It's the photo of Robert and Ethel Kennedy that got to us. We always knew Cecil Beaton was a genius --- actor, costume designer, diarist, lover of Greta Garbo, social historian and all-around 20th century Gadabout. There wasn't a place worth going to that he hadn't been, and there wasn't a person worth knowing that he hadn't met. And, as evidenced by the comprehensive Beaton Portraits, damn few celebrities he hadn't photographed.
But here was Bobby and Ethel in a way that we had never seen them before, stripped of the Hyannisport-baked tans, free of the clinging kiddies. Beaton captures just Bobby and his wife; she's standing behind him, so positioned that her head seems to be floating on his left shoulder. Bobby is smiling awkwardly, Ethel is a toothy beam. It is, in one word, stunning.
Proof, indeed, that among Beaton's many talents, the strongest was his power of observation. He used a camera most of his life, to photograph everything from the day-to-day mundane to world shaking events and personalities. During the war, Beaton's photos of the uncelebrated British populace going to and fro in their workaday world, trying to ignore the horror and pain of the rubble caused by German bombs surrounding them, take your breath away, even today. And his candid, painstaking diaries, recording the earthshaking and ephemera of his life day-to-day, even hour-to-hour, are splendidly entertaining and a feast for history and entertainment buffs. But, as this current book shows, Beaton's true genius lay in his ability to capture the look, heart and soul of all those celebrities he photographed.
From Queens to Rock Stars, from old masters to young mistresses, from the 20s through the 70s, media [prostitues] and geniuses reside side-by-side in these pages. And, if God is in the detail, these seemingly simplistic photos are rich with telling trivialities. The clown's collar framing Audrey Hepburn, the vibrant plants surrounding Sylvia Sidney's face, Orson Welles' hand draped carelessly over a skull, the pearl earrings and necklace accenting Leontyne Price ... each photo hauntingly evokes the time and personality of each celebrity. The British Royal Family, as well as the outcast Wallis Simpson, are lovingly recreated here, as well as Churchill, Noel and Gertie, Warhol and Jagger, and everyone in-between.
Beaton was a true historian --- his evocation of the 20th century is an astounding trip through six decades of the famous, talented, twisted and distinguished. But Beaton Portraits is much more than a slick coffee table book. Each of the more than 150 plates summon our previous century as quickly and immediately as a flash of half-forgotten memory. Beaton happily records more than 50 years of glamour, style and the effortless world where charm and taste were the only requirements.