Friday, May 15, 2009

Classic Photographs at MoMA

Edward Steichen's 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson (cropped detail at left). I would stand in front of this photograph in the Museum of Modern Art for long periods of time. The first time I saw it, I was fifteen years old, and my parents had just moved back East from Los Angeles. We were staying in an apartment that was owned by my father's employer (Pan Am). The small one-bedroom was located in the Museum Towers building on West 53rd Street, next to MoMA. Because the museum was, essentially, my back yard, I went there a lot, often alone. I was with my mother, though, the first time I saw this print. We walked through the galleries, and I was immediately drawn to this photograph. At the time, I didn't know who Gloria Swanson was, but I fell in love with her veiled face, her hypnotic eyes. In them I saw the kind of mystery and sensuality that I longed for—that I hoped to possess one day, when I had come into my womanhood. I also admired the challenging stare, straight into the lens, a look that suggested confidence. I wanted to be that woman behind the black lace, and not the confused, fragile girl I felt I was. I remember it was around this time that my mother, who was getting serious about photography herself, took a portrait of me, also black and white, that showed such youth and vulnerability, it is equal parts lovely and terrifying to look at. I was far from Swanson's direct and masterful femininity; mine was a sideways glance, uncertain, from behind the bangs of my blunt cut hair.

The other photo I have always remembered from those early visits to the museum was taken by Richard Avedon (1923–2004) and shows a model posed elegantly between two elephants. The photo is titled "Dovina with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris" and dates to August 1955. It's a gelatin silver print—this was the first time I noticed the language of master printing; until this time, film was film, a print was just what you got back on Kodak paper from the local processing shop—and it was given to the museum by Avedon himself.  Although he produced other acclaimed portraits, Avedon was best known for his fashion photography, especially from the years he worked for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. He pushed the genre to new heights, created narrative in fashion photography—something we now take for granted, but it was novel then. This photo was interesting to me at the time (as now) because it was so full of unanswered questions. It also resolved seeming contradictions between the traditional ideas of grace and mass, delicacy and power. The model's pose is all glamor and poise, her figure long and lithe, from upturned profile to a perfectly turned out toe. She, like the dramatic dress she wears, is all drape and flow (you can see the full photo here). And with her, the towering elephants, big and gray, wrinkly and hardly subtle. Yet they, too, sway and curve their bodies in a way that mirrors the model—you can see that beauty and grace are indeed in the eye of the beholder. This photo hinted to me again that perhaps (though I was hardly an elephant) I could step out of awkwardness and into elegance myself, some day. With the right dress.

The seductive beauty in these two photographs—the desire they fed—stayed with me always, as did the impression of elusiveness, of untouchability. In my mind, I came back to these images many times over the years. I do not know if either still hangs in the MoMA galleries. Today, though, at I.C.P. in New York, an Avedon retrospective begins, which will last through September 6. I'd like to see the show, hopefully with my mom. I'd love to have a more profound conversation than we ever did about beauty, its push and pull, its myths and realities. About what it suggests that Swanson is veiled behind lace, that she was a silent picture star . . . and that, according to a New York Times article (May 14, 2009) introducing the I.C.P. show, Avedon saw the tragic, destructive element of beauty and of the fashion industry that made his career—and he had empathy for it, especially as his own sister was frequently told things such as, "You're so beautiful you don't have to open your mouth."

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