Visual Arts: Out of Focus

The Henry’s survey show offers many big photographers, little insight.

In early March, a week after I toured the Henry’s Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty with its curator, NYU’s Deborah Willis, a huge Garry Winogrand retrospective opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The too-prolific Winogrand (1928–1984) was no fashion photographer, but he had an eye for beautiful women, usually snapped on the street. The Henry owns many Winogrand prints, and Willis has selected seven images from his Women Are Beautiful series, most from the ’60s. Winogrand’s women seem to be caught unawares and unposed; there’s a “natural” snapshot aesthetic in his work that belies all the planning behind the lens. He had to stalk his subjects, then choose the right balance between naturalism and unrehearsed grace. It’s like waiting for the smile without actually saying “Smile!”

I mention this connection, three months later, because the Willis selection made me want to go see the San Fran show; but then I got too busy with SIFF, and it closes this weekend. And the frustration of Willis’ show, through packed with great images, is her thesis-driven mix of more than 50 disparate artists. You get tantalizing bits—but never enough—of Winogrand, Warhol, Nan Goldin, Imogen Cunningham, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, André Kertész, Lee Friedlander, our own Edward S. Curtis (for ethnographic value) . . . the list goes on and on. The show has about 100 images from the Henry’s holdings and related UW collections.

As Willis writes in her catalog: “Using a variety of artistic and theoretical positions about beauty, I argue for a diverse reading that challenges conventional perspectives on identity, beauty, and cosmopolitanism. Through the themes of idealized beauty, the unfashionable body, the gendered image, and photography as memory, the exhibition explores the complexity of reading photographic images in the twenty-first century.” That’s quite an agenda, and Willis actually reaches back to the 19th century to support it.

Her keywords, in person and in print, tend toward construction, diversity, and complexity. The Native Americans whom Curtis admiringly posed in ahistorical dress and settings now appear to us in carefully constructed images: formal and dignified. There’s no less work involved for Curtis than Winogrand’s on-the-fly aesthetic of chic and casual. Cecil Beaton’s 1930 glamour portrait of Marlene Dietrich—a famous perfectionist about her image—suggests even more work, and retouching, in the studio and darkroom. It’s all an act. It’s all an art. Artifice. No photo is ever natural, no matter how much we associate the medium with truth.

Willis seeks to “challenge conventional perspectives on beauty” with some unlikely juxtapositions: Bruce Davidson on the Civil Rights era, Dorothea Lange on the Great Depression, some videos and non-photographic displays. But the connection seems forced, and her thematic groupings—Imagined Identities, Fashioning the Body, The Speculative Pose—are no more convincing. Her ideas don’t come through, and no one artist gets a chance to shine.

Yet in a show with so many distinguished, familiar names, there are discoveries to be made. Here’s a portrait of collectors/donors Elaine and Joseph Monsen, so crucial to the exhibit and the Henry as a whole, by Arnold Newman. And there’s a fascinatingly dense 1948 crowd scene, Muscle Beach, by Max Yavno, a California photographer unknown to me. It’s a giddy postwar moment full of action and faces, bodies glistening in the sun. The shutter has frozen what seems a story in motion, with kids playing, gawkers gawking, and a woman being tossed high in a joyous lift. You could say these guys are striving to be beautiful as they build their biceps and pecs, but that idea is buried in the teeming tableau.

My second favorite image is nakedly commercial yet winkingly intimate: Irving Penn’s 1950 fashion shot of the famous model Lisa Fonssagrives. Married soon after (a love match that lasted until her death), they collaborated on many a Vogue spread, and theirs was a working relationship—equal colleagues in the beauty industry. Fonssagrives (1911–1992) looks right back into the lens: at Penn, at us shoppers. The roses on her elbow may be silly; the Lafaurie wrap dress and bustle may be dated; but what I love is the partnership expressed, the acknowledgement of shared process. It’s the opposite of Winogrand’s later street grabs of anonymous, unwitting lovelies. Here we see the model’s absolute calculation, her knowing pose. She’s smarter than the show and most of the other photographs around her.

HENRY ART GALLERY UW campus, 543-2280, $6–$10. 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Thurs.–Fri., 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Wed. & Sat.–Sun. Ends Sept. 1.

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