Drop Dead Gorgeous

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Here’s just a quick link to a review/analysis I wrote of “Weird Beauty”, an exhibition of modern fashion photography currently on display at the International Center for Photography. While I can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of these images and find some of them truly amazing and, indeed elevating, I do think, as I’ve discussed before, that all too often, the fashion industry and the imagery that represents it couch both masochism and sadism toward the female body, justify the degradation and destruction of it in various capacities, as merely artistic expression and exploration. While I believe true exploration and discovery through art, even or especially when it explores and depicts extremely taboo or troubling subject matter, is extremely valuable and important and has broader implications for society as a whole, I often question whether that is really what is going on in some of these images, whether any higher ideas are really being explored or whether the primary goal is merely to be provocative for provocation’s sake with the aim of attracting attention and selling products. Anyway, some of what I’ve written in my class posting on this exhibit overlaps with previous posts I’ve written on this blog, but I expand upon these ideas within the specific context of these images.

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Comedy’s Nude Legends

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Hill, Rogen, and Segel: never-nudes?

 

Representing something of an intersection between my recent post on ethics in photography and  other previous posts on gender inequality and portrayals of women in the media, Jezebel takes on the recent Vanity Fair photograph spoofing a 2006 cover image of Keira Knightly and Scarlett Johannsen draped naked around the (clothed) designer, Tom Ford. The send-up is featured in an article entitled “Comedy’s New Legends” and, like the original, was photographed by iconic photographer Annie Leibowitz. It portrays comedy pals Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Jonah Hill sprawled in flesh toned body suits, draped around a clothed Paul Rudd. The first time I saw the cover, I just thought, “Well, that’s not particularly funny,” but something about it rubbed me a little bit the wrong way as I thought about it, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. Well, Jezebel has compiled excerpts from a bunch of different reactions to the image, from blogs like Pandagon, Salon and others which have helped me to articulate what it is that bothered me–the fact that the entire premise of the joke, the entire reason the image is ridiculous is that nudity in the context of sexual objectification is being reified as the domain of women, something that for a group of men to participate in is patently ridiculous, laughable. I realize that for some this may seem to read to much into the image, and I don’t think it was probably premeditated to mean anything of the sort, but there are imbedded assumptions which form the basis of the joke. As Melissa McEwan at feminist blog Shakesville, quoted on Jezebel, puts it:

“Even when women do what they’re meant to do by the fucked-up standards of The Patriarchy-get naked and submit themselves for public objectification-they’re going to get mocked for doing it. Because, even though we’re ostensibly laughing at the Judd Apatow Boyz for their uproarious send-up of a sexy female-oriented VF cover, implicit in that laughter is a condemnation and marginalization of the female-oriented cover: See how silly it is when a man does it?Ho ho ho.”

It is silly to see these men trying to assume the roles of sex objects, the photo implies, because they are men, and therefore despite imperfect bodies, they have been able to become famous and popular through their bodies of work (pun intended), rather than their physical appearances. Meanwhile, talented female comedians like Tina Fey (who has lost a significant amount of weight as  her fame has grown and increasingly been forced into the molds of idealized beauty and sexual desirability, photographed for Vanity Fair and other magazines in a progressively more revealing succession of ensembles) are expected to meet certain standards of attractiveness in order to be palatable and in order for their talent to be given a platform.

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Tina Fey, from the January 2009 issue of Vanity Fair

Both Jezebel and Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon discuss the complicity of Annie Leibowitz in the production of this and other questionable images. As Williams puts it:

“That this drivel is being peddled by the same woman who shot one of the most famous male nude photos ever — the beautiful, vulnerable image of John Lennon curled up against Yoko Ono for Rolling Stone, just makes the whole business all the more cynical and pitiful.”

Do I think that within the realm of media imagery there are far more egregious examples of sexism? Sure. Does that mean it’s petty or not worth it to discuss this example? Certainly not. In fact, sometimes the examples which are less egregious are those which are harder to recognize and therefore too often do not get discussed. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, too, I think that sexism couched in comedy is often seen as out of reach of cultural criticism, met with retorts that amount to “calm down, can’t people just take a joke?” or “but we were just kidding!” However, I believe comedy is still an area in which sexism (and racism–the New York Post’s chimp cartoon, anyone?) is very much alive and well. The very fact that the cover story of the issue of Vanity Fair in which this photograph appears, entitled ” Comedy’s New Legends” features only men on the cover and almost entirely men in the article is very telling. And then, of course, there are Christopher Hitchens’ disgustingly misogynistic pieces (published, again, by Vanity Fair), such as the one entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” a piece which was “rebutted” by another Vanity Fair cover story, this one entitled “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?”, which, frankly, seemed more intent on answering the question “Who Says Women Comedians Aren’t Hot And Sexy?”, what with its accompanying photo shoot, which featured female comedians like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and others making like Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan. With splayed legs, lots of bare skin, smoky eye makeup, and amped up hair, the photos as a whole were more straightforward imitation than camp, and seemed aimed at putting these women on display as sexual objects in much the same way as the starlets they were imitating. Less conventionally attractive SNL comedian Cheri Oteri was notably absent from the photos and later confirmed that she had not been invited to participate in the shoot.

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Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Tina Fey in the April 2008 issue of Vanity Fair

What I am getting at is the fact that this new photo comes with a larger context, one which only bolsters and strengthens the critiques of Jezebel, Salon, and others.

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Photo Play

Here are some of my beginner’s feeble attempts at experimenting with Photoshop for my Media Practices: Concepts class. Several more can be found at my class blog, here.

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Credit Where Credit is Due

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Dear Mr. President,

In the words of Olivia Newton-John, I love you….I honestly love you. Your address to Congress this evening was masterful, eloquent, and, dare I say it, audaciously hopeful.

XXOO,

Katie

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Every Tool Is a Weapon If You Hold it Right

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An assignment this past week for my Media Practices: Concepts class got me thinking about artistic ethics, in particular the ethics of photographers in documenting the places and people around them. There are a lot of interesting issues raised when one wields a camera. I remember one of my photography teachers at Penland, the artists community in North Carolina where I’ve taken several summer photography classes, had an Ani DiFranco quotation tattooed on his arm–“Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”–and he told us that he tried to be always conscious of this idea in his work as a photographer. Indeed, I think that as much as a camera can be a force for great creative production, social good, documentary information, etc, it can just as easily become a hostile object, a “weapon”, a point of division between photographer and subject, between photographer and place, etc. In fact, sometimes I think it’s possible that it can be both simultaneously (think war photography as an obvious example).

The assignment that got me thinking about some of these issues again was one of three options for a photographic exploration. Option number 2 asked the student to take a subway line from one end to the other, documenting your journey, photographic your travel companions in the subway car, on the platform, etc. It’s definitely an interesting idea and I can certainly see the merits. The subway, as several people in the class discussed today when we presented our work, is an interesting netherworld with its own unique atmosphere, behavioral expectations and rules, etc. Our professor encouraged us to approach the project as a challenge, suggesting that by pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones by doing something that made us nervous or uncomfortable, exposed us to possibly unwanted attention, we might achieve some very interesting and rewarding photographic results, and at the same time expand our comfort zones as engaged artists and individuals. I understood what he meant and it made real sense to me, and, in the process of deciding to go with a different assignment option,  I thought quite a bit about whether my motivations were fear, shyness, cowardice. Ultimately, my decision not to do that assignment option was based on the fact that I don’t like people taking my photograph in public–I feel my privacy invaded and I feel disrespected, violated in a way. I thought about an incident recently when I was in the cafe at Barnes & Noble reading and noticed a man sitting by the wall who was photographing me, trying to be inconspicuous. At first, he was looking straight through the viewfinder, clearly right at me. Once I caught him doing this, he put the camera down on his lap but was still clearly taking pictures of me. I felt uncomfortable and a little angry and moved to an area of the cafe outside of his range (I hope).

Another example I thought of was some of the tactless tourists I’ve seen on various trips I’ve been on, in particular on my trip to China with a class in college. On that trip, we went to some remote and largely rural areas, and along the way stopped at several small villages at which we would all load off the bus and some of the other members of the group would begin snapping pictures of residents of the villages going about their daily tasks. The whole situation made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and I felt somehow complicit in this sort of elitist, dehumanizing behavior. To me, snapping photos of people who are just trying to go about their business, without their permission, is a real disrespect and, as I say, a dehumanization of sorts. Holding a camera and aiming it creates a power dynamic that I think one always has to be conscious of and careful with. A camera can be a valuable tool, both for artistic expression and for documentation and exposition, but as my former teacher’s tattoo pointed to, it can also be just as powerful a weapon when used in a way that exploits the power inherent in the act of viewing, photographing, capturing. While, of course, I know that there is a difference between the kinds of behavior I’ve discussed and the subway assignment for my class, I think that some of the same issues come up for me when thinking about it.

I do understand the counterargument–I am the last one to argue that political correctness or related considerations should always trump artistic expression or documentary work. And I don’t condemn the choice to complete this assignment. In fact, I thought many of the results were really interesting and many people in the class found different ways to work around these issues and to engage those around them in the process either by straightforwardly asking permission or through more subtle means.

I saw in interesting documentary several years ago dealing with one example of the power of photography and its potential to be perceived as a weapon by those being viewed. The documentary, called Stranger With a Camera, examined the 1967 murder of Hugh O’Connor, a Canadian television journalist. O’Connor was one of many journalists and documentarians to come to Appalachia in the late 1960’s to look at the poverty and isolation of the region. He was shot by the man who owned the property on which he was photographing a coal miner, and the murder encapsulated the two sides of an ethical debate over the documentary photographic process. On the one hand was O’Connor, who considered his work an attempt to bring awareness to the plight of the people of Appalachia in an attempt to bring about rectification of what he saw as the exploitation and neglect of the region and its people. On the other hand was Hobart Ison, who represented the locals who resented the intrusion of these morally crusading outsiders into their community and the stereotyping and criticism they felt subjected to through their lenses. The camera became a weapon, the boundary between these two sides, the use of which was such an affront, such a perceived sign of disrespect and loss of authority that it drove a man to murder. It’s a fascinating story and the documentary raises a lot of the interesting ethical questions I’ve only just touched upon in passing here. I think for anyone working in media, the visual arts, journalism, and really almost anyone who owns a camera, these are interesting issues to at least be aware of and to consider.

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Hot Or Not: Presidents Edition

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"I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office." -George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., May 12, 2008

This new survey out from C-Span asked 65 Presidential scholars to rank the Presidents using ten distinct criteria. I can’t decide which I find more glaringly ridiculous–that Reagan ranks in the top 10 while Bill Clinton trails at #15 or that six other Presidents are ranked lower than George W. Bush. My unofficial poll of one media studies graduate student yielded significantly different results on this point, as you can see above. Despite these facts, and despite the fact that the survey is completely subjective and opinion-based, there’s some interesting stuff, if you care to dig past the Top 10/Bottom 10 lists.

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Literacy Through Photography

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I know I’ve been horribly negligent and haven’t posted in a week–my semester is off to a hectic start. And I now have a second blog to maintain…and it’s graded. For my introductory production class, Media Practices: Concepts, we are expected to keep a blog as a portfolio of our work, class assignments, and thoughts on things related to the course. A lot of it might be boring or not make so much sense to those outside the class, but some of it will probably be quite interesting and quite relevant to this blog as well, so I’ll probably try to start cross-referencing, in the interest of expediency. In that spirit, here is a class assignment having to do with identifying different lighting techniques in photography. I drew my examples from the work of school children done through programs like Literacy Through Photography and Kids With Cameras. Some of the photographs these children take are absolutely remarkable and while many have the unique creativity and perspective of childhood, many have a surprising depth and sense of knowledge and maturity.

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I think the kind of work these programs are doing is really interesting and inspiring and fits nicely within the broader framework of media literacy and media education initiatives. These are exactly the kinds of programs we need in order to empower young people to become producers, not only consumers, of media, and through the process to come to look at and understand themselves and the world around them in different, richer ways. Giving a child a camera, teaching them a skill like photography, gives them a new kind of agency, makes them not only an artist, but a documentarian of sorts, and this is a source of potentially enormous power for these children, now and in the future.

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