Beauty Culture

On Saturday I finally got around to visiting “Beauty CULTure” at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City.  This was an exhibit I had looked forward to since the first light post banner went up months ago.  The idea of a major institution presenting a thorough and revealing look at the beauty culture, especially in a city so embracing of, and reliant on, the proliferation of this culture, was extremely intriguing.  Needless to say, it went the way of every movie I’ve ever spoiled for myself by reading the book first, it fell far short of my expectations.

Upon entering the space, one views two large images, on the left a Herb Ritts of 5 traditionally gorgeous nude women embracing one another in a classical pose, on the right a Leonard Nimoy mirror image of 5 women who fall outside of our culture’s magazine standard of beauty.  Good start, right?  I love the juxtaposition, the confrontation of two similar images, both black and white and similarly posed, begging the question of what and where is beauty in the individual and in the art.  Unfortunately, the next segment consists of a long hallway jam-packed with salon hung images of models shot by almost exclusively magazine and advertising photographers.  With the exception of a very few images that are by more traditional fine-artists (most of whom have a reputation for chauvinism and a background in magazine work – I’m looking at you Man Ray), these are pages right out of any fashion magazine.  The didactic panel prefacing a long wall of photographs of extremely well-known models presents us with text that would imply that the history of beauty in the fashion industry is complex and has changed greatly over the years.  They tease us with an idea and then present a hodge-podge of images that in no way support the thesis on the panel.  This section could have been powerful had the images been hung with a greater focus on the assertion made in the panel, and with text that clarified the ideas with each photograph.  Instead we were treated to text on the gossipy image panels that told us of the models’ reality shows and selling figures.  Beyond this, the photographers are barely addressed, despite this being a museum of photography, and the images are incredibly hard to examine in any detail given the proximity of the viewer to the images, the salon-style hanging, and the great height to which the images are hung with traditional gallery lighting that ended up reflecting glaringly off most of the higher hanging works.

The exhibit then went on to show us images of “women of color” and “women of size” mostly sticking to the typical magazine shots again, with a few well-known women of color, but very little to guide us or to critique the industry visually.  Lachapelle’s image “Miss Anna don’t like fat people” being the main exception in it’s critique of the industry that produces these images.  Overall the didactic panels and the imagery presented felt like they belonged in two different shows.  The idea behind beauty culture is so strong, and the imagery in the art photography lexicon so strong, that I was disappointed by the great reliance on standard magazine imagery with very little dialogue between these images and the critical images of fine artists like Carrie May Weems, Alex Sandwell Kliszynski, or Aziz & Cucher.  These contrasting works are instead tucked away on the last wall of the show, poorly lit in their position beside the looped half hour documentary by Lauren Greenfield.  The whole space takes on an inside/outside vibe, with the outer walls densely packed with glossy pin-ups and super models and the inside walls vibrant with Greenfield’s insightful documentary and more critical photographic fine art works.  I only wish that the “inside” photographic pieces could have been displayed with as much thought and honor as the documentary project, but I guess most of those didn’t focus on celebrities and, after all, this is Los Angeles!

Overall I am glad that the Annenberg Space chose to put on the show and I’m confidant that the exhibition has inspired some dialogue on topics of beauty and power in American culture.  I guess I was just really hoping for more of a critical dialogue than a display of the predominant norms that we are all aready confronted with every day.  Also, who says that the beauty culture only affects women?  Perhaps the curators addressed their decision to include only a vision of feminine beauty in the exhibition but I did not come upon any explanatory text.  The imposition of beauty and the pressure of external norms do not exist solely in the female realm.

The whole show brings up for me the issue of photography as a medium.  Photography serves so many different purposes in today’s world that I almost feel like we need several different words rather than the one term.  In fact, many exhibitions now call for “lens-based art” rather than photography.  What is photography now, and what is the role of a photography museum?  As an art historian, I want to see an examination of images, not just subject.  As a cultural theorist, I expect a thorough grounding in the psycho-social context of the image-maker.  Finally, as a photographer I am drawn to the visually seductive.  We all want to view beauty, but it is through the sublime that we are challenged and transformed as individuals and as a culture.  The Annenberg center takes us back to the curatorial tradition intrinsic in The Family of Man as curated by Edward Steichen.  In these shows, it is the curator who ends up being the artist rather than the photographers included.

Alex Sandwell Kliszynski

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