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What qualified the women as sitters was precisely their beauty, as fame and achievement qualified the men. The beauty of women made them ideal subjects. (Notably, there was no role for picturesque or exotic beauty, so that when Cameron and her husband moved to Ceylon, she virtually stopped taking pictures.) Indeed, Cameron defined photography as a quest for the beautiful. And quest it was: "Why does not Mrs. Smith come to be photographed?" she wrote to a friend about a lady in London whom she had never met. "I hear she is Beautiful. Bid her come, and she shall be made Immortal."
Imagine a book of pictures of women in which none of the women could be identified as beautiful. Wouldn't we feel that the photographer had made some kind of mistake? Was being mean-spirited? Misogynistic? Was depriving us of something that we had a right to see? No one would say the same thing of a book of portraits of men.
There were always several kinds of beauty: imperious beauty, voluptuous beauty, beauty signifying the character traits that fitted a woman for the confines of genteel domes ticity-do cill ty, pliancy, serenity. Beauty was not just loveliness of feature and expression, an aesthetic ideal. It also spoke to the eye about the virtues deemed essential in women.
For a woman to be intelligent was not essential, not even particularly appropriate. It was in fact considered disabling, and likely to be inscribed in her appearance. Such is the fate of a principal character in The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins's robustly, enthrallingly clever bestseller, which appeared in 1860, just before Cameron started making her portraits. Here is how this woman is introduced, early in the novel, in the voice of its young hero:
... I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window-and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps-and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer-and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!
Reveling in the presumptions and delights of the appraising male gaze, the narrator has noted that, seen from behind and in long shot, the lady satisfies all the criteria of female desirability. Hence his acute surprise, when she turns and comes toward him, at her "ugly" face (it is not allowed to be just plain or homely), which, he explains, is a kind of paradox:
Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted-never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it. The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression-b right, frank, and intelligent-appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete.
Marian Halcombe will turn out to be the most admirable character in Collins's novel, awarded every virtue except the capacity to inspire desire. Moved only by generous, noble sentiments, she has a near angelic, that is, archetypally femmine, temperament-except for the troubling matter of her uncommon intelligence, her frankness, her want of "pliability." Marian Halcombe's body, so ideally feminine that it is judged ripe for appropriation by a (presumably male) artist, conveys "modest graces of action." Her head, her face, signifies something more concentrated, exacting-unfeminine. The body gives one message, the face another. And face trumps body-as intelligence, to the detriment of female sexual attractiveness, trumps beauty. The narrator concludes:
To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model-to be charmed by the modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs betrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended-was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream.
Collins's male narrator is touching a gender faultline, which typically arouses anxieties and feelings of discomfort. The contradiction in the order of sexual stereotypes may seem dreamlike to a well-adjusted inhabitant of an era in which action, enterprise, artistic creativity, and intellectual innovation are understood to be masculine, fraternal orders. For a long time the beauty of a woman seemed incompatible, or at least oddly matched, with intelligence and assertiveness. (A far greater novelist, Henry James, in the preface to The Portrait of a Lady, speaks of the challenge of filling the "frail vessel" of a female protagonist with all the richness of an independent consciousness.) To be sure, no novelist today would find it implausible to award good looks to a woman who is cerebral and self-assertive. But in real life it's still common to begrudge a woman who has both beauty and intellectual brilliance-one would never say there was something odd or intimidating or "unfair" about a man who was so fortunate-as if beauty, the ultimate enabler of feminine charm, should by rights have barred other kinds of excellence.
In a woman beauty is something total. It is what stands, in a woman, for character. It is also, of course, a performance; something willed, designed, obtained. Looking through an old family photograph album, the Russian-born F h riter AndreY Makine recalls a trick used to get the particular glow of beauty he saw in some of the women's faces:
... these women knew that in order to be beautiful, what they must do several seconds before the flash blinded them was to articulate the following mysterious syllables in French, of which few understood the meaning: "pe-tite-pomme." As if by magic, the mouth, instead of being extended in counterfeit bliss, or contracting into an anxious grin, would form a gracious round. . . . The eyebrows arched slightly, the oval of the cheeks was elongated. You said "petite pomme, " and the shadow of a distant and dreamy sweetness veiled your gaze, refined your features ...
A woman being photographed aspired to a standardized look that signified an ideal refinement of "feminine" traits, as conveyed through beauty; and beauty was understood to be a distancing from the ordinary; as photographed, it projected something enigmatic, dreamy, inaccessible. Now, idiosyncrasy and forthrightness of expression are what make a photographic portrait interesting. And refinement is passe, and seems pretentious or phony.
Beauty-as photographed in the mainstream tradition that prevailed until recently-blurred women's sexuality. And even in photographs that were frankly erotic, the body might be telling one story and the face another: a naked woman lying in a strenuously indecent position, spread-eagled or presenting her rump, with the face turned toward the viewer wearing the vapidly amiable expression of respectable photographic portraiture. Newer ways of photographing women are less concealing of women's sexuality, though the display of once forbidden female flesh or carnal posturing is still fraught as a subject, so inveterate are responses that reassert male condescensions to women in the guise of lecherous appreciation. Women's libidinousness is always being repressed or held against them.
The identification of women with beauty was a way of immobilizing women. While character evolves, reveals, beauty is static, a mask, a magnet for projection. In the legendary final shot of Queen Chrl'stina, the Queen-Greta Garbo-having abdicated the Swedish throne, renouncing the masculinizing prerogatives of a monarch for the modesty of a woman's happiness, and boarded the ship to join her foreign lover and depart with him into exile only to find him mortally wounded by a vengeful rejected suitor from her court, stands at the ship's prow with the wind in her face, a monument of heartbreak. While the lighting for the shot was being prepared, Garbo asked the director, Rouben Mamoulian, what she should be thinking during the take. Nothing, he famously replied. Don't think of anything. Go blank. His instruction produced one of the most emotion-charged images in movie history: as the camera moves in and holds on a long close-up, the spectator has no choice but to read mounting despair on that incomparably beautiful, dry-eyed, vacant face. The face that is a mask on which one can project whatever is desired is the consummate perfection of the looked-at-ness of women.
The identification of beauty as the ideal condition of a woman is, if anything, more powerful than ever, although today's hugely complex fashionand-photography system sponsors norms of beauty that are far less provincial, more diverse, and favor brazen rather than demure ways of facing the camera. The downcast gaze, a staple of the presentation of women to the camera, should have a touch of sullennness if it is not to seem insipid. Ideas of beauty are less immobilizing now. But beauty itself is an ideal of a stable, unchanging appearance, a commitment to staving off or disguising the marks of time. The norms of sexual attractiveness for women are an index of their vulnerability. A man ages into his powers. A woman ages into being no longer desired.
Forever young, forever good-looking, forever sexy-beauty is still a construction, a transformation, a masquerade. We shouldn't be surprised though of course we are-that in real life, when she is not decked out as a cliche" of desirability, the flamboyant, bespangled, semi-nude Las Vegas showgirl can be a mature woman of unremarkable features and sober presence. The eternal feminine project of self-embellishment has always been able to pull off such triumphs.
Since to be feminine is to have qualities which are the opposite, or negation, of ideal masculine qualities, for a long time it was hard to elaborate the attractiveness of the strong woman in other than mythic or allegorical guise. The heroic woman was an allegorical fantasy in nineteenth-century painting and sculpture: Liberty leading the People. The large-gestured, imperiously draped, convulsively powerful woman danced by Martha Graham in the works she created for her all-women troupe in the 1930s-a turning point in the history of how women's strength, women's anger have been represented-was a mythic archetype (priestess, rebel, mourning daimon, quester) presiding over a community of women, not a real woman compromising and cohabiting with and working alongside men.
Dentist, orchestra conductor, commercial pilot, rabbi, lawyer, astronaut, film director, professional boxer, law-school dean, three-star general ... no doubt about it, ideas about what women can do, and do well, have changed. And what women mind has changed. Male behavior, from the caddish to the outright violent, that until recently was accepted without demurral is seen today as outrageous by many women who not so long ago were putting up with it themselves and who would still protest indignantly if someone described them as feminists. To be sure, what has done most to change the stereotypes of frivolity and fecklessness afflicting women are not the labors of the various feminisms, indispensable as these have been. It is the new economic realities that oblige most American women (including most women with small children) to work outside their homes. The measure of how much things have not changed is that women earn between one half and three fourths of what men earn in the same jobs. And virtually all occupations are still gender-labeled: with the exception of a few occupations (prostitute, nurse, secretary) where the reverse is true and it needs to be specified if the person is a man, one has to put "woman" in front of most job titles when it's a woman doing them; otherwise the presumption will always be that one is referring to a man.
Any woman of accomplishment becomes more acceptable if she can be seen as pursuing her ambitions, exercising her competence, in a feminine (wily, nonconfrontational) way. "No harsh feminist, Ms. X has attained . . ." begins the reassuring accolade to a woman in a job with executive responsibilities. That women are the equals of men-the new idea-continues to collide with the age-old presumption of female inferiority and serviceability: that it is normal for a woman to be in an essentially dependent or self-sacrificingly supportive relation to at least one man.
So ingrained is the presupposition that the man will be taller, older, richer, more successful than the woman with whom he mates that the exceptions, of which there are now many, never fail to seem noteworthy. It seems normal for a journalist to ask the husband of a woman more famous than himself if he feels "threatened" by his wife's eminence. No one would dream of wondering if the nonfamous wife of an important industrialist, surgeon, writer, politician, actor, feels threatened by her husband's eminence. And it is still thought that the ultimate act of love for a woman is to efface her own identity-a loving wife in a two-career marriage having every cause for anguish should her success overtake and surpass her husband's. ("Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.") Accomplished women, except for those in the performing professions, continue to be regarded as an anomaly. It appears to make sense, for many reasons, to have anthologies of women writers or exhibits of women photographers; it would seem very odd to propose an anthology of writers or an exhibit of photographers who had nothing in common except that they were men.
We want photography to be unmythic, full of concrete information. We are more comfortable with photographs that are ironic, unidealizing. Decorum is now understood as concealment. We expect the photographer to be bold, even insolent. We hope that subjects will be candid, or naYvely revealing.
Of course, subjects who are accustomed to posing---women of achievement, women of notoriety-will offer something more guarded, or defiant.
And the way women and men really look (or allow themselves to appear) is not identical with how it is thought appropriate to appear to the camera. What looks right, or attractive, in a photograph is often no more than what illustrates the felt "naturalness" of the unequal distribution of powers conventionally accorded women and men.
just as photography has done so much to confirm these stereotypes, it can engage in complicating and undermining them. In this collection, we see women catering to the imperatives of looked-at-ness. We see women for whom, because of age or because they're preoccupied by the duties and pleasures of raising children, the rules of ostentatiously feminine performance are irrelevant. There are many portraits of women defined by the new kinds of work now open to them. There are strong women, some of them doing "men's jobs," some of them dancers and athletes with the powerful musculature that only recently began to be visible when such champion female bodies were photographed.
One of the tasks of photography is to disclose, and shape our sense of, the variety of the world. It is not to present ideals. There is no agenda except diversity and interestingness. There are no judgments, which of course is itself a judgment.
And that variety is itself an ideal. We want now to know that for every this there is a that. We want to have a plurality of models.
Photography is in the service of the postjudgmental ethos gaining ascendancy in societies whose norms are drawn from the practices of consumerism. The camera shows us many worlds, and the point is that all the images are valid. A woman may be a cop or a beauty queen or an architect or a housewife or a physicist. Diversity is an end in itself-much celebrated in today's America. There is the very American, very modern faith in the possibility of continuous self-transformation. A life, after all, is commonly referred to as a lifestyle. Styles change. This celebration of variety, of individuality, of individuality as style, saps the authority of gender stereotypes, and has become an inexorable counterforce to the bigotry that still denies women more than token access to many occupations and experiences.
That women, in the same measure as men, should be able to fulfill their individuality is, of course, a radical idea. It is in this form, for better and for worse, that the traditional feminist call forl'ustice for women has come to seem most plausible.
A book of photographs; a book about women; a very American project: generous, ardent, inventive, open-ended. It's for us to decide what to make of these pictures. After all, a photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?
Posted February 9, 2009
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Posted September 30, 2009
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Posted January 30, 2011
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