Annenberg Space for Photography
Through November 27, 2011
A couple of years back, the New Yorker ran a profile of a person who is usually hidden from the public but who perhaps has a wider handle and power on how we see than any artist or optometrist. He is the best in the world, sought after by both artists like Philip-Lorca DiCorcia as well as almost every high profile magazine, and his job is a simple one, to make people look “better,” more beautiful by tweaking the tragedy of the image that was actually captured by the camera.
It is Pascal Dangin’s job to airbrush, tweak, and often rebuild photographs according to what society needs at the moment, whatever its current idea of beauty is. If society trends toward slender slips like Kate Moss as it did in parts of the 90s, Dangin can do it. If it wants curvy and robust like Kim Kardashian, Dangin can do that too. Most shocking to me, however, was that Dangin even caught on to the point a few years ago that society was critiquing its images and that critique itself was the vogue. Remember the Dove Real Women campaign -- well Dangin did one as well; “It was a great job, a challenge,” Dangin said, “to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.”
Dangin is the instrument and perfect of embodiment of what Susan Sontag called The Image World, which is notably the idea that real social change is masked by the illusion of its changing images. Essentially, we watch the little amendments and slight shifts in the ethics of our images and this gives us simulation and release from boredom. Sontag, ever intent to get political, goes on to say that The Image World naturally facilitates and augments the harsher realities of Capitalism, photographs “a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology.”
The loose and hard-to-define concept of Beauty is, of course, a central part of The Image World. Beauty is able to be chased, but unable to be grasped. Beauty is open to as many subjective definitions than there are subjects, but more often, is rote and predictable in hands of unimaginative minds and limited vision. Beauty as a concept is perfect for the world of the photograph. Dangin, for instance, seems to sense what society wants from Beauty at a given time according to archetypes which constantly emerge and fade from view. The truism “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is incorrect according to Sontag. Instead, Beauty is in the eye of people like Dangin, in the eye of the ruling class, in the eye of what the ruling class wants to look like and wants to sell. “At one end of the spectrum, photographs are objective data; at the other end, they are items of psychological science fiction,” is how Sontag put it.
Now when I encounter a show in Los Angeles, that engine of beauty and glamour and all things painted and polished, called Beauty Culture, I would expect a show that gets into some of these issues of constructed beauty. I would expect the show to analyze and critique, to get into the ethics of this culture. I would expect the show to even have the ambition to suggest, as Sontag goes on to, that images are not the whole story, that humans have the freedom -- should they recognize their dilemma and choose to do so -- to rebel from images. These, for me quite reasonable, expectations were the reason I was so disappointed and even saddened by Beauty Culture at The Annenberg Center of Photography.
Beauty Culture, on view for the entirety of the summer, would have been an opportunity to get some real work done for Los Angeles in terms of photography, but the show seems to have wandered into pretty vapid territory instead, basically prints arranged in the following categories – What color is beauty?, the Pinup, The Marilyn Syndrome, The Hollywood Glamour Machine, Beauty Incorporated (don’t really see the difference between this and the glamour machine), and finally a solid wall of fashion magazine covers. If the intention was to examine the role of photography in the presentation and often construction of beauty, to expose it as it does in its title as rooted in “Cult” thinking, then what we have here is the very narrow and facile idea of beauty that we find pretty much everywhere. Thumb through an issue of W or Vanity Fair, and you have most of what you will find at the Annenberg.
Basically what I mean by “narrow and facile idea of beauty” is beauty as an image, as a surface built by a culture that has a large, often financial, stake in what those images look like. We often have the experience, especially in Los Angeles, of hearing in regard to celebrities and others that “they look just like their picture” if they are beautiful, or the opposite if we think they are not living up to our expectations, “they are much less pretty in person.” The world of the constructed image is a fascinating but dangerous place, prone to the whims and impulses of a schizoid and distracted culture, but most of the images shown at the Annenberg are simply the polished, final, unflinching, and dangerous images that are so destructive to culture. We only have people looking good in their photographs and most often (almost two thirds of the time) women photographed and interpreted by men.
It is not enough to throw in diversity of skin color, a few images of plastic surgery, and a Martin Schoeller image of Tammy Faye Baker, of constructed beauty falling off the deep end. These images, though showing some of the darker avenues of constructed beauty, still show the engine pumping and unable to be stopped. They are greatly outweighed by the hundreds of straight ahead fashion photos of Marilyn, Kirsten Dunst (who, I would say from experience in L.A., does not look like her photos), Sofia Loren, and Angelina Jolie. The Annenberg’s main role with this exhibition is to show the same unapologetic falsities that are built by CAA in the same building, and this is a real shame.
Instead, what of that freedom that Sontag talked about, about the choice one can enact for themselves to resist the image world and see it for what it is, an illusion? Are there not any routes we can take in photography to see its ruses? How about at least one instance of a retouched photo next to an untouched one, a sort of Highlights Magazine, can-you-see-what’s-different moment? Are there ways to include photographers that have perhaps unconventional visions of beauty? Is there a way to show that beauty is not entirely in the hands of the image? Are there limitations to beauty as given by photography? At bare minimum, how about bringing some of the famous critiques of fashion body image as offered by feminist psychology, sociology, and art history over last forty years? Eleanor Antin? Naomi Wolf? These would be the questions that a serious exhibition on the cult of beauty must ask.
The Annenberg Center of Photography has great potential, having the luxury of focusing specifically on the photo medium when most museums put photography in the basement, in a remote wing, or in side altar gallery spaces. Institutions dedicated solely to photography can add depth to an art community. One thinks immediately of the International Center of Photography and the Aperture Foundation in New York as well as the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago as serious places dedicated to the theory, presentation, and history of photography. Not only that, they do great jobs, have interesting shows, and really push the envelope, able to, at times, even to push forward questions about the often shaky moral ground photography stands on.
Los Angeles needs a place like these, and The Annenberg seems to have this interest in mind, but this show is not a good route. They can do better than this. During a time when Los Angeles is collectively making a claim as not only a world class art city but as the world class art city, we need them to do better than this.