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Cecil Beaton photos live again in new London exhibition

Cecil Beaton photos live again in new London exhibition

Marilyn Monroe, lips apart as she stares seductively up from her bed, is part of it, and so is a darkly intense Mick Jagger. In fact just about anybody who is anybody is part of a photo exhibition opening this week in London. On the centenary of his birth, the National Portrait Gallery is showing nearly 200 photographs by Cecil Beaton, the gay man who for much of the 20th century was the epitome of sex and style on both sides of the Atlantic. His portfolio is a who's who of the rich, famous, and, above all, beautiful, from legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead to 1960s model Twiggy. "Beaton never really wanted to be a photographer. He wanted to be an artist and a designer. But photography was what he did best," curator Terence Pepper told Reuters at a preview of the show, which runs through May 31. The settings are pure theater, and the subjects ooze elegance and allure, explaining why for half a century Beaton was the "must-have" photographer, capturing the cream of society, stage, and screen on celluloid. Starting out in the hedonistic 1920s, the British-born Beaton quickly made his mark with his instinctive grasp of theatrical style, reinforced by his looks and charm. His first pictures were published in 1925, and just two years later he was on contract to British Vogue magazine, for whom he worked for the rest of his life, with two brief exceptions. For much of the 1920s and '30s Beaton had society belles, the British royal family, poets, painters, actors, and actresses eating out of his hand. Johnny Weismuller--the first screen Tarzan--Orson Welles, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and Gary Cooper were among the Hollywood elite who fell under the spell of Beaton's lens. Belgian-born self-deprecating beauty Audrey Hepburn, whom Beaton photographed many times over the decades, wrote to him after a photo session on the set of My Fair Lady that she had always wanted to be beautiful, but only he made her so. During World War II, Beaton became an official British war photographer, returning to his society portraiture in the 1950s--when the Monroe picture was taken--and 1960s. "The amazing thing about Beaton is that he kept reinventing himself and bouncing back all the time. Most photographers barely last a decade," Pepper said. "Beaton loved youth. Even in his 60s he was captivated by people like Jagger, Twiggy, David Hockney, and Andy Warhol, who were changing the face of art." Beaton, who was knighted in 1972, had a partially paralyzing stroke two years later but managed to take up photography again in 1977. He died on January 18, 1980, four days after his 76th birthday.

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