From photography's earliest beginnings the medium has abundantly explored the details of feminine beauty in a vibrant way. This exploration dates as far back as the Daguerreotype era, as early as 1835. Fast-forward through history to the great beauty and fashion photographers like Edward Steichen, Guy Bourdin, Melvin Sokolsky, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and currently Patrick Demarche for example. All have dedicated their careers to exploring beauty with their extraordinary photographic talents.
At the same time their photos made huge profits for corporations for whom they were shooting for. And that raises the question: are fashions and style trends a natural outgrowth of human society or are they the marketing genius of Madison Ave?
What is our collective concept of female beauty? Do we have one? How real or deceitful is the notion of the ideal woman? What color is beauty? How tall? Is it obese or anorexic, natural or manufactured - or both? Does it matter anymore? Is there a price tag attached? There have been over twelve million cosmetic procedures in the USA alone, from face-lifts and breast implants to Botox injections, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons in 2010.
An exhibition entitled "BEAUTY CULTURE" is currently on view at the Annenberg Space for Photography, and located in Century City. Their press release states, "The exhibit provides a seminal examination of photography's role in capturing and defining notions of modern beauty and how these images profoundly influence our lives in both celebratory and disturbing ways. Through different lenses focused on the body beautiful, the exhibition examines both traditional and unconventional definitions of beauty, challenging stereotypes of gender, race, and age. It explores the links between beauty and violence, glamour and sexuality and the cost (in its multiple meanings) of beauty.
In a town that worships and survives on the ideals of beauty and sensuality, this challenging exhibition could not be found in a worthier location. What Hollywood, the print media and "celebrity-ism" have falsely created within our culture about, "What is beautiful?" is a highly debatable subject.
Positive or Negative
The beauty industry is either horribly destructive, superficial, and greedy or a responsible, profit-driven business that defines beauty to reflect contemporary values. How we feel about it depends upon where we're coming from.
Many of these values are represented in the digital aesthetic. Everything can be green-screened; everything can be faked or altered to meet one's own personal standards. One only needs to look at the covers and flashy advertisements inside Vanity Fair to observe just how far the fine art of retouching photos has come.
In addition to digital fixes, there are hundreds of medical procedures for actually altering the sanctity of the human body, and these procedures are not inexpensive.
What is wrong with looking great and feeling good about your self? Does it matter if the look achieved is through natural means or surgical manipulation? Does the emperor have any clothes?
This exhibit endeavors to pry open and peek inside this Pandora's box to help answer some of those questions. Who makes decisions on beauty? Magazine editors? Who decides what the ideal female figure is? Women? Gays? Cosmetic companies? Designers? Surgeons? Photographers? Or perhaps it is Wall St. hiding in the wings.
Many celebrity fashion photographers are included in the exhibit, including Francesco Scavullo, Albert Watson, David LaChapelle, Mary Ellen Mark and even Man Ray. However, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn are conspicuously missing. So are Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton. Their absence is a gaping hole in the exhibit and one wonders the reason why.
However, this provocative exhibit is worth a good look. Go and see for yourself and make your own decisions. More importantly, it raises some poignant questions about how the fashion and cosmetics industry is affecting America's youth. What inherent pressures do they feel and what are the consequences?
The Annenberg Space for Photography
If you've never been to the Annenberg Space for Photography, it's like no other photography venue you've ever seen before. It's Star Wars all the way, with large digital screens in the center of the gallery, plus amazing digital interaction centers that demonstrate, like giant iPads, what can be done with images. The artwork is hung mostly salon style and is nicely lit in a large, slightly circular corridor, which opens up to a darkened center gallery where digital images and films are projected. There are many areas that offer opportunities to explore and personally interact with the exhibits within the center.
Wallis Annenberg, Chairman, President and CEO of the Annenberg Foundation said, "Photography is one of the most accessible and personal forms of art. We see the creation of the Annenberg Space for Photography as a service to the community where visitors can see through a different lens and leave feeling motivated to make positive change."Admission is free allowing many more people to experience this rich, cultural treasure.
The exhibition features works from over 100 world-renowned beauty, fashion, and fine art photographers. Over 170 original photographs are on display in the print gallery, and in addition BEAUTY CULTURE showcases hundreds of digital images in vivid detail on high-resolution screens in the digital gallery.
One of the most rewarding highlights of the exhibit is a 30-minute documentary. (The video is shown hourly.) Lauren Greenfield, an artist whose prints are also featured in this exhibit, directed the film. She has a reputation for covering hypersensitive issues for women, such as aging, weight, youth culture and economic issues. In this documentary she covers eating disorders, plastic surgery, and fashion. Penetrating interviews feature models of all ages, famous fashion photographers, women who've gone through major plastic surgeries (all for different reasons), fashion designers and interesting observations on beauty from actor Jamie Lee Curtis.
The photographic prints exhibited are of superior quality. There are many rich variations of color and black & white photographs, and prints of different sizes from large to small.
For the aspiring fashion or beauty photographer, this exhibition is wonderfully educational. It contains outstanding examples of the best studio and editorial fashion photos and numerous images illustrate amazing make-up and hairstyles. There are superb examples of the finest photographic lighting, both contemporary and from the past. There are some intense photos that document plastic surgery procedures, including a nose job, a fat reduction operation on the stomach, and Botox injections.
The exhibit raises provocative questions about our culture that are uncomfortable and necessary. It gives one pause and a moment to reflect on our obsession with beauty and its sociological price tag. It also validates how powerful the medium of photography is by defining in very specific ways what the nature of feminine beauty looks like.
This exhibit runs at the Anneberg till November 27th, 2011.