Masters of photography

PUBLISHED: 12:18 15 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:11 07 September 2010

In her seminal book On Photography, Susan Sontag says: What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the wo

In her seminal book On Photography, Susan Sontag says: "What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings.

"Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire."

John Gay's photographs at Hampstead Museum at Burgh House in Hampstead exemplify photography as a mirror to the world, angled by a master.

Gay, who lived in Highgate, had an unassuming presence allowing him to fade into the background. He used an unobtrusive camera - a Rolleiflex with a waist-level viewfinder - to capture people in natural poses.

His photographs strongly suggest that he happened to be in the right place at the right time - but their spontaneity was hard-won.

"He was willing to go the extra mile," said Dr Andrew Sargent, of English Heritage, at a talk at the museum - illustrating the point with a photograph of Gay crouching between feeding pigs.

Unconventional viewpoints were a key feature of his work and he travelled England with a stepladder on his car's roof-rack to obtain shots from high levels.

"He was an open-air person with an energetic approach - not a Cecil Beaton figure," said Sargent.

Ironically, a flaw in Sontag's argument is demonstrated by a Beaton retrospective at Chris Beetles in St James's.

From the earliest photographic experiments, in his bedroom and the drawing room of the family home in Hampstead, he constructed an idealised world.

He even placed a Victorian glass dome, which usually covered fake flowers, over the heads of sitters including Daphne and Angela du Maurier, the daughters of neighbour Sir Gerald du Maurier.

"The implication seems to have been that human appearance was just as unnatural and as ready for improvement by the manipulation of an artist, as any inert material," writes David Wootton in a catalogue essay.

The dome appears in an iconic photograph of Beaton's sisters Baba and Nancy, taken in his bedroom soon after the family moved to Bayswater in 1926.

They are posed in evening dress on his four-poster bed, which had curtains of scarlet and gold stencilled silk and a puce-pink silk bedspread. Behind them is a peppermint wall on which he had painted huge lilies.

Despite being influenced by the commercial studios of the Edwardian era, Beaton always preferred private houses as settings for shoots and tried to create the impression that he was a gentleman amateur distant from trade. He was born in 1904 into an unpretentious middle-class family and felt he did not belong there. As a child, he was thrilled by the way his mother and aunt transformed themselves through glamorous clothes.

At Heath Mount Preparatory School in Hampstead and later at Harrow, Beaton was encouraged to explore his theatrical and artistic interests. At Cambridge, he won a reputation for performing in female roles and for set and costume design.

His ambition to be a celebrity in society was realised in 1926 when he was introduced into the Bright Young Things set, and then befriended Stephen Tennant and Edith Sitwell. The exhibition includes an extraordinary image of Sitwell prone as though dead, flanked by stone angels.

Other remarkable images among 70 vintage and modern prints are those of Garbo, Picasso and Sickert. Notes illuminate the circumstances of sittings, as in Beaton's account of the official coronation portrait in 1953.

"The Queen looked extremely minute under her robes and crown, her nose and hands chilled and her eyes tired." She admitted "The crown does get rather heavy." She had been wearing it for three hours.

o John Gay is at Burgh House, New End Square, Hampstead, until June 21. Open Wednesday to Friday and Sunday, noon to 5pm. Cecil Beaton is at 8 and 10 Ryder Street, St James's, until May 16. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm.


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