The Guillotine: The snapshot fades

Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 3: Cecil Beaton
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The Independent Culture
One distinction to which Cecil Beaton could lay claim was to have redefined a whole profession. Until he sashayed on to the scene in the Twenties, photographers tended to be rather mysterious figures hiding behind their Kodaks: how many of us to this day know what Stieglitz looked like, or Steichen, or Lartigue? After Beaton, however, the features of such similarly modish practitioners as Bailey, Lichfield and Mapplethorpe would become as familiar to the public as those of their subjects. Beaton, or the photographer photographed.

Photographers have often been dismissed as people desperate to be artists but bereft of true aesthetic gifts, an unjust generalisation but one that certainly applied to Beaton. There he was, the archetypal Bright Young Thing, all of whose prestigious chums were writing novels, painting pictures or having their poems declaimed through megaphones - and what could he do to keep up with them? Why, of course, go in for photography - the equivalent, for a ne'er-do-well (or ne'er-create-well) in an artistic milieu, of being shipped out to a rubber plantation in Malaya.

Because of his fashionable clientele (mostly debs, celebs and Nancy Cunard) and whimsically arty techniques (his models would be swathed in silver cloth or have their heads enclosed in cylindrical glass domes), his portrait snapshots were greatly admired by the literati, glitterati and twitterati of the period. Now, juxtaposed with the dazzling austerity of genuinely great photographs, they look pallid, precious and limp. As for his non-society work - during the Second World War, for example - it has already been forgotten.

A born dilettante, Beaton dabbled and diversified. He wrote a play, published a series of amusingly snobbish diaries (in one of which this self-styled arbiter of taste confessed to a preference for Rex Whistler over Picasso) and finally turned to stage and film set design, most memorably in My Fair Lady and the gorgeous Gigi. Then, "revived" in the Sixties like a drawing-room comedy by Freddie Lonsdale, and affectionately nicknamed Rip Van With-It, he reinvented himself as Swinging London's eminence mauve.

Because, as they say, he knew everyone, his niche is secure in the indexes of other artists' biographies. But the mercurial social ubiquity which was perhaps his one distinctive contribution to the century's culture carries no weight with posterity. It may happen sooner or it may happen later, but eventually no one drops the name of a namedropper.

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