Monday, December 15, 2008
great subjects: bettie page
it would feel remiss not to post a wee tribute to one of the great subjects of photographic history: Bettie Page.
when i first read Page's New York Times obituary, i thought something was not quite right. it lauds her "trademark" "killer curves" and defines her as "the most famous pinup girl of the post-World War II era." both of these statements strike me as false. i think the easy label of "most famous pinup" actively erases the fact that most of her work was fairly underground and part of a sexual counterculture (if anything, she was the dark, trussed-up sister to the popular 1950s beauty queen ideal). and i don't think her (average) curves defined her photographic fate.
Bettie Page's trademark as a subject was her electric connection with the camera and, ultimately, the viewer. and by that criteria, she can't be beat.
my puzzling over the false notes of the obituary were assuaged a bit, but not completely, by Manohla Dargis' more thoughtful appraisal a few days later. her lede was the John Berger quotation: "To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself." but Dargis doubts that Berger's skeptical quote could apply to Page's natural, inviting, comfort and "ease" in her own skin.
Dargis is certainly responding here to Page's ready smile, her apparently-naked abandon, her winking knowingness... but is the viewer really recognizing her for her true self? i wouldn't guess so. (i mean, this was an abuse survivor who shot up to bondage-y fame before becoming a born-again Christian and having a nervous breakdown and a spate of mental health problems. i don't mean to pathologize, but i don't think i could know what was going on in her head.) perhaps the key to what made her so compelling on camera is a bit more complicated than easy analysis allows.
nude, naked, or otherwise, i'm comfortable with—and thankful for—the mystery.