Cecil Beaton’s Land-Girls

This unusual photograph is attributed to Sir Cecil Beaton. It is part of the Vogue archive. I use it here because I’m going to discuss it in some detail, and since it is the subject of this post it constitutes what I consider to be ‘fair use’, rather than simply a ‘stolen’ illustration.

In the summer of 1940 The Battle of Britain was being fought in the skies over England. Beaton, who was not knighted until 1972, was working hard on British propaganda. As an aesthete he wasn’t particularly skilled at this because he made the jungles of the East and the deserts of Africa beautiful, even when littered with the detritus of war.

I admire him for this skill and wish more photographers had the ability find beauty, whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves.

On the day this image was taken Beaton was photographing Land-Girls in the Home Counties. There is some confusion about whether the young women in question were professional models, or simply local people of suitable ages and appearance. In the posed images on the roll of film, from which this image was made, they epitomise the kind of people who are known as English roses.

Beaton’s contemporary, Norman Parkinson, who spent the Second World War as a farmer, made lots of images at his home that show just how dirty and demanding farming can be. There is none of that in Beaton’s work.

So what about this image? It seems that a couple of pilots dropped by to see their sweethearts, and persuaded Beaton to photograph them. It may well have been posed, of course, but as it’s the sole photograph of the kind on the film I like to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Two flyers with their uniform trousers rolled above the knee gallantly carry Land-Girls, who in this image wear slacks, across a mere. All four are smiling and you can almost hear jocularity from the men and squeals of delight uttering from the women. In the background there are trees at the horizon, as if these images were taken in parkland.

It’s a historical document, to be sure, but more than that for we might easily substitute the RAF uniforms for denim, and the sweet English faces for those of proud African ethnicity and the magic of this moment would be preserved.

It’s a fair assumption that all four people in this image, as well as Beaton, are dead. The park-like setting is probably a housing estate, the mere drained and no longer used for agriculture.

So, what is it that makes this picture so powerful that it came during sleep causing me to search in old texts until I located it in Unseen Vogue: The Secret History of Fashion Photography?

We have established that it’s not the time in which it was photographed, nor stories we may know about the people depicted. It’s not this particular landscape, for this like the people has long since changed.

No, it’s a kind of moment-less moment beyond time, beyond space, simply aliveness finding itself in the aliveness that is us and in which we appear, to exist, as separate entities.

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