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.

Monday, December 8, 2008


some folks probably saw the New York Times feature this weekend on muxes in Oaxaca, Mexico. muxe is a Zapotec word for that region's transgender women. Katie Orlinsky's slideshow of images from the community was pretty great—and for those who wanted to check out even more, it turns out her website has a more extensive collection. a few that weren't in the Times' edit are above.

thanks Joe for the link!

Thursday, December 4, 2008


looking through all the photos in Hee Seung Chung's project "Persona" made me a bit sad. which in a way, is a testament to the subjects, because they are all actors. by examining the gray area where an actor's fictional persona becomes their temporary reality, Chung is exploring the line between "staged" and "authentic" emotional states.

Chung says: "This project also explores the issue of observing the grief of others in the photograph....we know it is a mere fabrication; the expression of grief certainly generates a psychological exchange between the actor, the persona and the beholder. They have a special quality as they break down our own emotional barriers. It is as if they bring about our own inherent feelings of grief and sorrow, which we conceal in everyday life or we project our own emotion or experience onto these melancholic faces."

given the blankness upon which Chung sets the scene, i thought the above subject worked particularly well. her flat affect and colorlessness matches the background, and makes her dark eyes all the more compelling.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Älterwerdens der Ausgangspunkt

here's a project featuring older subjects that i saw just recently on Conscientious. it's Espen Eichhöfer's series "Die Alteren," which he translates as "The Elderly."

Eichhöfer writes: "They originated from questions regarding the phenomenon of aging. The protagonists of this staged production are my parents. The idea that everyone carries all of the previous stages of age within themselves inspired me."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

the indiscriminate urge to engage everyone

continuing on this week's theme of portraits of older subjects...

like Michelle Sank's yesterday, Sarah Small's photographs also do not have the aesthetic that i usually go for (which is, oh, you know, mopey, self-important, naturally-lit, brooding, that sort of thing). but i just love the scenarios she presents in her images. the wild colors, the harsh studio lighting, and the juxtapositions are lively and fun and actually surprising. (which sometimes feels a bit rare in this looking-at-photos-online game that we play.)

one theme i noticed in her work is a mix of elders and youngsters in interesting tableaux. little girls spaz out in front of crashed-out grandpas; naked teens and fashion models cavort with relatives, dolls, and animals; different generations pose together in frozen, constructed moments. i'm not sure what it all means, but Sarah Small's vision is consistent and consistently thought-provoking. also, her shoots look like they are a lot of fun.

a few of my intergenerational picks are above.

Small says: 
"My constant curiosity, indiscriminate urge to engage everyone, and fascination with entangling myself in human drama guided me through boundless adventures...I‘ve engaged in an ongoing pursuit to find and photograph enchanting characters, animals, and bold color within all my projectspersonal, fashion, editorial, and commercial."

Monday, December 1, 2008

theme week: older subjects

the photo i posted last week of a proud-looking woman with beautiful white hair falling down her back reminded me that i have seen several portrait projects lately featuring older subjects. i'll check some of them out this week.

the first is by Michelle Sank, who was born in South Africa and now lives in England. her project "Wondrous" explores "femininity in older women."

Sank says she wants to look at "the ageing skin as something beautiful in itself, where body awareness and sensuality can still be enjoyed. I am also interested in the vulnerability of my subjects as well as their internal reflections and wisdom."

this is not the sort of project i am drawn to; it has a bit too much of an agenda, a woman-centered (and pink and silky) earnestness for my usual taste.

that said, it is true that the photographs themselves are not images you see every day. there is something quite valuable about that.