Visual Analysis of Cecil Beaton


Cecil Beaton, 1936

This black and white photograph by Cecil Beaton is of a man in a dark room. You cannot see his body, only his head, and his hands have been placed either side of his face. His head is facing towards the camera, with his eye-line looking towards the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph. His face is shown 3 times, all shown from different angles. He appears to be resting his chin and forearms on a mirror or a piano; something that is able to show his reflection from a lower angle, as well as leaning his head against a mirror, so that the back of his head is also visible. There is little lighting surrounding the negative space around the man, with the majority of the light coming from the top right-hand corner of the photograph and shining right onto his face. This creates a lot of emphasis on the shadows created around him, making his bone structure more prominent; specifically around his jawline, cheekbones and the bridge of his nose. The emphasis is on his facial expression, which is very sad and solemn, and his hand placement, which appears to be very delicate with the way he is touching his face.

Looking further into this photograph, I can see that it is made up of a lot of horizontal lines. After looking at the man’s face in the middle of the photograph, your eyes are then drawn right to left and then left to right. This is because the man’s arms have been placed here, so you are initially looking at his face and then at both of his hands. After you have done this, you then begin to see what is then around that area, such as the reflection from under his chin and the reflection behind him. The more I look at this photograph, the more details I notice, such as it not being a perfectly centred portrait, but uses the rule of thirds, not once, but twice. First, with the mans’ face being just off-centre towards the left, and his hands being used to balance it out, filling the middle of the frame with light. Secondly, with the photograph being split top to bottom, with the top third of the image being dark, then as you work down, it gets lighter in the middle, then returning to darkness at the bottom third. By using this subtle technique, Beaton is able to draw your focus on to the man, and also helps to create almost a frame-like effect. 

After looking at all these different visual components, I decided to do some research behind this photograph. This photograph is of a man called Charles James, and he is a world-renowned fashion designer. He met Cecil Beaton whilst at school together at Harrow, a British public school, and a lot of Beaton’s photographs later defined a lot of James’ work.

This photograph is part of the Charles James: Beyond the Fashion Exhibition. If you look at the rest of the photographs taken alongside this portrait, a lot of them are displayed in colour. This opens up questions as to why this portrait photo of James is in black and white and provides quite a sinister and dark side to the fashion designer. Before finding out this information, my interpretation of the photograph was very different, and not how I think Beaton would’ve wanted to portray Charles James’ character. With the photograph being very dark, and it looking as if there is a spotlight on James, reminded me of a still from the 1941 Film Noir mystery murder, ‘I wake up screaming’.


It makes you ask yourself questions such as, was he mentally ill, and is that why the photograph is not in colour; is the darkness of the photograph trying to portray James’ mental state of mind and the darkness in it, or has he just been given some devastating news, and does this photograph show him dealing with this in a very raw way. All of these questions asked, just because it is not in colour. I also decided to look at the image from a different perspective, to see what else I could interpret from it, and by turning it upside down, really added to the already dark nature of the image. We get to see the facial expression that was reflected underneath him, and it almost looks like an alter-ego of Charles James, with the facial expression being rather haunting. This contributes to my questions about his mental state and aids that curiosity. 

In conclusion, comparing my interpretation of this photograph to what it actually was portraying, were two very different things. I like how this photograph was able to do that, and really bring forward questions that you otherwise would not have noticed if you had known who he was and the background to this photograph.


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