On the afternoon I attended the Annenberg Space for Photography's latest exhibition, "Beauty Culture," I was standing in the dark watching a series of fashion images projected in the digital gallery, when I was distracted by a woman who entered the room. I did a double take, as I recognized her as one of the iconic women featured in the exhibition, a former fashion model.
My eyes darted between looking at her watching herself and looking at the images of her on the screen. In the pictures, she was an otherworldly creature, a two-dimensional slate on which to project beauty, an object lesson in perfection, created in the service of commerce. In person, she stood aloof from her image, disengaged, cool but somehow timid -- as, if in the dark, the photo was real and she was the shadow.
Lauren Greenfield, a Los Angeles-born-and-based photographer and documentarian, had created a specially commissioned film for the exhibit, and it was about to start. The model withdrew, and I stayed.
Greenfield's 30-minute film explores the cult of beauty from several viewpoints -- of the photographers, such as Albert Watson, Melvin Sokolsky and Tyen; of models, among them Crystal Renn, Emme and Carmen Dell'Orefice; of modeling agents, such as Eileen Ford and Bethann Hardison; of young women (beauty pageant contestants, teenagers, body builders); of plastic surgeons; and of women who have had plastic surgery or cosmetic enhancements, including Cindy Margolis (the self-anointed most downloaded woman on the Internet). It also interviews New York Times reporter Alex Kuczynski, author of Beauty Junkies, as well as a French intellectual who had cheek implants inserted at eyebrow level, and actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who derides unreal cosmetic enhancements and who asks: "What is with the lip thing?"
"Beauty Culture" also displays 175 print images from 100 photographers, both commercial and fine artists. Among them are Vogue celebrity photographer Bert Stern, the Surrealist Man Ray, ad-campaign and portrait artist Herb Ritts, the French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, Rolling Stone and Interview celebrity portraitist Matthew Rolston, the German eroticist Ellen von Unwerth, the feminist artist Leonard Nimoy (yes, that Leonard Nimoy) and the French commercial graphic/photographic illustrator Jean-Paul Goude. The show also explores a variety of topics, including Hollywood glamour, the continuing influence of Marilyn Monroe's short career, the artifice integral to the billion-dollar cosmetics industry, the modeling industry, and a view of some iconic women who have come to embody a moment or era, including Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, Cheryl Tiegs, Christy Turlington, Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen.
The exhibition also asks: What size is beautiful? What color is beautiful? And it investigates the phenomenon of the pin-up girl, from Betty Grable to Farrah Fawcett, as well as women who have used images of androgyny to advantage. There's also a section called "Reaction and Revolution," which explores how retouching creates ideals of beauty unattainable even by the subjects. And, on the other side, it shows ways in which photographers, models and individuals have revolted against such narrow definitions of beauty.
"As much as beauty can astonish and inspire," Wallis Annenberg, of the Annenberg Foundation, is quoted as saying in a press release for the exhibition, "it can also corrupt and subvert, rendering all else -- even itself -- broken and obsolete. The great contemporary photographers ... turn art's mirror on ourselves as well. I can't think of a more important conversation for the Annenberg Space to have."
But is this exhibition really a conversation? The images are presented like a runway procession of our cultural fixations, a progression of beauties, actresses and models whom we've come to know by name and whose celebrity has increased in parallel with the success of the products and industries at whose service they made their fortunes. The images are beautiful, even when the subject is not (such as one picture of a needle being applied for a collagen injection).
The exhibition asks worthy questions about the sexualization of children; about a definition of beauty that more often than not depicts a white, skinny, youthful girl, while in the real world, standards of beauty have moved away from the blond, blue-eyed waiflike tomboy to more athletic, more curvy, more ethnic beauties. It asks about how our own self-image is impacted by a world where even the most beautiful women are digitally doctored -- to lengthen their legs, or remove the wrinkles or blemishes from their faces.
These are certainly valid questions, but not surprises.
And, sometimes just asking the questions is not enough. "Beauty Culture" left me feeling empty -- it simply skims the surface of the issues by acknowledging them, while the very beauty of the images acts as a counterargument, one that says: That's just the way it is. No matter the importance of Oprah or popularity of J.Lo or the successes of the Kardashians, modeling agents will continue to stand outside of high schools in Brazil or the Baltic countries looking for a 14-year-old beauty to sign to a modeling contract.
Cosmetic and jeans companies will not sign the winners of the Westinghouse science competition, or even the national spelling bee, to be their spokespersons. The cult of beauty is about the ideals and values attributed to a world of surfaces.
After staring at the model staring at herself in that dark room, I was hoping for an epiphany, an insight into the deeper nature of the transaction we enact in conferring the status of beauty upon an image or a person. I had none, and the exhibit provided nothing more.
On the subject of imbuing meaning, Sigmund Freud supposedly said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." And sometimes a model looking at a photo of herself is just a person looking at a picture.
This article originally appeared in print in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles in the issue of June 24, 2011.