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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Wilson Book Explores McBean Collection

McBean book cover  

The cover of the recently-published "The Theatrical World of Angus McBean", written by Harvard Theatre Collection Curator Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, and featuring images from the HTC's archive of McBean photographs.

August 12 , 2009 – Despite having never appeared on stage, Angus McBean had a profound impact on the way in which the public experienced British theatre from the 1930s through the 1960s. One of the most well-known photographers of his era, McBean’s photos were used in newspaper reviews, magazines and often posted outside theatres as advertisements.

But while McBean’s photographs were widely recognized in Britain, they are less well-known to American audiences. A new book, “The Theatrical World of Angus McBean,” by Harvard College Library Theatre Collection Curator Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, aims to familiarize U.S. theatre fans with McBean’s iconic black-and-white images.

The book grew out of a 2004 exhibition of McBean’s photographs, which were acquired by the Theatre Collection from McBean in 1970. The collection contains an estimated 35,000 glass-plate negatives, along with a nearly complete set of contact prints, which McBean created for use as a guide to reproducing the images. In an effort to ensure the delicate glass plates are preserved, Wilson said, Weissman Preservation Center staff are working to organize and catalog each negative, and to provide each with a separate housing.

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Over more than three decades, McBean photographed productions of the Old Vic Company and what is now the Royal Shakespeare Company, along with many opera, ballet and operetta productions and West End productions of plays and musicals. Considered the favorite photographer of Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and Edith Evans, McBean’s subjects included virtually every major actor of the era, including John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Richard Burton and Audrey Hepburn. In addition to his theatre work, McBean ran a full-time portrait studio, and photographed many of the leading actors and actresses of the day, as well as playwrights, producers, composers, artists and writers.

Though Welsh by birth, McBean lived most of his life in London, and developed an early interest in both photography and theatrical masks and stagecraft. After apprenticing himself for several years to Hugh Cecil, a well-known Society photographer, McBean struck out on his own in the early 1930s, and began photographing productions of the Old Vic in London, and quickly developed a reputation for his creativity and the high-quality of his photos. Unlike other photographers of the time, who largely relied on stage lighting to photograph productions, McBean brought his own, often extensive, lighting equipment. The results were often distinctively artistic, with lush, deep blacks, stark whites and subtle gradation between the two.

Perhaps even more critical to the “feel” of McBean’s photos was the equipment he used. “Even in an age when ‘portable photography’ was taking over, he never used 35mm film,” Wilson said. “He almost never even used large-format film – he used glass plates. The plates helped to produce a number of the qualities people today associate with his photograph, one of which is the great detail they can produce.”

While the emulsions used on film and the plates were essentially identical, the plates’ advantage comes in raw size. A five-inch by seven-inch glass plate has 35 square inches of area which can be exposed, while a single frame of 35 mm film has essentially one, Wilson said.

“The plates allowed him to be much more flexible in the exposure, and still get a good image,” Wilson said. “Since the plates capture so much more information, he was able to fix any exposure problems in the darkroom, which brought out a lot more variation in the tones. His photos didn’t have the harsh contrast which was typical of that time.”