It’s a big night in Berlin when the glamor and sophistication of the photographic subjects on the walls are equally matched by the viewers passing through the gallery. Last Thursday evening’s opening at the Helmet Newton Foundation was just such an event. The exhibition, entitled Pages from the Glossies, explored both the development of the artist’s techniques as well as the role of women in society spanning from 1956 to 1998. But, editorial photography – being entrenched in a multiplicity of perspectives and with each possible factor being pulled by numerous artistic, cultural, and economic motivational strings – is a tricky media in which to uncover true sociocultural depth.
Like in the superficiality of femininity often explored in today’s editorial shoots, I felt myself overwhelmed by beauty – to a point where I began to question my own presence in the space. There was a moment in which I stopped believing in the legitimacy of my purpose in the gallery and began to search for those I would classify as the most authentic and elegant-looking to try to gage their reactions to the work. I soon realized that just as I looked for them, they looked for me and it was as if the vanity of the orchestration of the exhibition leapt off the walls and began to propagate amongst the audience. The problem was that the curation of the pieces failed to find a way to trace the photograph’s authentic connection between womanhood, sincerity, culture and history, and in this way it lost an opportunity to tap into a large and highly relevant source of power.
It is undeniable that there was a clearly constructed narrative and reflection about Western perceptions of women. Viewers saw the accomplished alluring model masterfully dressed and staged, as a lulled and somehow still sexualized child with her mother intently and distrustingly watched over. There was also a later piece where the female model’s chiselled face took up one-tenth of a photograph, and yet capture one-hundred percent of the viewer’s gaze. This is due to the fact it so skillfully projected the angst and hopelessness, in relation to the background which was occupied by her male counterpart’s body, physically suppressing hers. Today, these photographs are easily recognizable as reflections of a time when women were made to appear less threatening through various forms of objectification. The images were not only aesthetically captivating and historically intriguing, but also inspired viewers to recognize the subtler versions of these tropes and the sexism that they propagate in modern forms of media.
When armpit hair, nipples and smugness became the source of power and beauty in other photographs, viewers could even perceive a contrast between perviously mentioned themes of oppression being replaced by seemingly assertive expressions of a model’s own identity. However, from today’s vantage point, the audience is forced to question the specificity of this female power. Were unshaved underarms and uncovered breasts just another case of someone else choosing what shocking position women should occupy if they want to be perceived as beautiful? Likely it was not the model who made this cosmetic choice for the photoshoot. Do such features really portray the development of female power? Beyond that, can we really still say in 2015 in Berlin that strength behind a model’s eyes equates to her growing opportunity and influence in the world? As a woman currently residing in Berlin, I believe that the answer is no. Let me explain why.
Today feminism and equality in general have a lot in common with 1939’s classic film the Wizard of Oz. In the beginning, the audience is introduced to Dorothy: a girl lost, scared and a little hopeless about finding her way back to a comfortable place. Eventually, she finds like-minded people, and all together they invest their hopes in their Ozian society being able to give them what is promised and what they need to feel complete in the form of a great and powerful wizard. Along the way the bunch encounters many obstacles and the audience receives the hint that perhaps each of the individuals has at least a little bit of what they think they are lacking, but that they simply cannot recognize it. In the end the group finally arrives demanding the wizard to reward their good acts by giving them the things they think that they are missing, such as a heart, a mind, courage, and a home. However, in the film’s defining scene, Toto, Dorothy’s dog, pulls down the curtain at the Emerald City castle to reveal not an omnipotent wizard, but an average man named Oz. He, while not being magical, does insightfully inspire the characters to see that they always had the power to be what they wanted. This in my opinion exemplifies the current feminist movement, in which, like in a sexist system, the illusory dominant power structure – patriarchy – needs to be challenged and stripped away to show the fact that there are no inherent differences in people according to gender or sexual orientation.
Yet, Pages from the Glossies fell just short of this elusive moment. Like with Dorothy, indeed we saw through stylistic features and dispositional strengths that women might have had more power than society allowed them to believe. There was just a lack in additional contextualization that would have linked that aesthetic power to institutional or historical factors. Therefore, there was no big reveal – no pulling back of the patriarchal curtain – that could have inspired more restoration in our contemporary unbalance. As a result there was a shallowness between the relationship of Helmet Newton and his subjects stemming from this curatorial omission. Similar to how the wizard of Oz let’s himself be discovered, and is in acceptance of it act, the artist could have been shown as someone who was truly helpful to the feminist cause by, for example, by having drawn attention the oppressive system that elevated him into a position of being able to frame women as less than what they actually are. Instead Helmut Newton stayed safely behind the camera, leading to a continuation of this under-challenged dynamic. One in which a lack of discussion about inequality gave way to a system of evaluating subjects based too heavily on their visual appeal – something which is still highly dangerous in a society where sexism is present, even now in Berlin where the gender pay-gap remains in force.