At the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s, when I was a young photographer, I was deep into personal reportage: road trips, no studio, black-and-white film, a small camera, whatever light was available. Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank were my gods. Working on assignment took me into the realm of journalism, and Life magazine became an important source of inspiration. It wasn’t until I started making pictures for the cover of Rolling Stone that I began looking seriously at portrait photography. I would stand in front of the Las Palmas newsstand in Los Angeles for hours, going through magazines published in New York and London and Paris and Rome. I was seeing the work of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn and Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, among others. I remember seeing some portraits of Mick Jagger on the set of Performance in 1968. They were very beautiful and very sexy. They were Cecil Beaton’s.

If I were to make a list of the Beaton photographs that have influenced me, the ones I’ve looked at over and over again through the years, I would begin with his Hollywood portfolios of the Thirties — Gary Cooper leaning against the soundstage door — and a later portrait of Marlon Brando sitting in a chair in front of a plain drop. What is it that makes these photographs so good? Cooper and Brando are, of course, unbelievably handsome. You feel their charisma in the pictures, which are very simple and very sensual. It is a sensuality Avedon wouldn’t have tolerated. Then there are Beaton’s legendary fashion photographs — the group of women in Charles James gowns he made for Vogue in 1948, and the haunting photographs of models posed among the ruins of London during the war. I’ve also spent a lot of time looking at the portraits of the royal family, particularly those of Queen Elizabeth II. And the many portraits of the Sitwells. The portrait of Edith Sitwell taken for her 75th birthday — the one in profile — was startling when I saw it as a young photographer and it is still a little startling.

Anyone who is interested in being a portrait photographer should study Beaton’s session with Greta Garbo in his room at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1946. It is an exchange between a goddess and a photographer. Beaton had been obsessed with Garbo for years. He made a drawing of her for his Book of Beauty in 1930 and wrote that she was the face of the century and the most glamorous figure in the world. When he went to California for a Hollywood portfolio two years later, he tried with increasing desperation to arrange a sitting with her but couldn’t get past her handlers. He did finally meet her, just as he was about to go back to New York, and was mesmerised. The Plaza Hotel sitting came about because she needed a passport photo.

It is such a prolific shoot and has so many parts to it that I thought for years that the photographs were from several sessions. I didn’t realise that the pictures had been taken in one afternoon. Beaton created them out of almost nothing. He didn’t have assistants. He didn’t have lights. He started by bringing Garbo next to the window and using light diffused by a sheer lace curtain that he had hung there. She sat simply in a chair. She took off her jacket and then sat down on the couch. Eventually, she is lying on the couch. Those are the great portraits. She is on her back. You feel her awareness of Beaton, even though she is not looking at him. She turns over on to her stomach. In some of the pictures, she is smoking a cigarette. Beaton took a lamp from a table and used the bare bulb to light her — as he had done when he made portraits of his sisters when he was a boy. She kept saying she was leaving, but then she fell naturally into doing what she knew how to do. He brought out some prop clothes and asked the actress to take on a role and dress up. A pointed hat pulls her hair back and a pierrot ruff frames her remarkable face.

Probably my favourite portraits are Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe. She was not only his muse. She was his lover, his wife. Photographers thrive on falling in love. It is the most wonderful thing to be seduced, taken over, taken along for a ride. Beaton’s Garbo portraits are the culmination of a great longing. She gave him what he wanted and he was ready for her. The connection between them is clear. Garbo knew that he loved her.

There is a haunting photograph of two men — the painter Patrick Procktor and his muse, Gervase Griffiths — casually posing with no clothes on in Beaton’s drawing room at Reddish House in 1969. You feel like you are in the room with Beaton. They are bathed in the sunlight from the drawing room windows. Beaton was a virtuoso of found light. He understood back light, side light, open shade. No photographer had a longer or more intense romance with the window.

Beaton grew up playing photographer with his sisters, dressing them up and posing them in elaborate sets. His early work was filled with theatrical sets — beds of roses, rolls of paper, walls of ice, fluted columns, peacocks’ feathers, sequins and polka dots. While entertaining and engaging, the backgrounds and sets were also functional. Only Beaton would have taken a painted backdrop to Buckingham Palace. His talent for sets and costumes led to a career in the theatre. But with years of experience, he longed for the photographs themselves to be more straightforward — portraits of people who held their own.

Beaton was not interested in the technical side of photography. He left that to the technicians. He complained about Condé Nast insisting that he leave his small Kodak behind. He was told to use a big 8 x 10 camera like Edward Steichen did. It was the sitting, the performance within the sitting, that was Beaton’s art. He was a master of it.

Beaton was not just a photographer, and he didn’t think of himself that way. He was a journalist, an artist, a set and costume designer, a memoirist, an historian, an actor. All of this went into his portraits. How can one not be impressed with what he accomplished? He had the wherewithal to stay in the game, as he said, for six decades. He knew what he was doing. He had a sense of the history he was creating and preserving. He was a force.

Text © Annie Leibovitz 2015. Extracted from ‘Beaton: Photographs’, published by Jonathan Cape on September 3, £50

Photographs: The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

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