Monday, 7 October 2013


This month's Photography Great is widely regarded the having been been the finest portraitists of the 20th Century.

In an age when the traditional painted portrait had almost disappeared from view it could be said that Karsh stepped in and filled the gaps.

Karsh-Self-PortraitThink of many of the iconic figures of the last century and the image that endures of them are usually photographs, and more often than not, by Karsh.  Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, George Bernard Shaw, Jack Kennedy, Fidel Castro and General Eisenhower were just some of the luminaries who sat before his 8 X 10 bellows Calumet.

As one journalist said of his work, "when the famous start thinking of immortality, they call for Karsh of Ottawa".  His 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill, taken just after he had addressed the Canadian House of Commons is said to be the most reproduced portrait in history.
Karsh portrait of Winston Chruchill
Karsh's portraits often give the impression of being the result of elaborate planning and staging, such is their intensity and poise, however in the case of that Churchill portrait he was allocated just minutes to take his picture and a glowering war time Prime Minister who was in no mood to be snapped at all. The great leader's mood drew even more petulant when Karsh took away his cigar, resulting in Churchill taking a belligerent stance, his hand on his hip. As Karsh would later recall, 'two niggardly minutes in which I must try to put on film a man who had already filled the world with his fame and me with dread'.

Whatever the circumstances, Karsh had caught, part by accident and part intuition, the indomitable spirit of Britain at war,  evinced in Churchill's jowly features, every bit the celebrated British bulldog.

That portrait made Karsh's reputation and his studio in Ottawa become an automatic stopping point for all notables visiting the city until such a time as he  was being flown all over the world for portrait commissions such was the demand for his work.
Karsh portrait of  General Eisenhower

The secret of the success of this Armenian emigre lay in two respects. Firstly, his technical abilities as a studio photographer were honed to perfection. His placing of lights around his subjects was very specific and illuminated only those aspects of the scene that were necessary. In many of his works the light can be seen falling just on the face and the hands while all the rest disappears into the shadows.  This approach created not only a strong and vivd sense of depth , but also an intense focus on the subject.  Secondly, there was his guile as a collector of souls. It was something he often remarked on himself. 'Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can."

However, there was a more complex dimension to this artist's work.  He was so much more than a lucky voyeur but a personality with intuitive people skills whose approach and company the great and the good seemed to feel at ease with.  That was when his sitters would relax and show their private faces, putting their public masks to one side.

So, for example, we see Ernest Hemingway, the Nobel prize-winning writer and journalist,  almost childlike while George Bernard Shaw twinkles from the shadows.  Then there's the astonishing dome head of the composer, Sibelius, his eyes shut in intense concentration. Or the soft gaze of an elderly grandpa figure, cosy in thick, warm jumper who also happens to be Albert Einstein.

As Karsh would remark in an interview looking back on his work (he became as famous as those he photographed),  "... as to the soul-taking by the photographer, I don't feel I take away, but rather that sitter and I give to each other'.
Karsh's pictures now adorn the worlds finest photography collections and his name stands as an established synonym for the art of portraiture.
In order of appearance, Karsh's subjects in this feature are:  Yousuf Karsh (self portrait), Winston Churchill, General Dwight Eisenhower, George Bernard Shaw, Peter Lorre, Lawrence Olivier, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Jean Sibelius, Fidel Castro, Andy Warhol & Muhammed Ali.

Thursday, 18 July 2013


Here's a scene that has become an iconic image of Britain's deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, British Service Men on active duty at Christmas time.


It's a poignant scene as a front-line unit of Royal Marines gather for a brief carol service in Helmand Province and a chance to collect their thoughts of the families and homes they're separated from during the festive season. Danger is never far away. In fact, a short time later this service was interrupted by a incoming rocket attack. In an instant, the serried ranks we see here had broken up as soldiers rushed to their action stations to repel the attack.

Even more remarkably, that objective achieved, the carol service resumed a short time later, followed by a special turkey dinner served in shifts at the camp mess.

Taken by semi-professional photographer, Captain Euan Goodman, there are a number of factors which mark this out as an image of distinction. There's the incongruity of servicemen swapping their helmets for Santa Claus hats; Christmas being celebrated in the desert; and the neat ranks of a professional fighting force in a conflict with a guerrilla opposition. A sense of order amongst the chaos and, in the mould of many conflict photographs, a reminder that wars are fought by men and women, all too young, and some of whom face serious injury, if not even death.

It's a moment of suspension and a reminder of why a photograph is so different from a video or an iMovie, as, in the millisecond of a shutter release, the clock of time is stopped and a defining moment captured.


In this month's Iconic Photograph we see four smiling young men looking over the stairwell of  a smart office building.  They are on the verge of conquering the world.

They are the members of a little known pop band having their picture taken for their first LP release.  They are called The Beatles and the photographer Angus McBean has just helped start a legend. Stephen McKenna takes up the story.

The group known as The Beatles was no overnight sensation.  When they were introduced to Parlophone producer, George Martin, in 1962 they'd already been performing as a full-time band roving between their home town of Liverpool and Germany for over five years.  However,   in the year that followed,  Martin would nurture the band through their first recording sessions and help channel them towards a commercial career that was to change the future course of pop music.

By 1963 the 'Fab Four' (as they would later become) had made their debut LP release, 'Please Please Me'. it was recorded virtually on an 'as live' basis, so as to capture the energy and spontaneity of this new group.  All that was required was a photograph of the band for the LP cover.  

George Martin's first idea had been to have them photographed outside the Beatle House at London Zoo but late in the day the Zoo rejected the idea.

Time was running out and on the spur of the moment he decided to call the acclaimed photographer, Angus McBean.  This was a man famous for his dramatic portraits of theatrical greats such as Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thorndike and Vivienne Leigh and production shots for the Royal Opera House, Sadlers Wells and the new established Royal Shakespeare Company.  Regarded by his contemporaries as the finest photographer in the country, a young Anthony Armstrong Jones (later Lord Snowdon) dubbed him 'a genius'.

It was thinking against the grain but Martin's timing proved to be just right.  As he'd later recall:  "We rang up the legendary theatre photographer Angus McBean, and bingo, he came round and did it there and then.  It was done in an almighty rush, like the music."

The setting for this iconic picture was the administration building of EMI Records at Manchester Square; a smart if rather anonymous 1960s office building with a glass fronted internal stairway.

McBean was taken with the setting and had the idea of sending the boys up a couple of flights to picture them leaning over the balcony looking down at his camera.  For such a simple concept there was a lot of sense to it; the background architecture of the building filling the image and providing strong lead lines that drew the eye to the four faces.
McBean tried out a number of poses (see below) getting his subjects to look left, then right,  but it is the engaging image of The Beatles looking directly into McBean's lens with those winning smiles that makes this the 'money shot'.

Perhaps its no less typical than the kind of publicity still that has introduced thousands of new acts hoping to hit the big time, but, for what one might call a scratch shoot, it is remarkable the surety with which it establishes a photographic identity for The Beatles.

Indeed, so familiar was the picture to become that,  in 1969,  The Beatles would reunite with McBean at Manchester Square to replicate the image.  Although that retake wouldn't be used until 1973 for a retrospective Beatles album, it's a telling reminder of how far the Fab Four had come and the extent to which that first stairwell shot had captured that start of an amazing journey.



Each American president enjoys a honeymoon period when they first take office with high approval ratings and an administration not yet tainted by the daily realities of political turmoil.  Quite how long it lasts,  no one can say, but there's usually a defining moment when the honeymoon has most definitely ended.  In the case of the 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, that minute capsule of time (2.27pm EST, 30th March 1981) is the subject for this month's 'Iconic Photograph' which captures the very moment when the US almost lost its new president..

Just 69 days after having taken the Oath of Office, President Reagan was at the Washington Hilton Hotel, to address a gathering of labour representatives.  He'd been there just forty-five minutes before his departure when he emerged from an entrance and crossed to his limousine, waving warmly to waiting spectators and supporters and smiling his customary 'B' movie star grin.

That's when the honeymoon stopped.  Six gunshots, fired in less than two seconds, shattered the gaiety and ease of the moment. Undoubtedly, Regan was the target, but his would-be assassin, it transpired was a lousy shot.  One John Hinkley, he had bought a small handgun in a Dallas pawnshop days earlier,  apparently motivated by a fixation with the film Taxi Driver and the actress, Jodie Foster.  He would subsequently be acquitted of attempted murder on the grounds of diminished responsibility due to mental illness.

Still, his shots caused near mortal mayhem, striking three Secret Service agents and White House Press Secretary, James Brady, who would be left permanently paralysed.  His fifth bullet harmlessly hit a store window, however, the sixth, though it also missed the President, struck instead the presidential limousine, but then ricocheted off the car's armour plating hitting the President beneath the left underarm just as he was, literally, flung into the vehicle by his security detail.

Once inside the car which departed the scene at high speed it was assumed the President had been uninjured but events changed rapidly when he began coughing up blood.  Instead of a return to the security of the White House the driver was instructed to make straight for the George Washington Hospital.  While Reagan was able to walk into the hospital unaided he soon collapsed inside and it would transpire that he was suffering from a collapsed lung  and the trauma of a bullet that had stopped just an inch from his heart.

Our photograph shows the astonishing moment of split second reaction by Secret Service agent, Jerry Parr (to the right of the President) as he shields the President and bundles him, at speed, into the waiting limousine.   While Reagan appears to grimace its not possible to say whether he has been struck by the final bullet yet.

A more familiar picture of this scene (see below) shows the chaos, out of sight to the right, as the gunman is bundled to the ground and then covered in protection to avoid a repeat of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald (President Kennedy's assassin), however our iconic image conveys more economically the very peril of that moment when the name of Ronald Regan could well have joined the likes of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.  Tragic American figures slain at the hands of lone assassins.


Watch Ronald Reagan on the Larry King Show recalling his attempted assassination:  


As the subject of a new biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (HBO's Behind the Candelabra, Dir.Steve Soderbergh) this month's Iconic Picture features one of America's most outlandish and successful showbiz entertainers - Liberace!

With his trademark diamond rings and ornate grand pianos, topped by a candelabra,  Liberace (born Wladziu Valentino Liberace) was the 'King of Bling' long before that term was ever coined.

Although the young man with the toothsome smile from Wisconsin displayed an early and prodigious talent as a pianist (he could easily have had a successful career on the classical circuit), it wasn't long before he was adapting the works of Chopin and Liszt and replacing the 'boring bits' with 'pop bits'.  He was also adding to his act with a growing wardrobe of white tails and gold lame tuxedos matched by an ornate grand piano and his trademark chandelier and grinning smile.

His sense of showmanship had an irrepressible chutzpah and eventually most cynics and detractors were dazzled into submission.  The serious critics threw terms like kitsch and gauche at him.  Some, even hurled them as terms of abuse, one journalist swooping low enough to term him 'a winking, singgering, scent-impregnated, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother-love'.

Well, it was all water off a duck's back as far as he was concerned, and in the case of that last remark he famously 'cried all the way to the bank'.

So, in our Iconic Photograph, we find Liberace at the height of his powers.  One of America's highest earning stars,  famous the world over and there he is in the most outrageous re-imagining of a Louis XIV bathroom, such as would make the palace at Versailles seem utterly drab.

It's all pastiche this picture, recalling the great days of Hollywood when glamourous and sexy stars would appear in their gold-plated, mirrored bathrooms, their d├ęcolletage veiled by voluminous folds of bubble bath foam.  The difference here being that this is a somewhat barrel-chested man in his sixties.  A confirmed bachelor ('he never married', as they say) taking a bath with all his jewellery on and wearing somebody else's hair.

The thing about Liberace is that he knew not to take himself in the least bit seriously.  His act was based on a huge, big joke, and as an astute and canny business man he calculated that the more outlandish he became, the bigger the laughs and the guffaws of his adoring fans, not to say his credit at the bank.

It's almost as if to witness a man-child making up for all those nascent years when he never got his own doll's house to play with.   But wait, let's not over analyse this.  Notice also the sparkle in Liberace's eyes and the air filled with shiny bubbles.

Purely and simply, this is self-mockery on a glorious scale and no one is enjoying the send-up as much as the entertainer himself.  This is why sell-out audiences always laughed with Liberace rather than at him.  Anyway, he knew too well to laugh at himself first.

There's an added poignancy to the picture also in knowing, as we do now, that the entertainer was headed for troubled waters.  His chauffeur, Scot Thorson, would sue him for palimony in a very public case while about 1985 he would be diagnosed as HIV positive, culminating with his death in 1987.

Still, his spirit lives on and there's no doubt that he gave the lead to the likes of Elton John, Madonna, Freddie Mercury and Britney Spears who were able to exploit their more outlandish sides because Liberace had gone before them.


This month's Iconic Photographic by British photographer, Terry O'Neill,  is widely regarded as one of the best Oscar pictures taken and given that its still spoken of thirty-seven years after being taken, there must be something in that.  Stephen McKenna sets the scene:


We are at the poolside of the famous Beverly Hills Hotel,  very early in the morning, the sun hardly up, following the 1977 Academy Awards ceremony; and the subject, in glamorous silk dressing gown and high heels, is that year's choice for Best Actress 'Oscar', Faye Dunaway.


Around her is an untidy scene of discarded newspapers, a breakfast tray with a very un-Hollywood pot of tea, a plastic cigarette lighter and, almost incidentally, an Oscar statuette.  Meanwhile, that year's newly crowned 'Queen of Hollywood' lounges, distractedly, in an art deco style pool chair.  Matched with the lacquered pedestal table there is a hint of the glory days of tinseltown in the 20s and 30s.


The photographer is the briton, Terry O'Neill, and he's known Dunaway exactly one week but during that time he has got to know her well enough for her to give him access to this most intimate moment.


In some ways it is a very contrived picture with hints of a fair degree of choreography,  as in the careful scatter of the newspapers and the table and subject placed symmetrically to the poolside background, but actually the defining characteristic of this image which takes it beyond the conventional is its air of ambivalence.  Winning an Oscar in 'La La Land' has to be the very top of the tree and having missed out on the prized door-stop in 1967 for 'Bonnie & Clyde' and  1974 for 'Chinatown' (losing respectively to Katherine Hepburn and Ellen Burstyn), finally, she now has the coveted trophy.  But where is the morning champagne? Where is the gay laugh and throwback of that lush hair?


There's a distinct atmosphere of ennui.  Detachment.  Even deflation, perhaps.  Indeed, subsequently Dunaway's career would be all but derailed by the 1981 film based on the life of Joan Crawford, 'Mommie Dearest', following a near universal panning by the critics.


Talking about the picture many years later, O'Neill recalls the shutter-click moment in less sinister tones:  "I wanted to capture the look of dazed confusion.  To capture that state of utter shock that Oscar winners enter, where they go to bed thrilled, then overnight, it dawns on them that they've changed, that they've just become a star. And not just a star, a millionaire ... She isn't sure quite who she is any more. I waited for her to look away from the camera, and I got the shot.  It's still the best Oscar picture ever taken. And modern photographers should take that as a challenge."


Not only did O'Neill get the picture, he also got the girl.  He and Dunaway married briefly in 1984.


Terry O'Neill is one of Britain's most famous photographers having photographed many of the greatest figures of the last century including Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, the Beatles, Elton John, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and the Royal Family.  He also gives his name to the annual international photography prize, 'The Terry O'Neill Award'.


It shocked and outraged a nation, but Annie Liebovitz's 1991 naked portrait of Demi Moore undoubtedly broke taboos and made its mark on the world of portraiture. In this month's Iconic Photograph feature Stephen McKenna considers what all the fuss was about.


This month's iconic picture first appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991 to an astonishing wave of shock.  Here was a female film star appearing on the front of one of America's leading magazines, not only in a virtually naked state, but also heavily pregnant.
The subject was rising Hollywood star Demi Moore and the photographer Annie Liebovitz with the original idea being to illustrate that pregnancy didn't have to eclipse a mother-to-be's sex appeal.  
Moore had already been shot in stockings with high-heels and an evening coat, but toward's the end of the shoot Liebovitz suggested the idea of some nude studies.
The movie star responded casually to the idea, as Liebowitz was to recall.  'She dropped her clothing and I started to shoot. I said, "well this looks really, I mean... maybe we should make this the cover. Why not?" And she said yes, maybe.  So we tried to hide everything the best we could [Moore wears nothing more than diamond earrings and a ring]. Tina Brown in New York made a decision to go ahead with it. And this is one of those things, it had a life of its own.'
Tina Brown was Vanity Fair's editor and she seemed well aware of the reaction the cover would provoke, not to mention the adverse reaction it could have on the magazine's sales.  So, in may parts of the title's distribution network it appeared partly concealed or in a brown wrapper, as in the manner of a soft-porn publication.
Following the edition's appearance in August of that year the cover became the main topic for conversation on virtually all tv and radio shows, phone-ins, newspaper editorials and comment pieces.
Considered offensive there, revolutionary here and, indisputably, a talking point just about everywhere, it is estimated that the cover was seen by 100 million people and in the twenty-plus years since its appearance the portrait has come to be regarded by some as 'high art'.  In a court case it was even compared to Botticelli's Birth of Venus.
By the photographer's own assessment, however, she doesn't recall it as one of her best pictures.  Speaking in a 2012 interview, Liebowitz noted, 'It's a magazine cover.  If it were a great portrait, she wouldn't be covering her breats.  She wouldn't necessarily be looking at the camera.'
naked gun three ver1Certainly it will always be THAT picture and while it's claimed the cover was 'anti-glitz, anti Hollywood', it has, nonetheless, become so imitated and parodied that for all its status as an iconic image, it will always struggle to outrun the shadow of its own infamy.  After all, people are as likely to recall the parody film poster for Naked Gun 33 1/3 with Leslie Nielsen morphed on to the original.  

Thursday, 3 May 2012


The inspiration for this talk came from a tv documentary I saw on the photographers of the 60s, who, it was suggested, had virutally reinvented the genre. Well, that sounded like complete 'media studies' hyperbole to me and so I wanted to put the work of one of these icons alongside two earlier notables - Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson - and establish that modernity is actually the gift of each new generation of photographers and that all new kids on the block take a lot from what their predecessors had to offer. I led the talk with Cecil beaton:

Cecil Beaton ended his life having being knighted by the Queen and as a frequent lunch guest of the Queen Mother. He was the quintessential arbiter of taste and style, a dandy, a bon viveur and entirely the product of his own creation. Not bad perhaps for the son of a rather itinerant timber who traded mostly in railway sleepers.
He is regarded as one of the finest portraitists and designers of the 20th Century and his works are featured in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

In his formative years, Beaton was always destined to be an artist of style and distinction. It was simply in him, but his immersion in the photographic art came about thanks to his Nanny. She was a keen photographer and provided Beaton with his first camera, a Kodak 3A. She would also introduce him to the principles of the dark room and picture development.
From his school, Harrow, and later at Cambridge University he would submit samples of his work to the leading pictorial publications of the day under bogus cover letters from various notables. ‘You should take note of this bright young talent’, his phantom referees would write.

His breakthrough came when a series of pictures of his university chums, very much the bright young things of the 20s, were accepted for publication by Vogue. Over the following years his work would regularly fill their pages and appearances of his work in magazines’ US editions would led to his gaining recognition over there. In time, Hollywood called and he was commissioned to photograph many of the big stars of the time: Marlene Dietrich, Great Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Orson Welles to name just a few.

In the post-war years he went out of favour somewhat, being regarded as a touch old fashioned, but he very successfully diversified into theatre and costume design winning many awards including four Tony’s and three Academy awards, the triumphant pinnacle of his career being his costumes and design for ‘My Fair Lady’ with Audrey Hepburn.
By the late 60s Beaton was already a cult figure and had became an intimate of the likes of Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger. His work is defined by an assured sense of style, a unique blend of colours and an almost voyeuristic eye as a photographer, aided often by his handheld Rolieflex which allowed him to become intimate with a minimum of photographic paraphernalia.

The following selection of shots show Beaton as a portraitist, as a Royal photographer and as a supreme colourist and designer.

Beaton - The Portraitist, 'Malice in Wonderland'

Portraits: Included here are the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, Ingrid Bergman, Dame Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe.

Beaton - Photographer to the Royals:

“The telephone rang, “This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. The Queen wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon.” At first, I thought it might be a practical joke...but it was no joke. My pleasure and excitement were overwhelming. In choosing me to take her photographs, the Queen made a daring work was still considered revolutionary and unconventional.” (Extract from Cecil Beaton's Diaries)

The prestige of Beaton’s career was very surely fixed by his relationship with the Royal Family. I suppose it made sense. Who better to photograph a queen than a queen?!

  By the time of his first sitting with Queen Elizabeth his stock was very high and he apparently overcame the hurdle of having shot the wedding photographs for the Duke & Duchess of Windsor. The new King and Queen by contrast with that couple were considered seriously dowdy and dull, provincial even, rather than regal. Beaton’s mission therefore was to accord them the grandeur and pizazz of the palaces they occupied.

Meantime, come the War there was the priority to show the Royals as a normal British family in response to the ‘all in it together’ spirit of the time. This was a relationship that continued into the following generation as can be seen in the very intimate, family shots he was responsible for of Queen Elizabeth with her youngest children.

Beaton - The Supreme Colourist & Designer:

We can get a very good insight into Beaton's sense of colour and design with the picture below of his regular suite at Plaza Hotel in New York where he was a much valued guest. Indeed, so much so that the management thought nothing of redecorating his suite according to his personal design and taste.

The room displays a very artful and economical mix of styles. The drapes, the armchairs, the ceramic lamps each stand out in bold dashes of scarlet red and china blue derived from the modern artwork. Meanwhile a baroque mirror and a smart Chippendale coffee table sit easily in the eclectic mix. The overall effect is striking, but harmonious with a scheme that has dash but never overwhelms. Design according to a distinct personality.

And so it was in Beaton's colour photography and designs as can be seem in the following images based on fashion editorials and his theatre designs. Strong colours in rich hues very much reflecting Beaton's painterly style and with a sense of flair and panache.

Beaton - My Fair Lady:

Beaton's designs and costumes for the Broadway musical, My Fair Lady, provided him with perhaps the most prominent and sustained triumph of his career.

As a result of the original staging in 1957 he received a Tony Award and then when the highly successful film version was relased seven years later his costumes and designs took centre stage, most notably in the Ascot Races scene.

Partly informed by his memories of his childhood he threw on to his drawing board dresses, drapes and hats of a lavishness way beyond the original era in a glorious celebration and renaissance of all things Edwardiana.

Even at the fast moving height of those 'Swinging Sixties', Beaton was making very clear that tradition and elegance in design were qualities that would endure and critics and cinemagoers all around the world agreed heartily.