Tuesday, January 17th, 2012...10:00 am

From Vivien Leigh to The Beatles: Angus McBean’s Photographs Online

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McBean, Angus, photograph of Vivien Leigh. MS Thr 581The Harvard Theatre Collection is currently in the midst of a multi-year project to catalog and digitize the Angus McBean Collection of theatrical photographs. The collection consists of over 30,000 glass plate negatives and their accompanying contact proofs.

Angus McBean was born in 1904 in Newport, South Wales, England. As a youth he was a devotee of the cinema, spending hours watching the early silent films and experimenting with photography. After a brief attempt at a career in banking, he moved to London in 1924 to work as a restorer of antiques, at the same time continuing his “hobbies” of mask-making and photography. In the early 1930s he received his first theatrical commission to make masks for The Golden Toy being performed at the Coliseum.

McBean, Angus, photograph of Dorothy Dickson. MS Thr 581

McBean then became the assistant to Hugh Cecil, a prominent Society photographer, where he learned portraiture. He then launched his career as a theater photographer. Over the course of the next 25 years McBean photographed all the British theater stars: Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, and Laurence Olivier, to name a few. By the late 1940s McBean was the official photographer for a number of major British theaters including Stratford, Sadler Well’s and the Old Vic.

McBean, Angus, photograph of 1959 production of Coriolanus. MS Thr 581

McBean shot his photographs directly onto glass plates, using what was already considered old-fashioned equipment. Each photograph took six minutes. In the 1960s he moved to a monorail camera and began using film; though rarely color film which he disliked. He did use color film when shooting the iconic photograph for the Beatles album cover Please Please Me. McBean’s outdated methods and theatrical style led to a virtual end of his career by the early 1970s.

At this time all the portraits in the collection have been digitized, the Shakespeare productions, and the surrealist photographs for which McBean was renowned. Work has now begun on the theatrical productions, the largest portion of the collection. Over 8000 photographs are now available online in the VIA image database. To see the photographs, search on “McBean” and limit by to the repository “Harvard Theatre Collection.”

[Thanks to Susan Pyzynski, Associate Librarian for Technical Services, for contributing this post.]

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