Celebrity portrait taker Angus McBean shot this image during Easter 1940 as a stirring wartime, life-goes-on celebration of church and amateur dramatics.
The Picture Post story that accompanied the image reflected on how a cross section of British society selflessly came together to perform religious dramas and raise money for good causes. A year after taking the photograph, McBean was sent to jail for being a homosexual and wasn’t released until the end of 1944.
“He had to set himself up again,” says his biographer and friend Adrian Woodhouse, who managed to identify the negatives after McBean’s death. “He’d forgotten what had happened to them,” adds Woodhouse.
The Post’s story recorded a passion play, depicting Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, performed in St Augustine’s Church in London.
The use of barbed wire to reflect conflict and containment has become a powerful motif. Amnesty International has incorporated it into its logo, but perhaps visual overuse has eroded some of its potency.
“There is nothing new under the sun,” says Chillingworth. “I see things now that are similar to what was being done 40 or 50 years ago. I think barbed wire has always had the same connotation. It’s amazing that it was just barbed wire because there’s a big wall there now. The real wall is mental attitude.
“It’s a relatively early example of a McBean montage,” says Woodhouse. “Clouds are all part of the language of surrealism, of dreams.” The clouds were added at McBean’s studio. He had become famous in 1938 through his series of surreal portraits for The Sketch magazine, mostly of famous, beautiful actresses.
“He understood the human face better than any other photographer in the 20th century,” says Woodhouse, whose acclaimed biography is called Angus McBean, Facemaker.
McBean’s breakthrough came when he photographed Vivien Leigh, but he is most famous for bookending the Beatles’ career. He took the cover shot of their 1963 album Please Please Me from inside EMI’s London headquarters, and recreated it in 1969, which was used on the cover of The Beatles 1967-1970.