Gloss: Modeling Beauty was a pleasant surprise. All I knew about this exhibit was that it “explores the shifting ideals of female beauty that pervade European and American visual culture from the 1920s to today,” which was the UMMA’s online description. I expected magazine covers of willowy, white women in the highest fashion from the early 1900’s and today’s fashion magazines with sleek, androgynous women. Maybe it was just me, but I found the theme of the exhibit to be different from what the online description conveyed. Rather than depicting shifting trends in actual beauty standards, I felt like the exhibition portrayed the photographer’s stance and mentality towards fashion and beauty in their time period.
For example, one of the first images shows a black women posing for an advertisement in typical Harlem 1920’s attire. The photographer, James Van Der Zee, tries to offer an alternative to the mainstream white models of the time. Another photographer had several images of women in more experimental, sexual clothing, but it was the 1970’s during the sexual revolution… so it’s not too out of place. The gesture of empowering women was appreciated. To be honest though, some of them I just didn’t “get”. According to the plaque, Paolozzi’s pop art photos were supposed to “engender comical and ambiguous analogies”. Yeah, I found them very ambiguous.
The work that stood out the most for me was a set of six photos from a clothing catalog for the store Bloomingdale’s. The set of photos are honestly kind of creepy more than anything else. Each photo has several women in the shot, but it looks like they are all doing their own thing and just happen to be in the same space. There is little interaction between them and their expressions are oddly intense. One woman sits on a couch and stares directly into the camera completely straight faced, which I actually found a little unnerving. Maybe that was the point…? I’m not sure. Each image also has a high contrast between light and shadow which heightened the bizarreness for me.
One thing did disappoint me a little. The exhibition was quite small– taking my time and reading every single plaque, I went through the two walls of photos in about twenty minutes. Overall, I appreciated the few pictures with women of color. I wish there had been more diversity but the absence makes sense since the exhibition is a reflection on whom society deems worthy of representing beauty.
Would recommend if: you have spare time between classes, you understand photography more than me, you want some insight into how photographers use media as a tool for communication.