One of the great pleasures of living in a major metropolitan area is being able to escape the chaos of the city by disappearing into a museum where you can find inspiration and a better understanding of yourself. Having lived merely a train ride away from some of the world’s great collections at the Smithsonian, I would steal away on a lunch break to the west wing of the National Gallery staring at J.M. Turner’s sweeping ships or haunting the Portrait Gallery until closing studying Robert Frank’s The Americans. Luckily, I’m now just a 20-minute car ride from several world-class museums in Los Angeles which make a great stop for reinvigoration after a day of auditions.
The Anneberg Space for Photography is one such institution offering a small but very high end collection of photo art ranging from the grisly realities of contemporary warfare to the mirrored glossiness of high fashion.
Two such exhibits graced the walls of the hypermodern Annenberg building this spring and summer featuring images by my friend, award-winning documentary photographer Louie Palu. His extraordinary work in WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath first brought me to the Annenberg, and I returned last week for the polar opposite experience–Helmut Newton: White Women • Sleepless Nights • Big Nudes.
After seeing the Newton exhibit, I wondered what feminist theorists had made of his work in real time during the 1970s and 1980s as women were entering the work force in droves, quickly buying into the corporate model of success. The accompanying documentary at the exhibit–driven by three Newtonian sycophants–made me feel like the entire message of female empowerment was undermined by terrific male egotism and a scary thesis that power is quantifiable by purchasing capacity.
Commerce and art have a long and torrid history going back to the Catholic Church’s commissioning of some of the greatest pieces in history. And art and advertising are equally entangled. When that message is mixed with “girl power,” it becomes even more confusing. My initial instinct is to cheer on the pride and fearlessness these women exhibit, but knowing that most of this photography was geared to sell magazines and ridiculously overpriced handbags leaves me wondering if a true sense of empowerment was yet to come.
Perhaps mine is a 21st century response to work that, in its heyday, was truly groundbreaking, provocative (Newton reveled in such a descriptor), and smart. In the world of 2013 where the Internet and television are overloaded with actual pornography, Newton’s work feels restrained and very artful–meticulously planned and painstakingly executed. His models spoke nothing but praise for him as an artist and as a boss.
This made me wonder if my discomfort after seeing the exhibit had something to do with my own body image. Would I subject myself to a lens as exposing as his? Would he have spotted my legs on the streets of Paris and made me the next It Girl for French Vogue? Certainly not. There’s a distinct lack of fecundity in Newton’s subjects. His idea of a “big woman” was tall athleticism, not Titian voluptuousness. He aptly calls his first collection of photos White Women because multicultural ideas of beauty are complete absent. The female as power broker functions as a reoccurring theme juxtaposed immediately against sapphic gentility all but driven by a consumer culture of high end couture.
In Newton’s most iconic work, the models appear to not only be aware of the photographer but seem to be in charge of the picture itself. They stare down the lens almost challenging the viewer despite their nudity or perhaps because of it. How anyone sold high heels with this particular approach is beyond me.
But it is hypnotic. So I came home after an hour at the museum and decided to practice my Newton posing in the mirror. If this sounds a bit narcissistic, it was. I took the opportunity to study my form like a student in drawing class, but I kept getting hung up on all the flaws. Conversely, when I was looking at the Newton nudes, all I saw was perfection.
I thought the most interesting parts of the documentary in the Newton exhibit were the segments featuring his former models, now perhaps in their 60s. Once glamorous, their faces now are delicately decorated with age appropriate wrinkles. They still looked elegant with hair so perfectly coiffed even Vidal Sassoon would approve. Some had gained weight just as middle aged women tend to do. And they all looked perfectly happy that no one asked them to take their clothes off. I don’t know why, but the photographic retrospective reminded me of a conversation I was privy to over 15 years ago between my mother and her friend Dianne.
Dianne came of age in the 1970s (her collection of handmade macrame proved this without a doubt) and at that time in the 1990s was hosting a women’s group my mom attended. One night after watching a documentary on the history of witch burning in Europe, Dianne proclaimed that she was removing her bra.
“The minute I walk in the door, this thing is gone,” she said as she snaked it out of her t-shirt sleeve. I can’t imagine these ladies were at all considered consumers of Newton’s images during the height of the women’s movement. Not that they weren’t educated or interested in art or fashion–they were–but they were also suburban and matronly.
I decided to call my mom and ask her if she remembered the night at Dianne’s house. She didn’t, but she told me about several other of her friends who hate wearing bras (she herself doesn’t mind). I asked if she knew who Helmut Newton was. She paused. I could tell she was thinking and didn’t want to sound like she didn’t know something she ought to. I said he had shot for Vogue in the 1970s and 1980s. “Oh!” she said. “Now the name means something.” She told me the last time she’d bought Vogue was in her mid-twenties, and, without divulging her age, that was some time ago.
It seems strange to have flashed back to Dianne’s house and that it would be a wholly personal memory, perhaps only important to me. I didn’t think about photo shoots I’ve been on over the years, even a campaign I did after a breakup where I came as close to shooting nude as I ever have. Instead I was thinking about Dianne’s average frumpy single story ranch in Lakewood, Colorado, far from the roof of a five-star hotel in Cannes, overlooking the Mediterranean which glistened as brightly as the Swarovski crystals embedded in the bracelet Newton was tasked to sell.
Watching Dianne, a grown woman, easily discard her undergarments in front of a room full of people was a totally naked moment for me, an encounter as exposed as a Newton photograph.