Welsh born Agnus McBean (1904 – 1990) was stage-struck as a kid. He took up photography as a hobby in his teens. After being fired from his job as a salesman in a department store he worked doing set design and mask-making. He was asked to take production shots for Ivor Novello‘s musical The Happy Hypocrite with a very young Vivien Leigh. They were widely published, and he embarked on a career as a professional photographer.
After McBean died, his former boyfriend and muse Quentin Crisp wrote:
”McBean had dedicated his life to acting out a fragile illusion: He played that life was happy; that all women were lovely… even Edith Evans; he played that love was everywhere. This philosophy made him delightful to be with, impossible to talk to and infinitely sad… He worked hard for his success, and when it came he enjoyed it chiefly because it brought him into contact with so many illustrious people… he was genuinely star-struck. I never heard him speak badly of anyone well known. In his eyes, celebrity made anyone adorable. In spite of his success he remained mysteriously modest.”
McBean’s photographs were different than the standard celebrity pictures. He was inspired by Surrealism, the cultural movement that began in the early 1920s in France. Artists used unnerving, illogical scenes, creating strange creatures from everyday objects, and developed techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself. But, McBean used it to be entertaining, even whimsical.
McBean was imprisoned for homosexual offences at the start of WW2, so unlike Cecil Beaton, he never served as a war photographer. It would have been interesting to see how he would have applied his Surrealist sensitivity to war photographs.
His imprisonment for being gay did not bring an end to his career. He was able to pick-up his career where it left off, working in the theatre. But, when theatre work was drying-up, he turned to the new world of pop music. Shooting photos and art directing album covers provided for his income.
McBean’s works included the cover of The Beatles’ first album Please Please Me, and commissions by many important musical artists of the era. In 1969, he was back with The Beatles shooting the cover for Let It Be. In his later years he became more selective of the work he took and continued to explore Surrealism in his portrait photographs of celebs such as Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Olivier and Noël Coward.
By the 1970s, McBean had retired, but he was coaxed into a fresh round of activity by a resurgence of interest in his work in the style-conscious early 1980s. He shot the queen of punk and new romanticism Vivienne Westwood in 1988, wearing a furry crown, wearing an expression of hostility. He did photographs of hip-hop artists Run DMC for Details Magazine, which took McBean to NYC for the first time.
His work (pre and post-war) are now eagerly sought by collectors and his photographs are part of major collections in museums around the world.
Best of all are McBean’s innovative Christmas cards he created. For these images he constructed elaborate sets along with detailed props and miniatures, often taking weeks to produce the desired effect.
McBean showed how a startling art-form, Surrealism, could not only be harnessed in the service of beauty, but could also help to make people really think. Modernist austerity and postmodernist eclecticism both needed antidotes; McBean’s work took on the task. His portraits tell you next to nothing about his famous sitters, except that they are beautiful and highly accomplished. He was not interested in capturing his subject’s flaws and wrinkles, and any truth that comes through his artifice appears there entirely by accident. Quentin Crisp crisply summed up McBean’s way with his subjects:
“Everything was retouched but their titles.”