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Angus McBean’s Beauties

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In the 30s and 40s, Angus McBean was arguably the best portrait photographer of his era. His photographs revealed a reverence and admiration for the subject and were the homages to Shakespearean and later the Hollywood ideals of glamour and beauty.

His portraits are elaborately staged, requiring full sets, to put Peggy Ahscroft, as Portia, into a surreal landscape, Vivien Leigh, in cod-Classical goddess garb, through cotton-wool clouds, Flora Robson bursting through the dry earth, or above, Diana Churchill’s head, seemingly misplaced by the leg of a kitchen chair. He asked Vivien Leigh to have a tooth removed to reduce a tiny muscle that made her top lip minutely asymmetrical. She complied.

Deemed ‘surreal’ by the popular press, he was denounced by the British Journal of Photography as a ‘charlatan’. McBean retorted with the portrait of Dorothy Dickson, whose head appeared among the lily pads by an overgrown bank. In February 1940, Picture Post covered his shoot with Diana Churchill, titled “How to Photograph a Beauty.” The picture of her disembodied head caused so much dismay that many called for psychiatric investigation of his photographer. That McBean was a homosexual was discovered and he was sentenced to prison for four years for buggery.

It being the wartime, the Nazi Germany used this as a propaganda against the British ‘freedom of press’, creating deliberate confusion to imply that he was imprisoned for lampooning the Prime Minister’s daughter (the actress bore no relations to Winston Churchill, although the latter’s daughter was also named Diana).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 24, 2009 at 8:09 am

Posted in Culture

Tagged with ,

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