Although already over a hundred years old, photography had made little progress by the 1960s in making a name for itself as an art form. So far, photographic exhibitions in Britain were primarily for documentation rather than artistic merit. The NPG had housed an archive of photographs since 1917 called the National Photographic Record, but they were never celebrated in the same way as the primary collection.
Roy Strong wished to push forward with photography as a modern, dynamic medium that he felt needed to be represented for its significance to portraiture. For the first photographic exhibition at the Gallery, Strong enlisted a man of varied talent, and a personal friend of his, Cecil Beaton.
Beaton’s background was bold and adventurous prior to his NPG exhibition. A key photographer and member of the Bright Young People, a term coined by the tabloid press for the bohemian aristocrats and socialites of 1920s London, he began his successful career working for Vogue. During WW2, Beaton was given the task of recording images from the home front, and it is often said that one of his particularly enduring photographs helped provoke an active response from the Americans. This mixture of cutting edge fashion photography and traditional, patriotic pieces was clear in the Beaton exhibition, which contained both portraits of living celebrities such as Twiggy and Mick Jagger, and images commemorating war heroes. The inclusion of Beaton’s Royal portraits was likely key to driving the exhibition into reality, as it still appealed to the then majority of the Gallery’s trustees and visitors alike.
The exhibition, however, attracted far more attention than could have been anticipated, and visitors queued around Trafalgar Square to see the photographs. The unique design of the exhibition, including incense, music and themed rooms, cemented the Gallery as an innovative, open institution that was rapidly setting new standards. Strong was criticized by some for the elaborate exhibition style, but he maintained, and rightly so, that there had never before been a queue to get into the NPG.