Part One Exercise 1.1 Historic Portrait

 

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Cecil Beaton: Marlene Dietrich, (1935) Sotheby’s London. 

It’s a black and white image of the actress in a confined area with a sculpture of a woman’s head and shoulders.  The background is of some kind of gauzy material and a floral arrangement.  Dietrich appears to have flowers in her hair and wears a thin transparent wrap around her shoulders.  There are feathers at the front of her that could be her dress or just feathers.  The sculpture is very close to the background, on the edge of the frame while Dietrich fills the rest of the space with her head in the centre of the frame.  The light is filtered so that there are patches of light and shadow playing on both faces.  It is a glamorous portrait of a Hollywood film star that stylistically is very reminiscent of the 1930s Hollywood era.

What struck me about this image is the mirroring of the woman and the sculpture.  They are dressed very similarly with hair done up and a neck decoration around their throats.  The eyebrows are also almost identical, with thin dark arches.  There is a tension in the expressions on the faces – the bust is impassive and looking away while Dietrich’s is more animated as she leans into the bust and tilts her head towards it.  There is a dominance in her femininity as she pushes forwards and pushes the ‘other woman’ into the background so that she is physically touching the background.  Dietrich’s beauty is striking with her smooth skin and slight smile on dark lips.  Her hand is just in the frame, adjusting her wrap.  The hand adds an awkwardness as it isn’t clear what she is doing with it.

At first, I was drawn to this photograph because I saw it in a book and thought it was glamourous and a good example of the Hollywood look and influence from the 1930s.  Now that I have looked at it further and thought more about what she might be thinking, I am wondering if Beaton had any other agenda. He was known for being quite ruthless with his sitters:

Hugo Vickers (The Guardian)

Saturday 24 January 2004

 “What is Beaton’s secret? I think he produced a kind of magic. Not only did he photograph most of the interesting, alluring and important people of the 20th century, but he made them look stunning. He examined his sitters with a cruel eye and disguised their faults by subtle posing and lighting. Nor did he hesitate to touch them up ruthlessly.”    (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jan/24/photography)

What were her faults that he was disguising?  Dietrich was a famous movie star and this photograph ensures that her image is perfect, from her carefully made up face to the softness of the surrounding props. There are flowers and a soft transparent material in the background, and this is repeated in her dress and it looks like she has flowers in her hair too.  I was interested in the image as this is an area of photography that I could never enter – the stars of stage and screen posing for shots that will be seen by many people.  It is very stylish and lavish but there is also a sense of fun in her going cheek to cheek with a sculpture.  I like the dark edges while the lightest part of the frame is reserved for her face, and she is lit much more evenly than the sculptured lady. It is also a little less formal as she is looking away from the lens out to the left, rather then confronting the camera face on.  There is more to think about than if she was looking straight at the camera.  It’s not easy to discern what they were aiming for, and this is one of several images from the same shoot.  Another photograph had her looking at the camera and away from the sculpture, while their faces had more shadows and harsher lighting which changed the feel of it completely.

 

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