Words - 20th Century Greats - Frank, Keith and Kenneth Beken


20th Century Greats series (1999)

Frank, Keith and Kenneth Beken

In John Chillingworth’s series on the great photographers of the 20th century, he has identified the individual flair and professionalism that so often divides the ‘greats’ from we ‘mere mortals’! Studying the lives and times of the Beken family, marine photographers of Cowes, it was impossible for him to separate three gifted generations.

It is not by chance that ‘Beken of Cowes’ has become the by-word for some of the finest marine images in the world. Whatever his perception of the fast approaching 20th century, when Canterbury pharmacist, Alfred Beken, moved the business and his young family to the Isle of Wight in 1888, he could not have known that destiny had marked him out to be the patriarch of a photographic dynasty.

As a pharmacist, his modest shop in Cowes was patronised by royalty. ‘By Appointment to her Majesty Queen Victoria’ soon appeared on the shop front. Other Royal accolades followed, but from the picture window at the back of the premises, he and apprentice son, Frank, marvelled the majestic movement of innumerable yachts of every size and origin.

Father and son had already photographed weddings and other social events as a profitable sideline, but with the romance of sail constantly in their eye-line, the Bekens were to experience a rush of adrenaline, so powerful that it has lasted for over a century.

Whilst still his father’s apprentice, Frank Beken took to the Solent in a rowing boat to take his first marine pictures in 1897. After studying in London to qualify as a pharmacist, he returned to Cowes determined to combine his profession as a pharmacist, with his love of photography and sail.

Today, Cowes without the Bekens would be like strawberries without the cream!

Masters of innovation
Working within the limitations of early camera and film technology, combined with the unpredictable movement of a small boat was a challenge. Frank Beken achieved near miraculous results using conventional plate camera supporting an f8 Ross Xpress lens, with an internal leaf shutter capable of delivering an exposure of 1/150th of a second.

In the 1920’s he designed and constructed his own 8” X 6” plate camera. Bulky, simple, but brilliantly effective, he released the blind shutter connected by a tube to a hydraulic pump in a unique way. All that was needed to make an exposure was one bite on a rubber ball held in his mouth! He called the camera his ‘Mark 1’.

Cowes Week had become the highlight of the international sailing year. The Beken’s photography was to become – and remains today, an indispensable part of it.

War created new challenges for them both. Such were its qualities and durability; the ‘Mark 1 was still in use throughout and after WWII. Frank’s son Keith, born in 1914, had joined his father in the business in the 1930’s. Unlike his contemporaries, for whom sailing was ‘de rigueur’, he concentrated on developing the skills needed to control the Beken launch that would always be his camera platform.

Such was his ability that during his war service, he commanded a 32-knot, 60ft air-sea rescue launch.

Meanwhile, Frank held both the pharmacy and photography business together. One day he creating his own brand of cosmetics, the next, fulfilling his Admiralty contract photographing newly built Royal Navy ships.

Returning to civilian life, Keith retrieved the Beken launch, hidden for six years in the depths of a nearby haystack and concentrated, full time, on developing the photographic side of the business. Frank’s ‘Mark 1’ camera remained in use until 1970, but Keith designed and built a ‘Mark II’, 5” X 4” version of his father’s marine camera in 1955, using it to produce brilliantly composed, consistent results until overtaken, at last, by modern technology.

Getting on with it
From an early age, Kenneth, Keith’s son had been determined to follow his father into the business.

Signing up for a three-year photography course at Salisbury College of Art in the late 1960’s, he spent a year, bored to tears, photographing teacups and other inanimate objects that came to hand.

At the end of the year doyen tutor, John Bigglestone, gave him some sound advice. “Get the hell out of here. We have nothing to teach you about marine photography. Go home and get on with it!”

He did just that and the rest is contemporary history. Today, with a century of family experience behind him, Kenneth travels the world photographing sailing and powerboat events, using Hassleblad 500C cameras. He is even experimenting with Canon EOS 3’s with image stabilising lenses.

Beken of Cowes is now a company that comprises an extensive photo-library, a laboratory and a retail shop, plus a thriving publishing arm that produces books and calendars for individual and corporate use all over the world.

Now, Kenneth has children. Think about it. There is every reason to believe that a latter-day Beken will be written up as a ‘21st century great’!

© Copyright John Chillingworth