I was fortunate that the senior school I attended in Harrogate, Yorkshire provided me with the option of photography classes. Not being particularly blessed with the technical ability to draw or illustrate anything to a satisfying standard, I looked to photography to indulge a love for the visual arts. Armed with a Pentax SLR camera I’d wander the adjacent town landscape looking for people or objects to photograph and return to the school photography darkroom to mix up chemicals and anticipate the imagery emerging before the eyes. The process appeared alchemical, a surreal magical experience. Years later I purchased from the widow of professional photographer in Bognor Regis, W. Sussex an antiquated photographic developing kit. I would set up a temporary darkroom in the bathroom of my home in Yorkshire. Not very practical with two young children wanting to bathe or use the lavatory, so I joined a photographic group in York called Impressions. Upstairs there had been an art gallery, down in the basement were facilities to develop and experiment in photography to your heart’s content. Impressions staged an exhibition on the Welsh surrealist photographer Angus McBean - Immediately I became a fan of his work.
Angus McBean was born in Newbridge, Monmouthshire, S.Wales in 1904. The son of a coal mine surveyor McBean purchased his first camera, an autographic Kodak and tripod. Intrigued by the seemingly magical properties of photography aiming to take photographs of people McBean sold a gold watch given to him by his grandfather to raise five pounds to buy the necessary equipment.
In 1925 after his father's premature death, McBean relocated with his mother and younger sister to Acton, London. Employed as a furniture restorer by Liberty's department store in the antiques department privately he indulged his love of photography, mask-making and going to the theatre in London’s West End. In 1932 McBean left Liberty and grew a distinctive beard that symbolized the fact that he would never be a wage-slave again. McBean worked as a maker of theatrical props, including a commission of medieval scenery for John Gielgud's 1933 production of Richard of Bordeaux.
McBean's masks became a topic of conversation in social columns and soon attracted the attention of leading Bond Street photographer Hugh Cecil. Cecil offered McBean an assistant's post at his Mayfair studio. After 18 months having learnt the secrets of Cecil's softer style and having had the facility to use the studio at night McBean went on to establish his own studio in a basement in Belgrave Road, Victoria, London.
McBean, still primarily known as a mask maker, gained a commission in 1936 from Ivor Novello for masks for his play The Happy Hypocrite. Novello was so impressed with McBean's romantic photographs that he commissioned him to take a set of production photographs that included the young actress Vivien Leigh. The photographs taken on stage with McBean's idiosyncratic lighting, so impressed they immediately replaced the set made by the established but stolid Stage Photo Company. Instantly McBean created a new career and in Vivien Leigh had a charismatic photographic leading lady. McBean was to photograph Vivien Leigh on stage and in the studio for almost every performance until her death thirty years later.
McBean established a reputation as one of the most significant portrait photographers of the 20th century, and specifically as a noted photographer of celebrities. In 1942 McBean’s career was temporarily derailed when he was arrested in Bath for criminal acts of homosexuality. He was sentenced to four years in prison and was released in the autumn of 1944. After the Second World War McBean set about re-establishing his photographic career.
Effectively there were two periods to McBean’s career - pre and post war phases. Pre-war he was a lot more self-assured and experimented expertly with surrealism, indeed the work he created with Vivian Leigh are some of the most amazing surrealist photographic images known. Post war he reverted to a more regular style of portraiture photography working predominantly in entertainment and theatre.
In 1945, uncertain of whether he would find work again, McBean built a new studio in a bomb-damaged building in Endell Street, Covent Garden. He sold his Soho camera for £35, and bought a new half-plate Kodak View monorail camera to which he attached his trusted Zeiss lenses. McBean was commissioned first by the Stratford Memorial Theatre to photograph a production of Anthony and Cleopatra, and all his former clients quickly returned. Through the late 1940s and 50s he was the official photographer at Stratford, the Royal Opera House, Sadlers Wells, Glyndebourne, the Old Vic and at all the productions of H.M. Tennent, creating images for theatre, music and ballet productions. Magazines such as the Daily Sketch and Tatler vied to commission McBean's new series of surreal portraits.
McBean's later works famously included being the photographer for The Beatles' first album, surrealist work and classic photographs of individuals such as Agatha Christie, Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward. McBean inspired and appeared in the David Sylvian video Red Guitar. McBean died on June 9th, 1990
There is a comprehensive biography, Face –maker by Adrian Woodhouse published by Alma Books (2006).
Angus McBean (c) estate of Angus McBean
(c) 2012 Steve Parry (Photo - Taken from DARK book edition)