Research point: 1960s portrait photographers

The course notes ask us to:

“Find three images from each of the photographers mentioned above [Donovan, Duffy, Parkinson, McBean, French, Beaton, Avedon]. Carefully analyse at least one image by each photographer. What makes the image work – or not? What is the image saying about the subject? Compare and contrast the different portrait styles of the various photographers.”

Terence Donovan

Along with Bailey and Duffy, Donovan was considered one of the ‘Black Trinity’ (as christened by Norman Parkinson) of archetypal Swinging Sixties photographers. His main output was fashion photography rather than portraiture per se – something I expand on for John French below.

His style was more varied than Bailey’s, and he could be more visually experimental. The Celia Hammond picture above is a good example:

  • Face: quizzical
  • Pose/gesture: relaxed, mostly out of frame
  • Clothes: nude (so it’s not a ‘fashion’ photograph) but framed just at the point of decency
  • Props: none
  • Lighting: shadows under nose imply high butterfly lighting
  • Background: the negative space is unusual for the era, and almost implies that the camera tilted backwards to point too far up, or the model slipped down, to disrupt the shot that the viewer ‘really wanted to see’
  • Meaning: this image seems to be self-consciously referring to the act of photography, which is more common now but wasn’t mainstream in the 1960s (I’m not sure, however, what it says about the sitter)

Brian Duffy

The third member of the so-called Black Trinity, having in common with Bailey and Duffy the ‘new guard’ desire to move past the stiffly posed portraits of the 1940s/50s into much more informal and inventive compositions.

He inevitably shot many of the same people as Bailey (and others) but found different things to do with them – and therefore say about them. The Caine and Shrimpton portraits above strayed from the standard formula both by getting close and by having them looking out of the frame. The Birkin shot was the one I found most interesting:

  • Face: blank, almost stereotypical ‘uninterested model face’
  • Pose/gesture: graceful, balletic, with movement frozen in time
  • Clothes: presumably these were the subject of the fashion shoot; bonnet makes her look younger than reality
  • Props: none
  • Lighting: above and to the right as implied by the fairly hard shadows
  • Background: even more than the Hammond picture above it reveals itself knowingly as a photograph, by showing the edges of the backdrop
  • Meaning: as with the Hammond shot, this comes across as being quite ‘meta’ and revealing the workings of the photographic enterprise

Norman Parkinson

I found the inclusion of Parkinson (and others to follow) a little odd given that this section is about the ‘swinging sixties’, as he was one of the ‘old guard’ that Bailey et al were notable for superseding. Parkinson had been working since the 1930s and his 1960s work seems to me to have been a continuation of his (admittedly imaginative) portrait approach, rather than something particular to the 1960s zeitgeist.

What he did do that links him to the 1960s was photograph a lot of the key cultural figures of the time, and not just in movies, fashion and pop music like some of his peers. His portrait of the sculptor Anthony Caro is by far the most interesting work I found of Parkinson’s:

  • Face: hidden
  • Pose/gesture: prone, submissive, as though his sculpture has ‘killed him’
  • Clothes: torn, implying struggle
  • Props: it’s dominated by his Sculpture 4 with Caro himself as a secondary point of focus
  • Lighting: outdoor, presumably natural
  • Background: the sculpture mainly, with sky and ground clues to the outdoor location (relevant as this sculpture was produced for the South Bank and is pictured on location)
  • Meaning: to me it’s about the relationship between the artist and the art, how the artist is subservient, almost ‘defeated’ by the art – very imaginative for its time

Angus McBean

Even more than Parkinson, I think McBean’s inclusion here is down to a few key images of 1960s icons, most notably in his case The Beatles. To focus on his 1960s work is to do him a disservice, as he’d had a successful career since the 1930s and was known for a distinctive surrealist portraiture style.

If anything, a lot of the 1960s work lacked his surreal touches and veered towards the popular style of the time. His Beatles portraits are interchangeable with the work of other photographers of the era. The Hepburn shot above, from the 1950s, is a better example of his style than the 1960s celebrity work:

  • Face: neutral expression, staring ahead but above, not directly at the viewer’s eyeline
  • Pose/gesture: rising out of the ground
  • Clothes: nude, but not in an erotic way – signifies comparisons to classical notions of beauty
  • Props: she is surrounded by sand, rubble and classical pillars – all adding up to give the effect of comparing Hepburn’s classical beauty to ancient statues
  • Lighting: high up loop lighting, illuminating most of the face barring her right cheek
  • Background: more classical architecture allusions
  • Meaning: Hepburn = classical beauty (in this respect I’d say it tells you more about the public perception of Hepburn than her individual character)

 John French

Another ‘old guard’ photographer perhaps, but one that can claim a more direct connection to the icons Sixties Photographer cliché – Bailey and Donovan both started out as assistants to French.

My issue with French in this context is that he was predominantly a fashion photographer not a portraitist; the subject was the clothes not the person; some of the models subsequently became famous in their own right, but the pictures were mainly shot for fashion spreads, not as portraits (to be fair, this is the case, to some degree, with all of these photographers, as fashion led the photographic revolution in the sixties). With this in mind, it’s hard to make a case that these images gave any insight into the subjects. The one image above that I think is worth mentioning is the Jean Shrimpton:

  • Face: profile view, looking out of frame
  • Pose/gesture: elegant but facing away from the camera
  • Clothes: classy evening wear
  • Props: the rose tucked into the back of the dress is the most obvious point of interest
  • Lighting: high and to the side
  • Background: plain
  • Meaning: not sure about this one actually… something obvious about Shrimpton being an ‘English rose’ springs to mind? The facing away from the camera might be significant, a comment on the fashion industry and/or how much a model must be photographed? In any case, it’s an interesting compositional choice that perhaps demonstrates the bridge between the old guard and the iconic swinging sixties trinity

Cecil Beaton

Like some the others above, Beaton had a successful career already by the time the sixties came around, in his case dating back to the late 1920s. He had a reputation for fashion and society portraiture, with a necessary diversion into war photography, and in particular was known as a royal family photographer.

He had an acknowledged influence on the new wave of sixties photographers, notably Bailey, which led to something of a resurgence in interest in Beaton. His sixties portraits are mostly of interest for their archetypal 1960s subjects, but the one I found most interesting was this portrait of the Queen:

  • Face: slight smile, tilted head, looking off camera
  • Pose/gesture: looks quite relaxed
  • Clothes: strange mix of quite slight summer dress and royal regalia
  • Props: sash, crown, necklace – denoting royal responsibility
  • Lighting: more even and less contrasty than most 1960s photography
  • Background: plain; the negative space above her head emphasises her youth I think
  • Meaning: the Queen is human too (it has a candid, informal feel that is an indication of the changing norms of photography compared to the highly traditional, formal royal photography of the preceding decades)

Richard Avedon

The course notes describe Avedon as one of the ‘new photographers on the block’ in the context of the sixties, yet some of his iconic portrait work goes back to the 1950s (?). He shares with Bailey a preference for the plain white backdrop, but a key difference is that he seems better at catching unguarded moments.

His Mia Farrow portrait is interesting, if creepy:

  • Face: barely visible, just the eyelashes and the counters of her face
  • Pose/gesture: turned away, shy, vulnerable, shoulders slumped, submissive
  • Clothes: nude and vulnerable
  • Props: earring to denote grown-up glamour
  • Lighting: brightest on back of her neck and shoulder
  • Background: plain
  • Meaning: the pose and hairstyle emphasise her youth and vulnerability; the visible contours of the spine make her look not just young but undernourished; the earring and the lashes try make her look glamorous, but the overall effect is of a girl being asked to look/act like a woman but being too shy to turn around – it’s more than a little predatory

There are definitely elements that these photographers have in common, understandable when they were working across the same period, with in many cases the same subjects. Some stylistic tropes stand out: plain, often white, backgrounds; square format; high contrast B&W; an informality and dynamism to posing, as though freed from decades of strictly formal portrait composition (partly cultural, partly technological limitations).

I do however see the most commonality between the archetypal ‘Swinging Sixties’ trio of Bailey, Duffy and Donovan; they all seemed to be pushing away the old ways of working at about the same time, as friends but with a healthy tension of youthful competitiveness.

The others rode the wave but in the end still seemed to belong to a different era. McBean got less surreal and less interesting in the 1960s. Beaton loosened up. Of all of them, I’m most pleased to have found out more about Parkinson, as he surprised me with his imaginative approach to portraiture, and avoided the swinging sixties clichés for the most part. And he shot interesting characters, not just celebrities.


Terence Donovan (accessed 20/06/2016)

Brian Duffy (accessed 20/06/2016)

Norman Parkinson (accessed 20/06/2016)

Angus McBean (accessed 20/06/2016)

John French (accessed 20/06/2016)

Cecil Beaton (accessed 20/06/2016)

Richard Avedon (accessed 20/06/2016)

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