Minneapolis Star Tribune
The Century of the Body: 100 Photoworks, 1900-2000by William A. Ewing, William A. Ewing, Musee De L'Elysee
In the twentieth century the human body was explored, repaired, remodeled, and reinvented in ways that would have amazed previous generations. A major role in this process has been played by photography, which allows us to see the body with new eyes, down to the minutest internal structures. Science and technology are one means of photographically imaging the body and its potential. Art is another, and many of the greatest photographers have taken the body as their subject matter. The Century of the Body presents chronologically one hundred photos that represent all the significant genres of body-centered photography, in both art and science. Anthropology, criminology, physiology, anatomy, medicine, dance, sport, photojournalism, fashion, the nude, body art, and other lesser-known but important fields are featured, each represented by the most innovative photographers of their day. The greats of scientific and technological imagemaking, notably Lennart Nilsson, Pietro Motta, and Ralph Hutchings, are included. So, too, are the leading art photographers of the century: Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Brassai, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Bill Brandt, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Mapplethorpe. The Musee de l'Elysee in Lausanne, one of the world's foremost photography museums, has compiled this extraordinary book to celebrate some of modern photography's finest achievements. Essays by the curators of the museum, including commentaries on every photograph, survey the full range of twentieth-century body-related imagery, focusing on the radical shifts in attitudes to the body that have taken place since 1900. The images, magnificently reproduced in duotone and color, stand as alasting memorial to the finest photographic artists and scientists of the past one hundred years. 115 photographs in duotone and in color.
With contributions by:
Minneapolis Star Tribune
- Thames & Hudson
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 9.18(w) x 11.52(h) x 1.02(d)
Read an Excerpt
Three reasonable questions:
Why the body?
Why twentieth-century photography of the body?
The new millennium has inevitably provoked searching questions about the future of our society and even of our species revealing a disturbing mixture of hope and fear. We are especially ambivalent about developments relating to the body, now that we grasp the key to its `software' in our hands. Manipulation of the genetic code holds out the tantalizing promise of disease-free lives, increased longevity and superhuman capacities, but it also raises fears of potential abuse, as the debates raging over human cloning make clear. But, for better or worse, we can be sure of one thing: the human body is no longer an absolute entity, fixed by nature and destined to be eternally replicated, at least until evolution's next throw of the dice. The era of the genetically engineered body has begun.
We are beginning to think of the bodies we inhabit in much the same way as we do the clothes we wear as changeable according to climate, task, fashion and whim. And it is not simply genetic engineering which is altering the body's architecture; mechanical engineers are also at work. We are allowing our bodies to be transformed not just for reasons of health and longevity, but for reasons of vanity, as the rapid growth of cosmetic surgery attests. But, whatever the goal, `flesh-and-blood' is an increasingly dubious description of the material that comprises a human being, now that plastic and metal parts, electromechanicalcomponents and animal organs are routinely grafted onto the organic `platform' and foreign fluids pulse increasingly through synthetic arteries, valves and veins. Technologists already have a word for the new `posthuman' beings coming slowly into existence: cyborgs complex hybrids of organic and electromechanical components. And who needs sex, when reproductive technologies can deliver a superior product? Even intelligence is being created artificially already some years have passed since IBM's `Big Blue' triumphed in chess against its human antagonist. (Sceptics take note: there have been successful grafts of living nerve cells with electronic circuit boards.)
We are well on our way to cyborg status, persuaded on all sides to look upon our own bodies as high-tech machines in need of regular fine-tuning (and in the case of athletes, turbocharging) and the newest parts. The latest models on the assembly line our grandchildren's bodies may be expected, we are told, to last two hundred years, provided that their owners are willing to entrust their souls to the high priests of biotechnology.
Do these visions dreams to some, nightmares to others correspond to reality, or are we allowing our imaginations to get the better of our reason? One fact is undeniable: the body is at the core of our dreams and our nightmares because it is being transformed in fundamental ways. And precisely because it is being reconfigured by engineers, it is being reconsidered by artists.
Photography features prominently in both this restructuring and this rethinking. During the twentieth century a vast archive of photographic imagery was created, serving the many branches of science, technology, government, medicine, commerce, entertainment and art. Consider, to cite but one example, the role of photography in documentation. In medicine, photography has been used extensively to record pathological conditions, `before and after' states of reconstructive surgery, disfiguring diseases, the results of treatment, and the normal structure and functioning of organs and tissues (including parts and processes too small to be seen by the human eye). It has played a major role in registering abuses of the human body no other visual medium can show as clearly and objectively (when not consciously manipulated) the maimed and dismembered bodies of war and massacre, accident, crime and violence so much so that legal `proof' often requires photographic evidence. It has been indispensable (though somewhat dubiously, in retrospect) as an anthropometric device in criminology, sociology, anthropology and archaeology. And it has been used in commerce and industry to record and analyse the physical capabilities of human beings in order better to adapt products to their bodily needs.
But photography of the body has not only proved useful: it has also proved pleasurable. The fields of dance and sport, for example, have benefited immensely from the popularizing engine of photography. Today's newspaper is inconceivable without its steady stream of dramatic sports pictures. Sentiments of love and affection have also been well served: at one end of the spectrum, the photography of familial rite's de passage (births, marriages, anniversaries and the like) has long ago achieved industrial proportions; at the other, erotic photography (in all its manifestations from `soft' to `hard') dwarfs all other forms of photographic production. And the prodigious output of beauty, glamour, fashion and advertising photography in a word, the photography of seduction ranks this genre a close second to its lascivious cousin.
The artistic archive is also extraordinarily rich. The tradition of the nude is the most coherent and best known of photography's body-centred aesthetic genres, but there are others in which the body figures prominently: many photographers who privilege the realm of dream and fantasy place it at the centre of their fertile imaginings. The 1920s and 1930s was a particularly vibrant period of visual whimsy, as the burst of activity in the practice of collage and photomontage makes clear. In the 1960s and 1970s `Body Artists' used photography to record their ephemeral performances, while today's installation and performance artists are well aware that photography remains an indispensable recording medium.
Documentation, education, communication, persuasion, exploitation, titillation, investigation, celebration: these, then, are the principal functions of photography of the body. As a result of myriad efforts by practitioners across a range of disciplines and sub-disciplines, our awareness, our knowledge and our appreciation of our bodies has grown it is fair to say exponentially over the past one hundred years. This knowledge derives from many fields, of course, but it is thanks in no small part to photography that we have a far better idea today of how we are constructed and how we function what makes us tick than anyone could possibly have imagined in 1900. The Century of the Body: 100 Photoworks 1900-2000 offers an overview of this richly varied twentieth-century archive.
The photographs in The Century of the Body are selected from the exhibition shown at Culturgest in Lisbon between October 1999 and January 2000, and for the rest of the year 2000 at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne (where it was composed of three parts: `The Triumph of the Fragment', `The Triumph of Form' and `The Triumph of the Flesh'). The book features 100 fully representative photographs chosen from the 500 included in the exhibition.
The book's structure differs from that of the exhibition in that it is organized chronologically, thus allowing the reader to follow the evolution of body-centred imagery over the past one hundred years. The exhibition was organized according to a different concept, involving thirteen key themes, a structure that allowed often unexpected affinities between images to be revealed. In order not to lose these insights, mention of the thematic sections in which each photograph was exhibited accompany each caption. The themes may be briefly summarized as follows:
1. Microcosm: microscopic imagery of the body's interior. 2. Gaze: the most exposed or `public' part of the body the face, with its seeing eye. 3. Flesh: the naked body as opposed to the artistic nude.
4. Memory: the labyrinth of the mind.
5. Icon: the idealized body; notions of perfection.
6. Gesture: the language of the body; dance, sport, decoration, Body Art.
7. Desire: sensuality and eroticism.
8. Form: the great tradition of the nude: the body seen whole or fragmented,
the body seen as a geometric scheme, and the body subject to transformation.
9. Pain: the suffering body.
10. Politics: the body's meanings and values contested.
11. Enquiry: the domain of scientific investigation.
12. Fiction: the realm of imagination; dream and fantasy.
13. Macrocosm: the single human body in relation to the cosmos.
Today the body is of central concern to science and is the burning issue of art. It is not fashion that drives artists to reflect on the subject, however, but necessity, as the natural body if buffeted increasingly by technological tremors and emotional shocks. Art helps us discern what is happening and enables us to make considered choices about our future. Photography has proved to be an indispensable and versatile tool, both for those whose interest is further knowledge and for those who feel that what we already know is miraculous enough.
William A. Ewing Director Musée de l'Elysée, Lausanne
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