Images As Role Models

Lippifaces In 431 the church declared the Holy Virgin the Mother of God, thus sanctioning the cult of Mary. Her popularity became staggering. In France alone more than a hundred churches and eighty cathedrals were raised in the name of Notre Dame, Our Lady, including the cathedrals of Paris, Chartres, Reims, and Amiens.

To counter the massive illiteracy of the Dark Ages, in the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great overruled the commandment forbidding the making of idols, declaring that "Painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read." To fill churches, cathedrals, and private chapels, hundreds of sculptures, frescoes, and paintings were commissioned of the Madonna and child. Many of these images are remarkably beautiful, typically showing us a serene young mother holding her clear-eyed young son. Images of Mary and her son became so widespread that when people had spiritual visions in this period, they most often saw the Virgin Mary.

Images of the Virgin Mother presented the church's two desired states for fertile women: either chaste virgins or married women bearing children. Celibacy was much championed in the Middle Ages. The church encouraged young women to remain permanently chaste by becoming a nun. The cult of courtly love that arose in France praised young women who remained unattainable, who steadfastly resisted the pleas of their wooers.

Unmarried women who failed to remain virginal until married were regarded as loose, immoral, and even sexually aggressive. Men supposedly feared that such seductresses would tempt them like the Biblical Salome, but many were fascinated by the ancient femme fatale archetype.

2122980171_31e4c30dc5 Hard and fast categories like virgin, mother, or immoral seductress are of little use to most contemporary women, and in modern culture images abound of women in multiple and varied roles. We see images of women as doctors, lawyers, writers, mothers, athletes, business owners, models, police officers, fire fighters, and fighter pilots.

One striking advertising image shows Danica Patrick's face split into the roles of race car driver and glamorous woman. In one case a helmet completely masks her identity--she seems a mysterious black knight. In the other case hairstyle and makeup create another kind of mask--she seems an unstoppable seductress. Neither image is false, but neither represents ordinary reality. Both are stylized, artful portrayals of a woman who has been successful as both a race car driver and model. Contemporary women can choose to play multiple and varied roles, and most no longer rely on patriarchal authorities in choosing which roles to pursue. For an individual woman, balancing the multiple roles that interest her can sometimes become one of the challenges of modern life.

[Detail of Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, photo by Virginia Postrel. Photo of Danica Patrick billboard courtesy of Luis Rodriguez Gonzalez (Spain), whose Flickr sets are here.]

Glamorizing Flaws: Editing And The Receptive Imagination

Pariswindow "Glamorizing" usually implies an active effort at editing out flaws: retouching photos, showing cigarettes without smoke smell or cancercelebrating cliquish bullies as Queen Bees and Gossip Girls. But, as these two contrasting passages from classic works illustrate, glamour can also arise from the audience's willingness or proclivity simply to overlook flaws.

From Jane Eyre:

"Come where there is some freshness, for a few moments," he said; "that house is a mere dungeon: don't you feel it so?"

"It seems to me a splendid mansion, sir."

"The glamour of inexperience is over your eyes," he answered; "and you see it through a charmed medium: you cannot discern that the gilding is slime and the silk draperies cobwebs; that the marble is sordid slate, and the polished woods mere refuse chips and scaly bark. Now HERE" (he pointed to the leafy enclosure we had entered) "all is real, sweet, and pure.

No words of mine can tell you how Wendy despised those pirates. To the boys there was at least some glamour in the pirate calling; but all that she saw was that the ship had not been tidied for years. There was not a porthole on the grimy glass of which you might not have written with your finger "Dirty pig"; and she had already written it on several.

As anyone who has ever framed a photographic shot only to notice dirt on the window or wires across the view knows, the mind always does some unconscious editing. (Those of us in love with Florence rarely notice the ubiquitous graffiti.) But I think there's a deeper truth here that applies equally to overt glamorization: Glamour only works on the receptive imagination.

Some people are--to say the least--as immune to Barack Obama's glamour as Wendy was to that of the pirate calling. Even the "world's most glamorous couple" gets mixed reviews. “I fail to see the glamour of this couple,” writes a website commenter about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. “They usually look like aged hobos.” Although Princess Diana remains a touchstone of late 20th-century glamour, there are plenty of skeptics. A “glamorous” person, setting, or style will not produce glamour unless that object resonates with the audience’s aspirations, and unless the audience is willing to entertain the illusion.

[Paris photo courtesy of Flickr user smallish fish, copyright and used with permission.]

Industrial Glamour

In the 20th century, photographers like Margaret Burke-White and Charles Sheeler portrayed industrial plants with remarkable glamour. Nowadays, we're less excited by the products of industry and more likely to focus on negative environmental effects. As a result, we tend to think of such places as eyesores. As these photos contributed to the DeepGlamour pool by Flickr user beef.200% demonstrate, however, portraits of contemporary industry can also be glamorous. Instead of the crisp black-and-white geometries of earlier photographers, here the trick is building an enticing sense of mystery with the plants' high-intensity lights and the night-time mist. (I'm guessing these are refineries or chemical plants, but I don't know for sure. Check out the rest of the photos in the set here.)

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Behind The Scenes Of Hollywood Style

Danielle_6-16[1] With the Oscars this Sunday, I thought Dallas photographer Mark Oristano's work might get you in the mood for the old glamour of yesteryear, when studios matched stars up on the red carpet and picked out their Oscar gowns. Believe it or not, there was a time before the professional freelance stylist.

From Dana Thomas's Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster:

"Stylists are a relatively new phenomenon in fashion. Orginally, stylists worked as fashon editors, dressing-- or "styling"-- models for fashon shoots for magazines or catalogs. But as the number of formal affairs exploded in the 1990s, from the Oscars and a few premieres to an avalanche of paparazzi-line red-carpet events, stylists saw the birth of a new niche: dressing celebrities. Stylists went freelance and starting signing up movie, television and music stars."

But Thomas goes further, explaining the timeline of the once and future stylist.

In the 1950s, following the advent of television and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as the Hollywood Anti-Trust Case that forced studios to sell off their theatre chains, the industry suffered a financial slump and changed the way business was done. Actors and technical staff--including costumers--were gradually released from their studio contracts; many costume departments were shut down. To make matters worse, films began to take on a more realistic tone, with actors in more everyday, normal clothes--no ermine-trimmed peignoirs or sequin siren gowns required. By the mid-1960s, movie costume designers were nearly an extinct breed...

With no more Edith Head or Helen Rose or Jean Louis to provide glamorous wardrobes gratis, stars were forced to shop themselves for premieres and award shows, including the Oscars.

So at Oscar time, as Thomas writes, stars criss-crossed Rodeo Drive looking for their gowns. "The problem was most stars didn't have cultivated taste and they didn't have the studio costumers to guide them anymore."

Then, disastrously, the stars decided that they could design their own outfits. See: Demi Moore in bike shorts and a gold capey-skirty thing in 1989 and Kim Basinger in 1990 in her futuristic a-bomb gown (also see 1989, when Jodie Foster wears a baby-blue prom dress with a giant butt-bow, plucked from a Milan shop window).

Basinger Foster

Enter Armani, who decides he wants stars wearing his clothes. After seeing poor Jodie Foster in her taffeta, Armani's director of entertainment industry communications, Wanda McDaniel, contacted Foster and offered to dress her in Armani for the 1990 ceremony when she'd be presenting. McDaniel also dressed Michelle Pfeiffer that year and, writes Thomas:

The next morning Women's Wear Daily ran the headline: "The Agony and the Ecstasy." Under it were two pictures: Kim Basinger in a freakish self-designed one-sleeved white number, and luminous Pfeiffer in her understated, utterly tasteful Armani... Women's Wear Daily dubbed it the Armani Awards...more important, it gave Americans a glamour they could actually imagine wearing.

Crawford[1] Ah, but back to Oristano. His clients want the studio-conceived glamour, the kind that Edith Head could whip up and immortalize in a Hitchcock film, so he's got his own stylist on call to give his clients make-up treatment and costume consultations.

Says the photographer, "I've always been a huge fan of the photos of George Hurrell, the photographer who set the pace in the 30's and 40's in Hollywood.

I've also studied with Michael Grecco, who is one of the top portrait photographers working today. He got me interested in using the same kind of 'hot' lights that Hurrell used. I just kept fooling around until I got it right."

Oristano's prices range from $695 to $1295, depending on the complexity of the shot, makeup, wardrobe, etc., which is actually a steal if you think about it. Rachel Zoe, stylist to the stars and trademarker of such original and household phrases of "I die" and "Bananas!", costs thousands of dollars per day.

[Kim Basinger and Jodie Foster photos by Flickr user Alan Light under Creative Commons license.]

Metropolitan Glamour

NightviewNYC1

And New York is the most beautiful city in the world? It is not far from it. No urban night is like the night there.... Squares after squares of flame, set up and cut into the aether. Here is our poetry, for we have pulled down the stars to our will. 

--Ezra Pound, "Patria Mia," New Age, September 18, 1912

Taken in 1932, Berenice Abbott's "Nightview" is one of 60 iconic New York photos in this exhibition at the Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe. (Check out the link to see more.)

The exhibit's most glamorous shots are from the 1930s and '40s, when New York was the symbol of American modernity, and many of them are night views, with windows bright with promise. These aren't realistic photos of city streets but abstracted, suggestive portraits that spark the imagination.

In his brilliant book Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies James Sanders points out that the New York of classic movies--the city of penthouses and jazz clubs--was a glamorous composite created by homesick New York writers exiled in Hollywood:

The city they were creating was not just the one they were remembering, however romantically. The writers were, after all, professional imaginers, and it was an imaginary city they were bringing into being. It would be animated not only by the memory of what once had happened there, but by all the things that could have happened, or should have happened. To memory was added imagination, and it would be these two potent faculties that would animate the dream city and give it special force and flavor....
If the real New York had many tall buildings, it had plenty of low ones as well, especially in its outer boroughs and residential districts. But the dream city would seem to be all vertical, every scene playing in a penthouse, on a terrace, in a rooftop nightclub, every window looking onto a view of rising towers.

Every scene. The mythic city, the dream city, the city of imagination is less a place of stories than a series of scenes--static shots into which the audience members can project their own longings. The glamour of the setting lingers in memory after the particulars of plots and characters fade, encouraging the audience to imagine their own stories in that glamorous version of Metropolis.

Wizard of Oz Emerald City

The most powerful cinematic image of the mythic city, Sanders suggests, is thus not a glamorized version of the real New York but a fully imaginary shot: the Emerald City of Oz.

Dorothy and her friends indeed stand transfixed—but not by aesthetic pleasure. In that gleaming skyline, they see the fulfillment of their dreams. In that place, perhaps only in that place, will each find the special thing he or she is looking for. These towers will somehow change their lives.
This is what makes the view so powerful, so moving. From a distance, the skyline is everything they could have imagined, and more. Soaring, glistening, grand but comprehensible, its upward leap precisely mirrors the feeling in their hearts. Its very improbability—all those slender, dizzying towers, bundled tightly together, cresting ad the center—simply adds to its impact. For how could their lives be truly transformed, after all, in a place of ordinary appearance? Magical events call for magical settings.
Through a kind of urban grace, the skyline of New York—in one sense simply the overscaled product of technology and real estate—became the locus of one of the most potent collective emotional experiences in the life of America. Into Manhattan’s towers were focused the hopes and dreams of millions, until the very girders and facades were permeated and charged with a sense of human possibility, as the skyline’s own skyward aspirations became fused with the personal yearnings of millions. The dream city, even in this most unworldly of guises, lets us share that transactive spark.



Constructing Glamour: The Sequel

Thanks to everyone who commented on my original Constructing Glamour post with the Toni Frissell photos. These two were the favorites, both among commenters and people I happened to talk to.

Glamour exists in the audience's mind, so there's no right or wrong answer. But I believe the evening shot on the right is by far the most compelling of the group.

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As the comments made clear, having a pretty model in a luxurious outfit isn't enough to create the magical quality called glamour. Glamour must invite the viewer into a special world, one that holds the promise of escape and transformation. In both these photos, the model seems to be in such a world. In both, she appears graceful and self-contained, also qualities that create glamour.

But the lighting in the evening shot adds drama and mystery. In the daylight shot, the dress looks heavy and a bit dull and wrinkled. In the evening shot, it glistens, and its weight is less obvious, enhancing the model's grace. As commenter Irene noted, the photo's glamour comes in part from the allure of light and shine. That allure is not just glitz, however. Shadow and contrast are just as important. To see the shimmer of the dress, you need the shadows. Similarly, the distant obelisk is more compelling in the evening shot. In contrast to the flat form in the daytime, light and shadow play on the shaft as it rises from the trees, and its tip glints with just a spot of light.

As commenter DMC noted, in the daytime shot the model does have an appealingly confident "queen of her empire" quality. I prefer the more contemplative evening shot, with its active hands and hint of yearning. But what really makes the difference between the two is not the central figure but the background: the enticingly illuminated monument, lights on the opposite shore, and a barely seen boat sculling along the river. (You have to look at the large version of the shot to see it.) The scene shimmers with possibility.

Constructing Glamour

These photos are from a photo shoot by Toni Frissell, whose photos of the Tuskegee Airmen are featuredin the post below. One picture was used in an advertisement for a Washington, DC, department store, but the whole session is in the Frissell archive at the Library of Congress. Representing only a small selection of the whole shoot, these photos demonstrate how a photographer experiments with lighting and composition to achieve a result.

Frissell presumably had constraints (notably showing the dress) other than evoking glamour. But suppose that was the sole goal. Which photo do you find most glamorous, and why? I'll comment in a later post, but let's hear from you in the comments. (As always, click on the photo to see a larger version.)

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Giving Aviator Glamour A Black Face

11759vWith the Tuskegee Airmen headed to the inauguration, let's take a moment to remember what they looked like when they were young and glamorous--and, of course, just how subversive that glamour was. The airmen were not just warriors but aviators, the epitome of masculine modernity: brave and daring, yes, but also masters of complex machines, with all the discipline and intelligence that implied. Their very existence refuted the ideology of white supremacy.

In April 1945, the Airmen were photographed by Toni Frissell, a noted fashion and society photographer (she did the photos at Jack and Jackie's wedding). Frissell knew glamour and, unlike many of her contemporaries, she didn't need a studio or heavy retouching to create it. Her photos of couples cuddling in the park are as appealing as her shots of models on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. And she loved natural light.

Frissell was the ideal photographer to capture the Tuskegee Airmen for posterity. As this DG slideshow illustrates, she captured the glamour--and dignity--of these young men, whether posed looking skyward, working on engines, listening to briefings, playing cards, or receiving "escape kits" of cyanide. And, presumably for hometown newspapers, she noted their names and hometowns, which are included in the slideshow captions.

Not all the aviators will make it to the inauguration, of course. Many, indeed, never made it home from the war--something I was reminded of when Googling Ronald Reeves, the Blair Underwood lookalike in a few of the photos.

Gowland Glamour Photo Show Opens In Santa Monica


Gowland Alice and Peter Gowland have a show of their photographs of  the Santa Monica Beach milieu opening tomorrow at g169 gallery, 169 West Channel Rd., Santa Monica Canyon.

The Gowlands' shots of glamour girls, Hollywood starlets, surfer Miki Dora and Playboy models helped form the image of California and the good life during the war years and after.  Peter, who's in his ninties, is also famed for his large-format cameras .  

And any student of photography would do well to take a look at their books.

Think about it--a life spent photographing beautiful women--and getting paid for it.


(This black-and-white image can be found in the "Hollywood Beach" section of the Gowlands' exhibition at g169. Photo courtesy of Alice and Peter Gowland)