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The photographs by Annie Leibovitz in Women, taken especially for the book, encompass a broad spectrum of subjects: a rap artist, an astronaut, two Supreme Court justices, farmers, coal miners, movie stars, showgirls, rodeo riders, socialites, reporters, dancers, a maid, a general, a surgeon, the First Lady of the United States, the secretary of state, a senator, rock stars, prostitutes, teachers, singers, athletes, poets, writers, painters, musicians, theater directors, political activists, performance artists, and businesswomen. "Each of these pictures must stand on its own," Susan Sontag writes in the essay that accompanies the portraits. "But the ensemble says, So this what women are now -- as different, as varied, as heroic, as forlorn, as conventional, as unconventional as this."
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Each of the extraordinary portraits made by photographer Annie Leibovitz for her book Women
stands on its own. Looked at together, these "photographs of people with nothing more in common than that they are women (and living in America at the end of the twentieth century), all--well almost all--fully clothed," writes Susan Sontag in the book's preface, form "an anthology of destinies and disabilities and new possibilities." Leibovitz, who in her years working for Rolling Stone
, and Vanity Fair
magazines has photographed hundreds of celebrities, turns her lens on a wide range of ordinary and extraordinary female subjects: coal miners, socialites, first ladies, artists, domestic-violence victims, an astronaut, a surgeon, a maid. What she creates is a reflection of contemporary American womanhood that mirrors both women's accomplishments and the challenges they still face individually and as a group.
Leibovitz demonstrates her own range as a photographer in this body of work, shooting in the studio and natural settings and working in both black-and-white and color film. She depicts model Jerry Hall wearing a little black dress, a fur coat, and high heels, staring frankly at the viewer from a velvet chair in a plush red parlor while her naked infant son nurses from her exposed right breast. Schoolteacher Lamis Srour's eyes--the only part of her face visible behind her heavy black veil--illuminate a dark black-and-white portrait. Leibovitz frames actress Elizabeth Taylor and her dog Sugar by their shocks of snow-white hair. She captures four Kilgore College Rangerettes, a drill team, at the apex of their kicks--white-booted legs pointing up, obscuring their faces and revealing the red underpants beneath their blue miniskirts. There are many more wonderful and unexpected images here, over 200 in all. The delight in discovering them awaits readers. --Jordana Moskowitz
When in the early 1860s a well-connected, exuberant, middle-aged Englishwoman named Julia Margaret Cameron took up the camera as a vocation, she usually photographed men differently than she photographed women. The men, who included some of the most eminent poets, sages, and scientists of the Victorian era, were posed for their portraits. The women-somebody's wife, daughter, sister, niece-served mostly as models for "fancy sub)ects" (Cameron's label). Women were used to personify ideals of womanliness drawn from literature or mythology: the vulnerability and pathos of Ophelia; the tenderness of the Madonna with her Child. Almost all the sitters were relatives and friends reclothed, incarnated several exalted or her parlormaid, who, suitably icons of femininity. Only Julia Jackson, Cameron's niece (and the future mother of the future Virginia Woolf), was, in homage to her exceptional beauty, never posed as anyone but herself.
What qualified the women as sitters was precisely their beauty, as fame and achievement qualified the men. The beauty of women made them ideal subjects. (Notably, there was no role for picturesque or exotic beauty, so that when Cameron and her husband moved to Ceylon, she virtually stopped taking pictures.) Indeed, Cameron defined photography as a quest for the beautiful. And quest it was: "Why does not Mrs. Smith come to be photographed?" she wrote to a friend about a lady in London whom she had never met. "I hear she is Beautiful. Bid her come, and she shall be made Immortal."
Imagine a book of pictures of women in which none of the women could be identified as beautiful. Wouldn't we feel that the photographer had made some kind of mistake? Was being mean-spirited? Misogynistic? Was depriving us of something that we had a right to see? No one would say the same thing of a book of portraits of men.
There were always several kinds of beauty: imperious beauty, voluptuous beauty, beauty signifying the character traits that fitted a woman for the confines of genteel domes ticity-do cill ty, pliancy, serenity. Beauty was not just loveliness of feature and expression, an aesthetic ideal. It also spoke to the eye about the virtues deemed essential in women.
For a woman to be intelligent was not essential, not even particularly appropriate. It was in fact considered disabling, and likely to be inscribed in her appearance. Such is the fate of a principal character in The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins's robustly, enthrallingly clever bestseller, which appeared in 1860, just before Cameron started making her portraits. Here is how this woman is introduced, early in the novel, in the voice of its young hero:
... I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window-and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps-and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer-and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!
Reveling in the presumptions and delights of the appraising male gaze, the narrator has noted that, seen from behind and in long shot, the lady satisfies all the criteria of female desirability. Hence his acute surprise, when she turns and comes toward him, at her "ugly" face (it is not allowed to be just plain or homely), which, he explains, is a kind of paradox:
Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted-never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it. The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression-b right, frank, and intelligent-appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete.
Marian Halcombe will turn out to be the most admirable character in Collins's novel, awarded every virtue except the capacity to inspire desire. Moved only by generous, noble sentiments, she has a near angelic, that is, archetypally femmine, temperament-except for the troubling matter of her uncommon intelligence, her frankness, her want of "pliability." Marian Halcombe's body, so ideally feminine that it is judged ripe for appropriation by a (presumably male) artist, conveys "modest graces of action." Her head, her face, signifies something more concentrated, exacting-unfeminine. The body gives one message, the face another. And face trumps body-as intelligence, to the detriment of female sexual attractiveness, trumps beauty. The narrator concludes:
To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model-to be charmed by the modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs betrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended-was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream.
Collins's male narrator is touching a gender faultline, which typically arouses anxieties and feelings of discomfort. The contradiction in the order of sexual stereotypes may seem dreamlike to a well-adjusted inhabitant of an era in which action, enterprise, artistic creativity, and intellectual innovation are understood to be masculine, fraternal orders. For a long time the beauty of a woman seemed incompatible, or at least oddly matched, with intelligence and assertiveness. (A far greater novelist, Henry James, in the preface to The Portrait of a Lady, speaks of the challenge of filling the "frail vessel" of a female protagonist with all the richness of an independent consciousness.) To be sure, no novelist today would find it implausible to award good looks to a woman who is cerebral and self-assertive. But in real life it's still common to begrudge a woman who has both beauty and intellectual brilliance-one would never say there was something odd or intimidating or "unfair" about a man who was so fortunate-as if beauty, the ultimate enabler of feminine charm, should by rights have barred other kinds of excellence.
In a woman beauty is something total. It is what stands, in a woman, for character. It is also, of course, a performance; something willed, designed, obtained. Looking through an old family photograph album, the Russian-born F h riter AndreY Makine recalls a trick used to get the particular glow of beauty he saw in some of the women's faces:
... these women knew that in order to be beautiful, what they must do several seconds before the flash blinded them was to articulate the following mysterious syllables in French, of which few understood the meaning: "pe-tite-pomme." As if by magic, the mouth, instead of being extended in counterfeit bliss, or contracting into an anxious grin, would form a gracious round. . . . The eyebrows arched slightly, the oval of the cheeks was elongated. You said "petite pomme, " and the shadow of a distant and dreamy sweetness veiled your gaze, refined your features ...
A woman being photographed aspired to a standardized look that signified an ideal refinement of "feminine" traits, as conveyed through beauty; and beauty was understood to be a distancing from the ordinary; as photographed, it projected something enigmatic, dreamy, inaccessible. Now, idiosyncrasy and forthrightness of expression are what make a photographic portrait interesting. And refinement is passe, and seems pretentious or phony.
Beauty-as photographed in the mainstream tradition that prevailed until recently-blurred women's sexuality. And even in photographs that were frankly erotic, the body might be telling one story and the face another: a naked woman lying in a strenuously indecent position, spread-eagled or presenting her rump, with the face turned toward the viewer wearing the vapidly amiable expression of respectable photographic portraiture. Newer ways of photographing women are less concealing of women's sexuality, though the display of once forbidden female flesh or carnal posturing is still fraught as a subject, so inveterate are responses that reassert male condescensions to women in the guise of lecherous appreciation. Women's libidinousness is always being repressed or held against them.
The identification of women with beauty was a way of immobilizing women. While character evolves, reveals, beauty is static, a mask, a magnet for projection. In the legendary final shot of Queen Chrl'stina, the Queen-Greta Garbo-having abdicated the Swedish throne, renouncing the masculinizing prerogatives of a monarch for the modesty of a woman's happiness, and boarded the ship to join her foreign lover and depart with him into exile only to find him mortally wounded by a v...
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