Last Updated July 13, 2018

Angus McBean

British (Born 1904 - Died 1990 ) PREMIUM LISTING Hot
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People and portraits
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Angus McBean was a portrait photographer and theatre set designer, best known for his photographs of actors and celebrities and his use of surrealist themes with some of his images. During the 1940s and 1950s he was Britain's pre-eminent portrait photographer.

Angus McBean was born in South Wales in June 1904. His father was a surveyor who died at 47, having caught tuberculosis in the trenches during the 1st World War. At the age of 15 he sold a gold watch left to him by his grandfather, and bought his first camera - a Kodak Autographic - and started taking pictures of local landscapes and architecture.

In 1925, after his father's early death, Angus moved with his mother and younger sister to West London. Here he took a job in the antiques department of Liberty's where he learned to restore antiques. His spare time was devoted to mask-making and photography in a rudimentary studio and darkroom at home. He invested in a half-plate Soho Tropical reflex camera that was cased in mahogany and brass. 'In those days, the bigger the negative, the better the quality of the final print and the easier to retouch'. He used it, along with hard Zeiss lenses and Kodak Panchromatic black-and-white plates, for nearly twenty years. 'I never knew what focal lengths they were or what film speeds were. I just knew what they could do for me.'

McBean's style of hard lenses, harsh lighting and dramatic shadows was in direct contrast to Cecil's practice for his society clientele, but Cecil was impressed enough to offer the young man work as his assistant in his elegant Mayfair studio. Consequently, for a year McBean took all the photographs that went out under the Cecil name, submerging his own photographic instincts in the traditional Bond Street technique of the soft-focus lens and gauzed lighting. 'I learned all about negatives, however, and what a negative should look like. Those marvellous 12 x 10 [inch] glass plates, specially coated with a matt-surfaced emulsion could be drawn on, like handmade crayon paper, with an ordinary pencil.'

After eighteen months McBean left to open his own studio in a basement in Belgrave Road, Victoria, in London. He soon became well-known for his theatre photography. He photographed many of the West Ends leading figures, in particular the actress Vivien Leigh, with whom he enjoyed a long professional relationship. McBean became celebrated for his creative, surreal photographs that often employed multiple negatives and strong, dramatic lighting.

In the 1930s McBean embraced surrealism; with his flamboyance, love of theatre and the ability to create fantastic studio props he was similar to contemporary American photographer Man Ray. By the late 1940s McBean was the official photographer for a number of major British theatres including Stratford, the Royal Opera House, Sadler Well's and the Old Vic.

Cecil Beaton called him the best photographer in the country; Lord Snowden declared him a genius, and in some ways Angus McBean revolutionized portraiture in the 1930s. He immortalized the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.

As a master of theatrical lighting McBean commented, 'You can move one light and you can make ten years difference to a person's appearance', and 'what I am looking for is the skin texture, the planes of the face, the physical outside of people. The fact that it's the outside of their souls is of secondary matter in a way'.

After the Second World War, McBean continued to work as a portrait photographer, taking notable pictures of Audrey Hepburn (1950) and for the album cover of the Beatles Please Please Me (1963). His last few pictures were taken in 1988 and include Vivian Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier. He died on the night of his 86th birthday in 1990.