From Edward Curtis’s early 20th-century staged studio portraits of Native Americans to Cindy Sherman’s late 20th-century staged studio portraits of herself as someone else, Henry Art Gallery regulars and devotees of photography will already know many of the images in the (awkwardly titled) exhibition Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty, which opened March 2. It draws on the Henry’s extensive photography holdings, based in large part on the Joseph and Elaine Monsen collection, as well as material from the UW Libraries’ Special Collections. The show prods at sacrosanct ideals of beauty and welcomes quirky individual ones—and gives us much to admire along the way.
One thing this exhibit makes quite clear is that, despite Keats’s assurance that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” beauty might be truth—or not. Czech artist Jan Saudek mockingly unveils the real deal—a bold black triangle of pubic hair—in Oh – that Black Blonde!, a mid-80s studio shot of a voluptuous bewigged blonde. On the other hand, we will never know what’s beneath the sculpted golden curves and perfect twists of the Frederick and Nelson Hair Salon Photograph c. 1948 by late Seattleite Hans L. Jorgensen. The image dishes up a bit of nostalgia for old-timers who miss this city’s premier department store —and for those who still appreciate the slinky Hollywood-inspired glamour of the post-war years.
The exhibition brims with icons of 20th-century photography: Barbara Morgan’s Martha Graham: Letter to the World (1940), with the dancer swooping, wrist to forehead, in a half-moon swirl of skirt; André Kertész’s gleeful woman performing a solo couch tango in the 1926 Satiric Dancer, Paris; Richard Avedon’s 1955 portrait of Truman Capote—sunglasses on, bowtie askew, arms spread, and interminably full of himself. There is also familiar work by Beaton, Warhol, Arbus, Weegee, Goldin, Penn, Mapplethorpe and beyond, including Ann Hamilton’s often shown, always gut-clenching video (dissections…they said it was an experiment) that focuses for 30 minutes on the dripping neck and chin of a man who seems to be undergoing torture. What’s new here is the perspective: The show is guest curated by photography historian Deborah Willis, a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the Henry’s first visiting fellow—a new program geared to bring scholarly attention to the museum’s collection. She brings a fresh, informed take to the material and presents it without a lot of fuss.
Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty
Thru Sept 1, Henry Art Gallery