Cecil Beaton: The New York Years
Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue
October 25, 2011 — February 20, 2012
exhibit site

  • “I only photograph those I know and admire.” (Cecil Beaton, wall quote)
Exhibit signage outside gallery at the Museum of the  City of New York.  Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
Exhibit signage outside gallery at the Museum of the City of New York. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

I spend some of my happiest hours in the presence of black and white images.  On the movie screen or in photographs I find that a black and white universe shades reality, hones an experience, and in its spareness invites me in.  Color images for me often are almost too complete, too gaudy, too raucous.  I find those color worlds fun to observe at times but I often don’t want to *be* there.  In this spirit, this week I spent a few hours with an exquisitely crafted exhibit currently running at the Museum of the City of New York featuring images (and some costume design) by photographer and designer Cecil Beaton (1904-1980).  Yes there’s some color (a few images, some books from his personal collection, some sample costumes of his design for the Metropolitan Opera) but primarily there is luscious, deep, intimate black and white celebrated all over the walls.

Inset detail in exhibit mural. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

I snapped images only outside the exhibit area. (For a blog that features a number of lovely images taken throughout the exhibit to give you a feel of the adventure, see Heather Clawson’s Habitually Chic entry on the show.)  I was entranced by the pattern of the wallpaper outside the exhibit — white roses on a dark background — of Beaton’s own design and still produced today.  In addition a mural covered two wall of the entrance hallway / vestibule with enchanting cartoon imagery suggested by or a compilation of Beaton’s own scribblings.  Certainly these images capture the sketch style one grows to know while wandering through the items on display on the walls and display cases within the exhibit itself.

The display area is artfully demarcated by conceptual category (“portraiture” and “fashion photography” and “performing arts” among them) and by individuals — those people Beaton knew and admired — whose portraits are lovely, intimate, knowing and sensual rather than rawly sexual. Beaton photographed in his own apartments in hotels, that appeared to shift regularly during his “New York years”.  Among the digs listed (and a few of which are photographed themselves by other photographers including Andre Kertesz and Edward Pfzenmaier — more on that image to come) are apartments at the Plaza (1946), the Sherry-Netherland (1950), the Ambassador (1956), and the St. Regis (1967).  Hotels with old world charm provide a comfortable and not “trade” experience for the subjects of his photographs.

In Beaton’s photos Marilyn Monroe lolls, Martha Graham gesticulates, Greta Garbo gives great profile, Katharine Hepburn kids and poses and lounges in conversation. Audrey Hepburn fashion struts and swans in 1964 versions of My Fair Lady film designs he adapted from his own creations for the 1956 Broadway original production.  These Audrey Hepburn images are lush and beautiful, yet in interesting contrast (and as she edged out Andrews to play Eliza on the big screen) I am more riveted by the 1959 image of our original stage Eliza adorable Julie Andrews, reflected in duplicate, luminous.

Beaton returns to some familiars again and again through the years in his apartment photographs.  About his friend Truman Capote, his friend and possibly a focus of competitive energy in later years and the subject of some images on display, Beaton muses that he was “a sophisticated cherub at home in the world of Southern Gothic.”  Diana Vreeland is a repeat photographic subject, here displayed in 1954 and 1978 and looking striking similar in both images. Greta Garbo is a focus of much photographic energy (and some intense personal relations apparently, a subject of less interest to me) resulting in a number of stunning girlish and calm and poised informal portraits (including images from 1946 and 1968).  Katharine Hepburn is captured early in her career, in Hollywood, in gouache, and in images taken during their joint experience of the 1969 Broadway musical Coco based on the career of Coco Chanel, also a familiar of Beaton’s.  The exhibit features a delightful juxtaposition of images on a single long wall: Coco Chanel herself in her Paris apartment with the long dramatic swooping staircase highlighted by floor to ceiling mirrors, and 1969 images of Hepburn in costume as Coco on a stage set that captures this same apartment.  Life imitating glamour imitating art imitating it all through a lens that provides these glimpses for us, all these years later.

I plan a return trip to drink in other elements of the show.  As I leave the exhibit I stop before an exhibit copy (free to flip through) on display in the mural-bedecked entrance way.  The luscious book is open to an image by Edward Pfzenmaier during the cover photo shoot for Coco, featuring Hepburn lolling seriously and comfortably on the couch at the far left and Beaton seated at image right, in conversation.  I had to pull myself away from this fascinating tableaux.

21 December 2011, in hallway outside Beaton exhibit, MCNY. Opened to image by Edward Pfzenmaier of Hepburn and Beaton during Coco Playbill photoshoot, 1969. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 22, 2011)

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