Sunday, June 26, 2016

MWA XXXIX: Steichen's Swanson

"Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. ... So successful has been the camera's role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful." -- Susan Sontag, "The Heroism of Vision," from On Photography (1977), p.85

I have been reading Sontag's book as one of my commute reads, and although some of her ideas seem dated now, I can tell how they were significant for a younger generation of connoisseurs, curators, and art historians in the 1970s when visual art was struggling to maintain its momentum with the rise of conceptual art and happenings in the contemporary scene. This particular essay, however, I have found very interesting because she proposed that the power of photography, as a democratized form of visual imagery and reproductive media, created for viewers a definition of what beauty is supposed to be. Although she focused on avant-garde practices and left out much discussion on commercial and fashion photography, the implication is clearly there as well. From the very beginning, advertising and mass media, through photographic imagery, have instructed us on how we are supposed to look and thus feel, and if we don't measure up somehow we fail as humans in our society. The role of photography to celebrity culture is tied to this and arguably today is even worse now than it ever was because of the onslaught of mass media and advertising impacting people 24/7.

I begin with this preface about beauty and photography to introduce what I've selected as the latest Monthly Work of Art. I first encountered the image you see above many years ago, and  I believe it was one of the great images that motivated me along to my eventual career in art history. The photograph is a portrait of Gloria Swanson photographed by Edward Steichen. I first saw this work in person at an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg more than 25 years ago. When many years later I told my friend and photohistorian extraordinaire RL the story of how much I loved this photograph and how it had inspired me, his response was "Of course it did!" I took that to mean two things: first, that it was indeed an evocative and beautifully composed photograph; and second, that naturally it would also appeal to me because it was so queer.

Photographed in 1924 and published in Vanity Fair in February 1928, a vintage print went up for auction at Sotheby's in 2014 and sold for $629,000. But if you could put a price on the beautiful, this photograph would likely be among those whose worth was priceless. The subject is Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), who at the time of the shoot was the highest paid actress in the world. She was a star of the silent film era and made the transition to talkies, but fell out of favor in Hollywood until she starred as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), playing (ironically?) a fading film star from the silent film era who lives as a hermit in her Hollywood mansion but falls in love with a young screenwriter. In some ways, the photograph practically foreshadows Desmond's famous line "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," spoken by Swanson in a husky voice that seeps through the translucent black veil in Steichen's image. The theatrical effects of the photograph and its references to old Hollywood and 1920s glamour are of course all of the stock traits that make it queer.

The photographer, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), established his career as a painter and Pictorialist photographer, but by the 1920s he had become a fashion and celebrity photographer, and later went on to become Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. In his autobiography, Steichen wrote about photographing Swanson: "[We] had had a long session, with many changes of costume and different lighting effects. At the end of the session, I took a piece of black lace veil and hung it in front of her face. She recognized the idea at once. Her eyes dilated, and her look was that of a leopardess lurking behind leafy shrubbery, watching her prey" (Steichen, A Life in Photography, chapter 8). This description of the photo shoot suggests a few interesting notions. First, that the perfect image only came to them after an already-long, strenuous, exhausting day, implying then that it was not hard work but instantaneity and magical genius that had created this image. This notion of artistic strokes of genius is a trope one finds with every artist in history, and clearly was intended to make their work actually seem effortless and thus sophisticated. Second, the quotation also demonstrates that Swanson as the subject was equally involved in the creation of the image, specifically through performance and pose. Hence, it was a mutually-created stroke of genius, Adam-and-God touching fingers to spark Michelangelesque creation.

What Steichen does not seem to give credit to, however, is the power of the black veil. These netted fabrics have served to mask women's face for millennia, to allow them to feel a sense of protection against the staring eyes of others. In the case of mourning, a black veil permits the women to be private in her grief when she is in public, and informs people they should step away out of respect. In contrast, a white veil on a Western wedding dress masks the beauty of the woman's face, only to be revealed at the end when the new husband is permitted to kiss his bride. He lifts her veil, sees her face, and is now the sole owner of the commodity of beauty that has been hidden before that moment. Women in the Islamic community who wear full burqa often include veils, and regardless of the socio-political or gender-biased implications behind this practice, ultimately the veil here serves the same purpose: to disguise the woman and, by implication, make her invisible (even if, in Western society, it has the opposite effect).

The black veil in this photograph, seemingly thrown up haphazardly by Steichen, instantly creates a barrier that thereafter prevents the viewer from ever penetrating into the subject's space. It transforms a color of mourning into a commodity for showcasing beauty. But the veil also distances the subject from the gaze of the viewer, and thus creates an erotic tension between them. In many ways this was symptomatic of the role Swanson herself played in society as a film actress: visible and larger-than-life on the big screen for everyone to see, she was unavailable to the public as a real, live person. Unlike a full-length film, this single-frame image exacerbates this tension. She stares, eyes locked, leopardess-like, on her prey, the viewer, and thus shifts the power of the gaze back onto its source. Her gaze, specifically through that veil, empowers her and ultimately castrates (figuratively speaking) the (presumed male) viewer who has sought to penetrate her. The image is, indeed, one that showcases beauty, but at the same time it emphasizes the subject's power. Rather than subjugate her, the veil becomes the woman's armor.

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