he has.” In clips of the late Beaton, he expresses an inability to pick a profession. Beaton asks, “What if one doesn’t want to specialize?” and seems fatalist in the romanticized way he viewed his career. He claims that never knowing what his true vocation has been his problem for a very long time, but that “truth begins with one’s self.”

Greta Garbo photographed by Cecil Beaton for Vogue 1968

Upon leaving Vogue after a controversy that temporarily cut ties with Condé Nast, Beaton was asked to photograph the Queen of England. He approached this task as if he were Renoir painting with oils, and was soon asked to photograph portraits of several members of the royal family as well. In flashbacks to Beaton’s earlier portraiture, it’s suggested that he had finally infiltrated the highest society in England through his portraits in a long journey of social-climbing. During this time, he began photographing the raids and bombings during World War II as he felt he wanted to be “useful” during his return to England. His war photography is described as a “set,” in which Beaton himself compared the war to a “stage drama.” It is no surprise that after this time, Beaton transitioned into film production design and began work on My Fair Lady. Beaton incorporated elementings of painting into design through a real understanding of color and space. His aura of style and individuality surpassed one chosen path of art, and followed his lifework.

Cecil Beaton and David Hockney photographed by Peter Schlesinger in 1970

No matter his specialization, Beaton refused to be a “slave to the ordinary.” He followed talent, which led to him photographing Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and many other prominent figures. Beaton created a universe as he wished the world would be. Vreeland honors his journey and evokes the nostalgic beauty mirrored in Beaton’s work in her documentary. Beauty, according to Beaton, is “only static for so long,” however, photographs remain alive in memory.

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