Shooting Charles Henri Ford
In the mid-1930s, during one of his periodic visits to his employers at Vogue in New York City, the British photographer Cecil Beaton photographed the young American writer Charles Henri Ford sprawled out on a bed of tabloid newspapers. This Ford portrait expresses Beaton’s homoerotic investment in the rough edges of American low culture. By re-examining Beaton’s response to the violent culture of New York City, and its sensationalized representation in the tabloids, Beaton’s photograph of Ford is positioned within a transatlantic frame. Contextualized as such, the photograph is exemplary of the British revulsion – with equal measure of fascination and excitement – at some of the excesses of American mass culture. Because Ford was such an outspoken public voice for the New York homosexual subculture, the image is rife with homoeroticized cues and clues. Beaton utilizes the aesthetics (as well as the actual physical material) of the New York tabloids to create a photograph that is simultaneously violent and erotic, ‘high’ art and ‘low’ culture.
The author wishes to thank Vanessa Schwartz for her extremely helpful edits, and for her encouragement to seek out publication for this piece. He also owes a debt of gratitude to Olivier Lugon, who took the time to discuss the essay with him, and to fix the flaws with the initial draft.
1In the mid-1930s, during one of his periodic visits to his employers at Vogue in New York City, the British photographer Cecil Beaton photographed the young American writer Charles Henri Ford sprawled out on a bed of tabloid newspapers. The tabloids are a jarring presence, cluttering the frame and screaming at the viewer through the strident headlines that surround the reclining figure. The scattered newspapers, it would appear, are as much a focus of the portrait as the human subject.
- 1 For more on Beaton’s photographic work and its critical reception, see Philip Garner and David Mell (...)
- 2 Donald Albrecht, Cecil Beaton: The New York Years (New York: Museum of the City of New York, 2011).
2The presence of the tabloids is particularly notable given Beaton’s reputation as an artist. His work is rarely, if ever, discussed in the context of objects of so-called ‘low’ culture. The glamorous portraits of royalty, Hollywood stars, and theatrical personalities for which he is best known are decidedly of an artisanal, fine arts photographic tradition that would appear to have very little in common with the rough and raw vulgarity of the 1930s tabloids.1 The recent exhibition and accompanying publication of Beaton’s artistic work in New York seem to confirm this fact, providing very little evidence or analysis of Beaton’s interest in the crudities of American mass culture.2 The Ford portrait, then, is a rare sort of object in Beaton’s oeuvre, and therefore stands out as an intriguing artifact of the artist’s response to New York life. As this article will show, Beaton’s appropriation of the tabloids provided a means of formal experimentation, as well as the opportunity to make use of seamy, sexualized urban themes that were not a part of his typical photographic practice.
- 3 Charles Henri Ford and Tyler Parker, The Young and Evil (New York: Arno Press, 1933). No published (...)
- 4 This aspect of Ford’s life was the subject of a paper at the American Historical Association in 201 (...)
3Sexuality lurks somewhere just beneath the surface of the Ford image, and requires a bit of reading between the lines. By the time Beaton shot this photograph, Ford had earned a reputation as a defiant and open homosexual, which inflects the photographer’s portrait of him. Ford’s scandalous novel The Young and Evil, published in 1933 when he was only twenty-five years old, chronicled the sexual exploits and reckless behaviour of homosexual youth in New York City.3 The notoriety of the work, and its censure by authorities in the United States and Britain, worked to make Ford something of a poster boy for a transatlantic queer bohemia in the 1930s.4
- 5 Ford’s magazine View, launched in 1940, proclaimed itself the voice of avant-garde art movements in (...)
4This article argues that the Ford portrait expresses Beaton’s homoerotic investment in the rough edges of American low culture. Juxtaposing an avant-garde, homosexual literary figure with a degraded form of mass culture, Beaton’s photograph plays with the sexualized tension between high and low forms of cultural production.5 It was precisely because the tabloids were such degraded productions that Beaton used them as the dominant motif of the portrait. They were, for Beaton, the distillation of the libidinal energy of the American metropolis. Uniting the body of an avowed and outspoken homosexual with the tabloids, Beaton betrays his fascination with the crudeness of tabloid news that was rooted, at least in part, in a homoerotic reading of American mass culture.
- 6 Thomas Waugh uses the terms ‘queer’ and ‘homosexual’ somewhat interchangeably. I make very limited (...)
- 7 Thomas Waugh, Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to (...)
- 8 Ibid., 102.
- 9 The complexity of this homoerotic language in the work of one of these photographers is analyzed in (...)
5The guarded, even disguised, homoeroticism of the photograph was of a piece with Beaton’s artistic milieu. Beaton was one of the leading figures of the loosely affiliated network of queer6 photographers, filmmakers, and writers that Thomas Waugh has labelled the ‘glamour generation.’ Waugh used the term to refer to artists united by their involvement in the cosmopolitan, upper-crust bohemia that flourished in the interwar years in the publicity saturated worlds of magazines, film, and the theatre.7 Their homoeroticism, Waugh claims, ‘would shy away from the intensity of sexual imagery,’ in favour of ‘low-key … erotic image-making on the side or below the surface of their public faces.’8 As with his fellow glamour generation photographers Carl Van Vechten, Horst P. Horst, and Raymond Voinquel, Beaton’s homoerotic images are few and far between, and those that do exist by and large exhibit a restrained and disguised sexual language.9
- 10 See, for example, Moe Meyer, The Politics and Poetics of Camp (London: Routledge, 1994). Christophe (...)
- 11 Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp,’ in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, ed. Fabio Clet (...)
- 12 Ford himself accused Beaton of being ‘the biggest Born Camp since [Ronald] Firbank.’ The Sir Cecil (...)
- 13 Cecil Beaton and Peter Quennell, Time Exposure (London: B.T. Batsford, 1946), 4.
- 14 In making use of elements of low culture, Beaton was out of step with many of his contemporaries wh (...)
6Beaton’s transgression of high and low cultural boundaries can be understood as an expression of a ‘camp’ sensibility that animated much of his practice, and which is historically and culturally tied to the creative productions of queer artists.10 The tension between a high culture aesthetic sensibility and a love and appreciation of low cultural forms has long been understood as a central feature of camp culture. Susan Sontag summed up the camp sensibility by suggesting, ‘The connoisseur of Camp has found more ingenious pleasures. Not in Latin poetry and rare wines and velvet jackets, but in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses … Camp [is] Dandyism in the age of mass culture.’11 In many ways, Beaton could have been the prototype for this ‘dandy in the age of mass culture.’12 Beaton’s close friend Peter Quennell would later describe Beaton’s artistic style by suggesting that, ‘He enjoyed treading the shadowy border-line between “good” and “bad” taste.’13 Although more recent scholars have largely overlooked this element of Beaton’s work, his photography, and the portrait of Ford perhaps most directly, expressed an interest in the socially constructed categories of high and low culture.14
- 15 For more on the European reaction to American mass culture, see Richard F. Kuisel, Seducing the Fre (...)
7The clash of high and low is further compounded by the image being a product of a very particular transatlantic exchange. Beaton’s erotic investment in the tabloids is informed by the collision of British and American culture. For Beaton, as with many foreign observers at the time, the tabloids were thought to be the lowest of low culture, in part because they were seen to be so garishly American. Beaton subscribed to European stereotypes of the American mass culture as crass and vile, but also acknowledged that there was something titillating in that perceived vulgarity.15 His decision to photograph Ford in the way that he did illustrates how the transatlantic encounter interacted with and accentuated the clash of high and low. The visual language of the image reveals how Beaton imbued that clash with erotic potential.
- 16 See Simon Bessie, Jazz Journalism: The Story of Tabloid Newspapers (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1938); A (...)
- 17 S. Bessie, Jazz Journalism (note 16), 117. For a thorough study of standards of quality in news pho (...)
8The tabloid press was a particularly fraught cultural form in 1930s New York. Tabloid journalism arrived in America with the founding of the New York Daily News in 1919, which was followed in the next decade by a number of short-lived titles, such as W.R. Hearst’s Daily Mirror and the much-maligned New York Evening Graphic.The New York tabloids that proliferated in the 1920s inspired vociferous invectives by cultural critics and journalists, who saw these photographic newspapers as the lowest and basest forms of culture, marred by an obsession with violence, sex, and criminality, and of a piece with the proliferating speakeasies and jazz clubs that dotted the urban landscape throughout the 1920s.16 Gory photographs and stories scandalized the public, alerting censors and city officials. The notorious photograph of Ruth Snyder, taken clandestinely as she was electrocuted for murdering her husband, caused a particularly virulent public outcry. Writing from the close distance of 1938, Simon Bessie’s history of tabloid journalism contended, ‘For a number of years, this death chamber picture has been used as a symbol of tabloid sinfulness, pointed to with furious indignation as proof of the righteous contention that the tabloid is an intolerable, anti-social evil which must be eradicated.’17
- 18 For more on this, see James E. Murphy, ‘Tabloids as an Urban Response,’ in Mass Media between the W (...)
- 19 The central text for understanding the tabloids and American urban violence, although it deals with (...)
9By the time Beaton arrived in New York in the mid-1930s, in other words, the tabloids had come to symbolize much about the brutality of the American city. Though certainly hyperbolic in their representation of urban life, they undoubtedly encapsulated some of the energy and dynamism of New York between the wars. They were an eloquently representative media form for a city that had recently become the most populous in the world, and which was characterized by its high rates of urban violence, an unfortunate reality that was only exacerbated by the deprivations of the Depression.18 The tabloids reflected and helped constitute popular anxieties about the urban environment, reinforcing and sensationalizing stereotypes about the criminal and sexual underworlds of the city.19
- 20 Cecil Beaton, Cecil Beaton’s New York (London: B.T. Batsford, 1938). See also Cecil Beaton, The Wan (...)
- 21 C. Beaton, Cecil Beaton’s New York (note 20), 60, 72.
10A glimpse into Beaton’s reaction to the New York tabloids is provided by Cecil Beaton’s New York, a quasi-ethnographic travelogue documenting his time in New York during the mid-1930s.20 Beaton dedicated an entire chapter of the book to a discussion of the popular press. He marvelled at the size and number of popular newspapers in America. He jokingly expressed his fear that ‘American newspapers and periodical publications will soon eat up all the forests of the world,’ and remarked that during his breakfast newspaper reading, ‘The bed is lost in the avalanche of paper, but determination carries me through.’21 Such sentiments find visual form in the photographic accompaniment to his written travel narrative. In one of those photographs, Sunday Morning, Beaton poked fun at his own obsession with print media, betraying a willing acquiescence to the onslaught of American newspapers. Engulfed in his Sunday papers, he barely comes up for air, his head just partially exposed amidst the flood of text and images. His expression betrays a humorous combination of revolt – his mouth open as if aghast – and prurient interest – his eyes returning to the page despite his attempt to look away. He clearly is in no hurry to extricate himself from the reading materials that threaten to devour him.
- 22 He wrote, ‘New Yorkers are aware of crime in a direct way which is outside the experience of most L (...)
- 23 Manuscript document, The Sir Cecil Beaton Papers, St. John’s College Library, Cambridge.
11Beaton saw in the tabloids a form of tantalizingly abject culture that crystallized much of the visceral charge of New York. The violence of American urban life was a common theme in Beaton’s discussion of his experiences in New York.22 Many of his ideas about American culture were mediated through his reading of the tabloids, which gave him a very sensationalized image of life in the metropolis. Captivated by the hyperbolic tone and content of the American tabloids, Beaton would turn again and again to this motif in his musings on American culture. He later wrote, ‘When one sees an American news photograph of a man leaping off a bridge, one wonders why the photographer did not rush forward to save him instead of snapping the shutter ... There is an element of barbarism in these photographs, whatever fascination they may possess.’23 Such images were barbaric, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless. It seems that they were fascinating to Beaton precisely because he thought they were barbaric.
- 24 For a historical analysis of this, see Joel Wiener and Mark Hampton, Anglo-American Media Interacti (...)
- 25 St. John Ervine, The Future of the Press (London: The World’s Press News, 1930), 5.
- 26 See St. John Ervine, ‘Privacy and the Lindberghs,’ Fortnightly, no. 139 (February 1936): 180–6.
12Beaton’s mix of revulsion and fascination with American popular culture was common among British observers and travellers to the United States. The conception of American popular culture as excessive, as hyperbolic, as ‘too much,’ appears again and again in contemporaneous discourse in Britain.24 The press was often a locus of these criticisms, because the differences in journalistic styles seemed so clearly to illustrate the contrast between British and American sensibilities. Writing in 1930, the British journalist St. John Ervine argued that the use of large and garish headlines in William Randolph Hearst’s tabloid newspapers ‘is a characteristic of the American popular newspaper which has never been a characteristic of the British newspaper, possibly because we are a better educated people, probably because we are (ought I to say, were?) temperamentally averse from loud speakers and blatant announcements (we British never use bold headlines).’25 Sentiments such as this one were little more than self-serving cant; the British did quite well on their own – as Ervine himself decried – in serving up sensation and spectacle as news.26 Discursively, however, the tabloid press carried a particularly American allure for the British that Beaton’s reactions encapsulate quite well.
- 27 Jeff Hearn and Antonio Melechi, ‘The Transatlantic Gaze: Masculinities, Youth and the American Imag (...)
13The British response to American popular culture in the early twentieth century has been discussed by Jeff Hearn and Antonio Melechi in their article ‘The Transatlantic Gaze: Masculinities, Youth and the American Imaginary.’27 They argue that one effect of the popularity of early western films and other celebratory incarnations of rugged, frontier masculinity was that American mass culture carried with it, particularly as it traversed the Atlantic, the appeal of the volatile, the youthful, and the ‘manly.’ The figure of the masculine (and potentially violent) youth became an icon of American mass culture. Sex and violence, according to Hearn and Melechi, were intimately linked, brought together in the bodies of youthful men as they appeared in popular culture.
- 28 Richard Meyer’s work on Paul Cadmus in the late 1930s and 1940s illustrates that American artists a (...)
- 29 For more on this, see Liz Willis-Tropea, ‘Hollywood Glamour: Sex, Power, and Photography, 1925–1939 (...)
14The popular stereotype of America as a hotbed of masculine sexual energy had particular purchase in the transatlantic homosexual world of which Beaton was a part, which inflected this ‘transatlantic gaze’ with homoerotic meaning.28 The Ford portrait might best be seen in the context of Beaton’s most unabashedly homoerotic photographs: his glamour shots of Hollywood film star Johnny Weissmuller, taken on the set of Tarzan in Los Angeles in 1932.29 Those photographs laid bare (quite literally) the throbbing homoerotics of the Tarzan franchise and its leading star. Beaton used the erotic masculine appeal of Weissmuller to expose some of the libidinal qualities of the Hollywood B movies with which the actor was most identified. In photographs such as this, Beaton cheekily engaged with American popular culture and its peculiarly ‘over-sexed’ quality.
15A collage entitled ‘New York Impressions’ that Beaton produced in 1937 corroborates his fascination with the sexual hedonism of New York, and highlights its homoerotic implications. A cluttered admixture of New York’s urban delights, the image is a visual survey of the city’s mass culture, containing hurried representations of advertisements, campy burlesque performances, Broadway shows, and (notably) the tabloids. The two hulking male figures in the centre of the frame – both shirtless – testify to Beaton’s recognition that at least some of this commercial culture was rooted in an appreciation of the sexualized male body. The bulging underwear of the headless BVD model punctuates this point. A representation of Mae West, well known for her associations with homosexual male subculture, underscores Beaton’s queer reading of the city. Importantly, Ford’s name (as well as that of his literary collaborator, Parker Tyler) appears in the lower right of the frame, linking Ford to the maelstrom of coarse American pleasures.
16The tabloids were the ne plus ultra of low American amusement and its combination of masculine violence and sex appeal, and Beaton was well aware of this. He gave photographic form to his fascination with the tabloids in a photograph included in Cecil Beaton’s New York entitled The Days News. Beaton channelled the divergent themes of American tabloid reporting – violence, criminal celebrity, sexual frankness, and American vigorous masculinity – into a single visual statement. Tabloid criminality is given a slight erotic twist: scantily-clad and sweat-drenched pugilists share the page with fascists and murderers in an odd, and unsettling, combination of homoerotic titillation and violent spectacle.
- 30 E.E. Cummings, ‘The Tabloid Newspaper: An Investigation Involving Big Business, the Pilgrim Fathers (...)
17The Days News exposes the underlying logic of tabloid journalism. The juxtaposition of glistening, eroticized male bodies and the spectacle of criminality in The Days News appears to have been quite intentional. Speaking through the prominent headline at the left of the frame – screaming ‘Pair Strangled in Auto Tryst’ – Beaton draws attention to the eroticized violence of the tabloids. The murder of two young lovers, out for an ill-fated joy ride, speaks volumes as to the ways in which the tabloids marshalled sex and crime in their photographic and journalistic language. It is this overlap of the criminal and the sexual that best characterizes the New York tabloids of the 1930s. The tabloids had a marked way of juxtaposing (typically female, but not always) semi-nudity with headlines and photographs of the goriest kind. E.E. Cummings in his insightful (and very early) psychoanalysis of tabloid culture put it thus: ‘The tabloid newspaper shows us, on one page, a delectable specimen of virginity in a one-piece bathing suit and, on the next, a man being sentenced to twenty years for rape.’30 The overall effect is clearly one intended to catch the eye through the appeal of the shocking and depraved, but Beaton was not blind to its paradoxical form of titillation: brutality, and fleshy, sexualized bodies. In his photograph of Ford, he would imbue the tabloids’ perverse unity of violence and sex with homoerotic appeal.
- 31 C. Beaton, Cecil Beaton’s New York (note 20), ix. For more on Beaton’s relationship with Ford, see (...)
- 32 These images are held at Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Collection, but the archivists do not have any info (...)
- 33 Beaton most certainly produced the Ford photograph during the same visit that resulted in Cecil Bea (...)
- 34 Ford’s literary and visual productions during the 1930s also appropriated elements of mass culture (...)
18Ford was not an incidental subject for an image that took New York’s visual culture as its subject. It was Ford and his partner Pavel Tchelitchew who helped constitute Beaton’s vision of New York City. In the acknowledgements of Cecil Beaton’s New York, Beaton expressly thanked Ford for ‘his enthusiasm on [their] sightseeing expeditions,’ revealing Ford’s role as guide through the visual pleasures of the American metropolis.31 Approximately at the same moment as Beaton produced this photograph, he also photographed Ford tucked effetely into a shrub with sprays of flowers framing his head. This was certainly more representative of Beaton’s work at the time, and he might have simply stopped there. But he clearly found inspiration in the act of placing Ford atop tabloid newspapers. He shot a series of images of Ford in similar positions, with the tabloids always serving as the background of choice.32 Dutifully reshuffling and rearranging the newspapers, Beaton seems to have arrived at this particular composition through a mix of chance and careful deliberation. How he intended these photographs to be consumed is unclear, given that they appear not to have been published or exhibited at the time. But at the very least, it is safe to say that Beaton saw the tabloids as well suited to his young American friend.33 Beaton appears to have felt that there was some kind of creative payoff in the juxtaposition of Ford with the raunchy photographic covers of the tabloids.34
- 35 For more on Weegee and his crime photographs, see Anthony Lee and Richard Meyer, Weegee and Naked C (...)
- 36 See Samuel T. Moore, ‘Those Terrible Tabloids,’ Independent, no. 116 (March 1926): 264–66.
19Beaton’s appropriation of the tabloids went beyond his use of discarded newspapers as a backdrop for the Ford portrait. The formal composition of the photograph, its basic visual vocabulary, seems to intentionally evoke a type of imagery that was closely identified with the tabloid press: the photograph of the slaughtered corpse. Beaton has done his best to playfully approximate the tabloid photographs of murder scenes taken by New York press photographers such as Weegee. The most adventurous tabloid photographers followed police cars (Weegee had a police radio that he used to keep abreast of the juiciest murders), seizing on opportunities to photograph murdered bodies while they were still warm.35 In an article that appeared in the Independent in 1926, Samuel T. Moore remarked, ‘Another much prized expression of tabloid art lies in pictures of dead bodies on the street awaiting removal.’36 Such images were often front-page news for the tabloids, becoming some of their most distinctive – and highly reviled – features.
- 37 Ibid., 60.
20Beaton was attuned to the formal character of this form of ‘tabloid art.’ With evident interest, he wrote about the ‘The photographic horrors of murder that appear in the daily “Tabloids.”’37 His New York Impressions includes, in the lower left, a small drawing of a presumably dead man’s feet with the words ‘Shot Dead!’ He also included a photograph in Cecil Beaton’s New York that he titled Sidewalk Slaughter that clearly made reference to these types of tabloid images. The photograph expresses Beaton’s awareness of the conventions of murder photography in the New York tabloids. The gawking crowds, the gathering police and officials, and the contorted victim with blood leaking down the sidewalk all find symmetry in tabloid photographs of the day.
21Beaton’s photograph of Ford replicates and toys with this photographic cliché of the tabloid press. Sprawled out with the limpness of a motionless cadaver, adorned with a placid – almost empty – expression, Ford bears a remarkable resemblance to the murder victims that appeared in the pages of the tabloids. Evoking such imagery, Beaton’s photograph of Ford appears to bear testament to a murder. The shadows of Beaton’s tripod that cascade down Ford’s face and onto the floor are almost indistinguishable from the murky hues of blood as it would have appeared in black and white press photographs. The looming figure of Beaton – present only in shadow – has an ominous connotation, as if he is lurking over his photographic prey. The intention of the image, in other words, was to conjure the morbid allure of the crime scene.
- 38 For more on his nude photography, see Gerard Malanga, Charles Henri Ford: Photographs, 1930–1960 (N (...)
22The appeal of the portrait is also an erotic appeal, rather paradoxically given its evocation of the brutality of murder. Ford’s expression lies somewhere between a dead stare and a seductive come hither. In the mid-1930s, any image of Ford would have carried sexual connotations. In addition to his scandalously frank portrayals of homosexuality in his famously censored novel, Ford was a photographer as well, known for staging sexualized images of young men (in addition to himself) in positions of erotic recumbence.38 Ford’s renown was bound up with his sexually transgressive image, something powerfully punctuated in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of him from 1935. The image cheekily shows the young writer exiting a pissoir, in the midst of tucking himself back into his pants, conveniently posed next to an image of a long, glistening tongue protruding from an open mouth. Beaton, photographing Ford at roughly the same moment as Cartier-Bresson, saw in his subject a personality who was unafraid to engage in risqué behaviour on camera.
- 39 See T. Waugh, Hard to Imagine (note 7); Allen Ellenzweig, The Homoerotic Photograph: Male Images fr (...)
23Beaton’s portrait of Ford draws upon the subject’s pre-established identity as a homosexual enfant terrible. Ford’s smouldering eroticism is unmistakably part of the visual punch of the image. Ford lays supine, gazing sultrily into the camera. His positioning has a delicate, almost effeminate, quality, and because Ford made no bones about his sexual preference, his positioning in the photograph, particularly when lying prostrate, can be seen as a sexual invitation. The reclining man, mouth slightly opened, gazing at the camera, has dominated the language of homoerotic photography since the origins of the photographic medium.39
- 40 S. Bessie, Jazz Journalism (note 16), 184. For more on the Graphic, see Lester Cohen, The New York (...)
24The erotic language of the image is as much textual as it is visual. Some of Beaton’s erotic intent is expressed in the headlines of the newspapers upon which Ford reclines. Though it is uncertain which, if any, of the images that Beaton took of Ford during this session was the ‘chosen’ shot, it is clear that Beaton was careful to compose Ford in alignment with suggestive headlines, shifting Ford around on the pages of the newspapers to create an aesthetic arrangement that made use of the text on the pages beneath his subject. In this particular photograph, which is the only one that eventually made it to print, the text plays a particularly important role. Just to Ford’s right, one headline reads ‘Men Who…’ with the remainder of the phrase obscured. This abbreviated sentence intimates the sexual subtext of the image, wryly confirming the fact that Ford is one of those ‘men who …’ Taken in tandem with the punning inclusion of the title of the Sunday Graphic near Ford’s right elbow – with graphic suggestive of more than pen on paper – Beaton takes advantage of, and reorients, the sexual allure of the tabloid press. The Graphic could not have been a better choice for such a playful reference. The Sunday edition was the living relic of the notorious Evening Graphic, which in its short life inspired a horrified critical response and was, in the words of one contemporary, ‘quickly renamed the “porno-graphic,” banned from respectable homes and widely regarded as the worst form of debaucher to which a daily newspaper has ever been subjected.’40
25Beaton’s image, though by no means pornographic, speaks the language of sex through intimation and strategic reference. Ford’s submission to the camera is highly sexualized, but that sexualization is contingent upon a particular reading of the tabloids. Another strategically truncated headline within the frame underscores
Beaton’s playful homoeroticism. Just above Ford’s head, the text reads ‘Men In …’ The intentionally incomplete phrase makes a suggestive penetrative allusion, while underscoring the esotericism of the image, indicating that it may be understood by certain ‘men in the know.’ The photograph of Ford is a commentary on the process of reading between the lines, an acknowledgment of the tabloid as a space of subtextual erotic titillation.
26The photograph of Ford signifies in two inextricable registers: simultaneously evocative of the horrors of murder and of the seductive eros of sexual objectification. Beaton surely knew of Ford’s reputation as a sexually defiant personality, and when given the chance to photograph his young friend, he chose to murder him with his camera – ever so wittily – in the graphic style of the tabloid death shot. He literalized the metaphorical violence of ‘shooting’ one’s photographic subject. The photograph highlights the basest of the pleasures of American mass culture: its unsettling erotics of crime and violence. Just as in the tabloids, the most primal of human urges – violence and eroticism – are placed in an intricate relationship to one another.
27Beaton used the tabloids as the backdrop for his erotic staging precisely because of their gritty vulgarity. The crudeness of the tabloids and their usual cast of characters has been literally and figuratively overlaid with the supine body of a young, homosexual man of letters. Ford’s meagre physical proportions and acutely attuned aesthetic sensibilities – not to mention his defiant homosexuality – hardly made him the physical or social equal of the typical male subjects of the tabloids. Ford’s neatly piled hair glistens in the sunlight, his fastidiously pressed shirt is evenly tucked into his stylish trousers. Ford is the youthful American male so central to the European conception of American popular culture, but hardly the rugged type of lore. Beaton played with the disjuncture between the cultivated and the crass, the effete and the rugged, the refined and the barbarous – the high and the low. The eroticism of the image, therefore, does not derive from the display of hulking male nudity, but from the interaction of seemingly incommensurate pleasures: the base appeal of the tabloids and the cultivated (if still risqué) sensuality of Ford.
- 41 See especially, Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxfor (...)
- 42 T. Waugh (note 7), Hard to Imagine, 55.
28In his acknowledgement of the erotic potential of the collision of high and low, Beaton tapped into one of the central tensions that characterizes the history of homoerotic image making. The dissonance between the civilized and the atavistic has been essential to the homoerotic imagination from at least the late nineteenth century.41 Like the elite homosexual who prefers young ‘roughs,’ Beaton expressed his erotic investment in the crudities of the masses. In his analysis of homoerotic photography, Waugh contends, ‘gay erotic fantasy is animated by contradictory discourse of high and low,’ seen in a simultaneous embrace of ‘sleaze, raunch, the taboo,’ as well as ‘the elegant, the romantic, the ethereal.’42 These two forms of expression exist side by side (or, more accurately, one on top of the other) in Beaton’s photograph. The homoerotic character of the image is rooted in the mismatch between Ford (and Beaton, for that matter) as an effeminized cultural elite and the tabloids as a form of debased mass culture.
29Beaton’s aestheticization of American mass culture as a site of potentially violent masculinity derived in part from European stereotypes of an over-sexed, over-stimulated American culture of mass consumption. Focusing exclusively on Beaton’s photographs of high society and Hollywood – as nearly all scholars to study him have done – is to fail to recognize that he excitedly (if always a bit anxiously) submerged himself into the vulgarities of American culture. The tension between the old world and the new, civilization and barbarism, mass culture and the avant-garde, informed Beaton’s photographic production in New York, never more clearly than in his photographs of Ford. Photographing Ford in conjunction with – and in the style of – tabloid photography suggests that he clearly understood and recognized the erotic potential of the tabloids’ base appeal. The shock effects of the tabloid newspaper were the perfect accomplice to Beaton’s deviant act of homoerotic representation.
1 For more on Beaton’s photographic work and its critical reception, see Philip Garner and David Mellor, Cecil Beaton: Photographs, 1920–1970 (London: Steward, Sabori and Chang, 1996); Martin Francis, ‘Cecil Beaton’s Romantic Toryism and the Symbolic Economy of Wartime Britain,’ in Journal of British Studies 45 (January 2006): 90.
2 Donald Albrecht, Cecil Beaton: The New York Years (New York: Museum of the City of New York, 2011).
3 Charles Henri Ford and Tyler Parker, The Young and Evil (New York: Arno Press, 1933). No published biography of Ford exists, but for more on him, see Victor Koshkin-Youritzin, Photographs by Charles Henri Ford (Norman, OK: Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, The University of Oklahoma, 2006); Michael Duncan, ‘Famous First Words: Michael Duncan on Charles Henri Ford,’ Artforum 41, no. 5 (January 2003): 25; Gerard Malanga, Charles Henri Ford: Photographs, 1930-1960 (New York: Arena Editions, 2003); and the movie Sleep in a Nest of Flames: A Portrait of a Poet – A Portrait of a Century, directed by James Dowell and Jon Kolomvakis (Symbiosis Films, 2000).
4 This aspect of Ford’s life was the subject of a paper at the American Historical Association in 2012: Thomas W. Hafer, ‘Young and Evil Bohemia: Sex, Art, and Identity in the Queer Atlantic, 1930–39.’ This promising research is currently ongoing.
5 Ford’s magazine View, launched in 1940, proclaimed itself the voice of avant-garde art movements in the United States. For more on Ford and his relationship to the avant-garde literary and artistic movements, see Karen L. Rood, American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939 (Detroit: Gale Cengage, 1980).
6 Thomas Waugh uses the terms ‘queer’ and ‘homosexual’ somewhat interchangeably. I make very limited use of the term ‘queer’ in this article, in part because it is quite a fuzzy and fluid term, and much of what I am describing was truly ‘homosexual’ in its playing with same-sex desire. Ironically, however, the term ‘queer’ is probably the more appropriate term to describe Beaton, because it is difficult to call Beaton ‘homosexual’ in any uncomplicated terms – he had a romantic relationship with Greta Garbo, for one, but he frequently admitted to homosexual feelings and had several sexual relationships with men. For more on this, see Hugo Vickers, Cecil Beaton: A Biography (Boston: Little Brown, 1985), 74.
7 Thomas Waugh, Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
8 Ibid., 102.
9 The complexity of this homoerotic language in the work of one of these photographers is analyzed in James Smalls, The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).
10 See, for example, Moe Meyer, The Politics and Poetics of Camp (London: Routledge, 1994). Christopher Reed has coined the term the ‘amusing style’ to describe British visual artists and designers of the era that did not fit neatly within modernist principles, and the term seems eminently appropriate to Beaton’s work. See Christopher Reed, ‘Design for (Queer) Living: Sexual Identity, Performance, and Décor in British Vogue, 1922–1926,’ GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, no. 12 (2006): 377–403.
11 Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp,’ in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, ed. Fabio Cleto (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 63.
12 Ford himself accused Beaton of being ‘the biggest Born Camp since [Ronald] Firbank.’ The Sir Cecil Beaton Papers, St. John’s College Library, Cambridge, Letter marked 22 March 1940.
13 Cecil Beaton and Peter Quennell, Time Exposure (London: B.T. Batsford, 1946), 4.
14 In making use of elements of low culture, Beaton was out of step with many of his contemporaries who more rigidly adhered to modernist artistic principles. For more on the tensions between high and low culture within modernist art, see Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986); Walter L. Adamson, Embattled Avant-Gardes: Modernism’s Resistance to Commodity Culture in Europe (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008).
15 For more on the European reaction to American mass culture, see Richard F. Kuisel, Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), introduction; Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: The American Advance Through Twentieth Century Europe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006); Stephen Spender, Love-Hate Relations: English and American Sensibilities (New York: Random House, 1974).
16 See Simon Bessie, Jazz Journalism: The Story of Tabloid Newspapers (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1938); Arthur Sarell Rudd, ‘The Development of Illustrated Tabloid Journalism in the United States,’ (PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 1925); John Arthur Chapman, Tell It to Sweeney: The Informal History of the New York Daily News (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961); Silas Bent, Ballyhoo: The Voices of the Press (New York: Horace Liveright, 1927).
17 S. Bessie, Jazz Journalism (note 16), 117. For a thorough study of standards of quality in news photographs at the time, see Vincent Lavoie, ‘Le mérite photojournalistique: Une incertitude critériologique,’ Études photographiques, no. 20 (June 2007): 120–33.
18 For more on this, see James E. Murphy, ‘Tabloids as an Urban Response,’ in Mass Media between the Wars: Perceptions of Cultural Tension, 1918–1941, ed. Catherine L. Covert and John D. Stevens (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press), 62. See also Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), 52–85.
19 The central text for understanding the tabloids and American urban violence, although it deals with the 1950s, is Will Straw, Cyanide and Sin, Visualizing Crime in Fifties America (New York: Andrew Roth Gallery/PPP Publications, 2006).
20 Cecil Beaton, Cecil Beaton’s New York (London: B.T. Batsford, 1938). See also Cecil Beaton, The Wandering Years: Diaries, 1922–39 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1961).
21 C. Beaton, Cecil Beaton’s New York (note 20), 60, 72.
22 He wrote, ‘New Yorkers are aware of crime in a direct way which is outside the experience of most Londoners. An astonishing number of New Yorkers have, at some time or another, actually witnessed a crime, and statistics indicate that one in every three people in the United States is, either directly or indirectly, affected by the activities of gangsters.’ Ibid., 89.
23 Manuscript document, The Sir Cecil Beaton Papers, St. John’s College Library, Cambridge.
24 For a historical analysis of this, see Joel Wiener and Mark Hampton, Anglo-American Media Interactions, 1850–2000 (London: Palgrave, 2007). See also S. Spender, Love-Hate Relations (note 15).
25 St. John Ervine, The Future of the Press (London: The World’s Press News, 1930), 5.
26 See St. John Ervine, ‘Privacy and the Lindberghs,’ Fortnightly, no. 139 (February 1936): 180–6.
27 Jeff Hearn and Antonio Melechi, ‘The Transatlantic Gaze: Masculinities, Youth and the American Imaginary,’ in Men, Masculinity and the Media, Steve Craig, ed. (London: Sage, 1992).
28 Richard Meyer’s work on Paul Cadmus in the late 1930s and 1940s illustrates that American artists also recognized the homoerotics of New York urban life. See Richard Meyer, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
29 For more on this, see Liz Willis-Tropea, ‘Hollywood Glamour: Sex, Power, and Photography, 1925–1939’ (PhD dissertation, University of Southern California, 2008).
30 E.E. Cummings, ‘The Tabloid Newspaper: An Investigation Involving Big Business, the Pilgrim Fathers and Psychoanalysis,’ Vanity Fair, December, 1926: 83.
31 C. Beaton, Cecil Beaton’s New York (note 20), ix. For more on Beaton’s relationship with Ford, see Cecil Beaton, St. John’s Library, Cambridge, The Sir Cecil Beaton Papers.
32 These images are held at Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Collection, but the archivists do not have any information about the exhibition history.
33 Beaton most certainly produced the Ford photograph during the same visit that resulted in Cecil Beaton’s New York, though the photograph does not appear in the book. Some of the newspapers in the Ford photographs appear elsewhere in that book, suggesting a chronological overlap. Its exact date and provenance remain somewhat obscure, a fact that makes research on the photograph somewhat difficult. It may be that Beaton did not include the image in Cecil Beaton’s New York precisely because it was too provocative, an assumption that will have to remain conjectural. In a letter to Beaton discussing his thoughts on Cecil Beaton’s New York, Ford cheekily remarked that the passages documenting their time together were ‘charmingly impertinent,’ a suggestion that Ford’s presence in the text represented at least some kind of risqué challenge for the publisher. Sir Cecil Beaton Papers, St. John’s College, Cambridge.
34 Ford’s literary and visual productions during the 1930s also appropriated elements of mass culture – the speakeasy, the erotic pin-up, the tabloid newspaper – making use of the detritus of mass culture in the service of art. The materials kept at the Getty Research Institute include many collages and clippings of tabloid photographic imagery. See The Charles Henri Ford Papers, The Getty Research Institute, Box 77, Box 49.
35 For more on Weegee and his crime photographs, see Anthony Lee and Richard Meyer, Weegee and Naked City (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008).
36 See Samuel T. Moore, ‘Those Terrible Tabloids,’ Independent, no. 116 (March 1926): 264–66.
37 Ibid., 60.
38 For more on his nude photography, see Gerard Malanga, Charles Henri Ford: Photographs, 1930–1960 (New York: Arena Editions, 2003). Waugh refers to this image as a ‘self-portrait’ of Ford: T. Waugh, Hard to Imagine (note 7), 123.
39 See T. Waugh, Hard to Imagine (note 7); Allen Ellenzweig, The Homoerotic Photograph: Male Images from Durieu/Delacroix to Mapplethorpe (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).
40 S. Bessie, Jazz Journalism (note 16), 184. For more on the Graphic, see Lester Cohen, The New York Graphic: The World’s Zaniest Newspaper (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1964).
41 See especially, Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991); Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century: Oscar Wilde, Effeminacy and the Queer Moment (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994); Ed Cohen, Talk on the Wilde Side: Toward a Genealogy of the Discourse of Male Homosexuality (London: Routledge, 1988).
42 T. Waugh (note 7), Hard to Imagine, 55.
Ryan Linkof, « Shooting Charles Henri Ford », Études photographiques, 29 | 2012, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 25 juin 2014. URL : http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/3478. consulté le 23 février 2017.