Thursday, March 18, 2010

Suddenly I See....

I set this blog up to be a record of my thoughts and ideas on life as a woman, artist, mom, wife, etc. As opposed to a more third-person look at art or culture. I'll save those discussions for future essays that might be written should I ever go for an MFA or write an article somewhere. Here, I get personal (and please bear with me, because this could be a rather long post).

So, I've been going on a journey of sorts for a while and I've been thinking of how I should write about it, and the postings of a dear friend of mine have actually given me a really good jumping point from which to begin.

It started with a clip from Blow Up, presented within an essay on 1960's Mod London and David Bailey.

I encourage you to read the original blog entry and subsequent posts here.

It was, I thought, quite an extraordinary scene. My initial reaction was overall one of discomfort. First, I kept thinking that these two should get a room. And after that flippant thought came and went, what I was really left with were impressions of the dominance of the male photographer on the woman, the reduction of the woman to a writhing sexual object, the feeling that he was using his camera as a substitute for his sexual organ, and that ultimately I was completely turned off by this scene but could imagine that it could work in the totally opposite way for a man. In a second viewing I paid more attention to how the actor in the scene conveyed his sexual excitement in one particular shot of him looking at his model before he moves closer to her. And I just love how the scene ends, as if a sexual act just finished. It really is a brilliant little scene, even if it left me feeling a bit violated viewing it (because as a woman, I'm identifying with the model, not the photographer).

It brought to mind another film in which model and photographer interact - Funny Face. The scenes in which Audrey Hepburn models for Fred Astaire's photographer are far less sexual, but Astaire is no less dominant. The difference is Hepburn plays it as the innocent child to Astaire's sophisticated man - another sexual stereotype that left me cold (although Hepburn is far more lovely to look at than the model from Blow Up, who looks for all the world like she was pulled from a concentration camp and given a trampy dress to wear). Astaire's character is based upon the great photographer Richard Avedon - one of the most influential fashion and fine art photographers of the last century. Here is a photo by the real Avedon of Hepburn from the movie Funny Face:

These two films got me thinking about fashion photography in general and how fashion photography has defined the ideal image of women since there were fashion photographs. So then I began to wonder whether there were any really successful female fashion photographers and I began my internet search with a google search term of female fashion photographers. That quickly yielded an endless list of sources for photos of females modeling fashion. Well, I'm not a grad student, so I went to Wikipedia, and I did get a dribble of information there. I came across the very successful Andrea Blanch, who interestingly enough started her career as an assistant to Richard Avedon. She is working as a fashion and commercial and fine art photographer in NY. Her web site can be found here.

I wondered if her images would be qualitatively different than those of a male photographer and took a look at some of her work from her website. Here's one image that I found quite different from the usual fashion photographs:

Very strange to see a man in this position.

Here is another Blanch photo:

Much more typical of fashion photographs, but for sure there is a quality of intelligence and defiance about this woman laying there in her underwear. But clearly, Blanch can make sexy pictures of women, and there are many more on view at her website.

A further Wikipedia article yielded another delightful little tidbit - Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who was a staff photographer for Harper's Bazaar from 1936-1958 and whose work was highly influencial for a certain famous male photographer discussed earlier in this post. The National Museum of Women in the Arts has a nice article about her here. But there was precious little other information and left me thinking that fashion photography is still dominated by men.

My search got diverted, though, when I came across an entry about the music video "Simply Irresistable" by Robert Palmer, which was directed by the British fashion photographer Terence Donovan in the mid-80s. YouTube doesn't give an embedding capability to this video, so you'll have to click here to see it. By all means, take a few minutes to do so, and come right back please.

Now we have Robert Palmer singing about moving from simple attraction to complete obsession. There are so many interesting things to say about this video, but my favorite line in the song is "she's so fine there's no telling where my money went." What strikes me about this video is the juxtaposition of Palmer singing supposedly about a particular woman who is irresistible to him while he's surrounded by a group of fashion model-type women dressed alike and all dancing sensuously around together in the background or in separate scenes. I began to think this was not an ode to one woman in particular but to beautiful women as a group, and their power over him. With the lyric, "she's all mine, there's no other way to go" he sings about his need to control her.

This video was iconic in its time, as were other Palmer videos of the same type:


Pepsi got into the action as well, because as we all know, sex sells even soda pop:

And these videos were wonderfully parodied in one of my favorite movies - Love Actually (unfortunately the quality of this video is pretty poor - but I don't know where they got the full version of this video as it's not available on the DVD and the movie shows only a small clip):

I'm sure Bill Nighy had a good laugh filming that sequence, and I certainly cracked-up watching it.

But where am I going with all this? Traveling on the journey that all women must go if they are lucky enough to get old. There's no denying that the world rewards beautiful women, raises beautiful women to icon status, and celebrates youth. Thank Heaven that the world now finds additional value beyond beauty and sex appeal for women and can recognize women for their achievements in other dimensions such as science, politics, business, art, etc. This is a pretty recent phenomenon. In my mother's time, those types of accomplishments were much rarer, and I imagine it must have been pretty difficult for my mother, who was a beautiful woman in her youth, to get old.

For me, as a woman whose early adulthood corresponded perfectly to the Robert Palmer era, and who is now old enough to remember how it was and young enough to still want to get up and dance to the music, these images and videos bring up a host of emotions:

- the fear that the power of my own sex appeal is markedly diminished from whatever previous levels I managed to achieve
- the disgust that comes from acknowledging that fear exists
- the maturity to realize that sex appeal is not the most important aspect of myself but rather only one part of me
- the combination of happiness and pride in the growing beauty of my daughter combined with the wistful feeling of my own lost youth as I look at our faces side by side and see the tiny resemblences and remember when my skin looked like that and my eyes had no bags under them

Ariella at age 11

and at 13

How we see ourselves as women is intimately linked to how we look and that's an unfortunate side effect of human nature and society. So I admit that I struggle with the loss of my youth and diminished beauty and try to base my self esteem on my growing strengths in other areas of my life. On days when I've made some progress in my studio I am flying high. And then there are some days when I look in the mirror and steel myself not to get depressed, or fail and get immeasurably sad. It's pretty hard to be neutral.

Self Portrait, circa 2002


  1. This is a dope fuckin' post.

    I had never seen that scene from Blow Up. As always, Beth, your eye is unerring. What struck me in that scene, and what was really subtext, was the power of the model.

    As I watch the scene, she is the object of his sexual energy, and the object of his livelihood - what is a photographer without a model? Who was really in control? She has her body, and he has a mechanical apparatus.

    Have you seen the work of Ellen von Umwerth? It is indeed notable that there's a certain eroticism that can only be found when a woman - or a gay man - shoots a woman.

    I'm reminded of a film i saw recently, Elegy. It revolves around an unusual romance between a cultured professor (Ben Kingsley), and the delicious Penelope Cruz as his student. Actually, Patricia Clarkson was yummy too. Ben seems to focus quite a bit on the "30-odd year age difference", but Penelope's character tells him at one point that no other man (presumably younger) appreciated her body the way he did.

    I'm not sure if he was just luxuriating in her youth, or if it was a degree of patience that naturally came as he aged. I won't spoil the movie for you. But Ben was far from your common aging Lothario.

    Thanks, love.


  2. Pierre - thanks for your comments - vive le difference as they say. I've not yet seen Elegy, but you've now made me curious, so...guess that's added to my queue as well!