Photography is a relatively new medium, but its ability to accurately capture its subject in an instant has perhaps forever changed conceptions of beauty and our relation to images. Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty, the newest exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery explores changing notions of beauty through fashion and photography. It is curated by the Henry’s Inaugural Visiting Fellow and Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Deborah Willis, who provides a unique perspective as both an artist and a curator.
Willis was given full access to the Henry’s collection and unearthed works that are not often—or ever—shown, according to Sylvia Wolf, the director of the Henry. Wolf explains that Willis imparted a new sense of energy at the Henry and her curatorial skills allow viewers to change their associations with pieces through context and proximity. The exhibit features photographs and installations by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Jack Pierson, Harry Callahan, Max Yavno, Barbara Morgan, Garry Winogrand, Irving Penn, Andy Warhol and Imogen Cunningham (just to name a few).
In preparation for the opening of Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty, the Henry hosted a night of conversation and discussion between Deborah Willis and Erika Dalya Massaquoi, a board trustee at Pratt Fine Arts Center. Sylvia Wolf mediated and promoted the dialog between the brilliantly creative minds of Willis and Dalya Massaquoi while offering her own studied perspective. Willis and Dalya Massaquoi, both as photographers, discussed the limited physical documentation in the digital age. As examples, written letters are a rare novelty and photographs are rarely printed. The interpretations and context provided by Willis, Dalya Massaquoi and Wolf laid a fundamental groundwork for understanding the exhibit as a whole and its mission in the eyes of the curator.
Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty is not an exclusively aesthetic exploration. It examines the physical documentation of human emotion in the modern age with works spanning decades of global culture, using beauty and fashion as a backdrop that offers viewers a more immediate understanding of place and time. In Diane Arbus’ A Family on their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, New York, one gets a sense of an American ideal of beauty and perfection through the clothes and overall style, but the poses, and perspective of the photograph present multiple and complex emotional states. While a woman lounges glamorously and a child plays in the background, a male figure to the right covers his face. It is the covered face that comes to define the image, as the separation of the figures through the furniture and the overall arrangement of space develop its sense of distress. Arbus’ piece is just one example of many within the show linking psychic and physical distress and relying on the viewer’s ability to read the body to ascertain a narrative.
The role of the gaze—male or female—factors heavily into the exhibition and was central to the conversation between Willlis, Dalya Massaquoi and Wolf. The most interesting pieces are those that contain a direct gaze and, in a sense, control the viewer. Such a piece is Jack Pierson’s Belevedere Clayton. The viewer is confronted by the ceaseless stare of the subject, lounging across a bed. One can almost feel the presence of the subject. The composition was likely assiduously considered and posed, but it seems so natural that it draws the viewer into the space of image—and not so much by the more interesting elements of the scene, which fade into the periphery of the piercing blue gaze of the male. On the reverse end of the gaze, Garry Winogrand’s Beverly Hilton captures a moment that is iconic and aesthetically appealing and has an intriguing sense of voyeurism through its masterful use of perspective.
Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty is a skillfully curated exploration of beauty, fashion and photography. The diversity of the works chosen are certain to inspire individual contemplation of these broad concepts within our heavily visual society.
Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty will be on display through July 7.