The Annenberg Space for Photography has been pulling out all the stops to promote its latest exhibit, “Beauty Culture” — a collection of images that aims to explore “how feminine beauty is defined, challenged and revered in modern society.”
But instead of successfully questioning physical ideals in today's mass culture, the show only buys in to the notion of attractiveness. With a range of subjects that includes professional models, performers and other good-looking icons of popular culture, it's impossible to say that “Beauty Culture” is ugly. Unfortunately, that's exactly the problem.
The roster of shutterbugs in “Beauty Culture” reads like a who's who of contemporary artists and photographers. Albert Watson, Herb Ritts, Man Ray, Andres Serrano, David LaChapelle, Leonard Nimoy, Mary Ellen Mark and Susan Anderson are only a few whose works are featured in the ambitious assemblage of more than 170 print photographs and 500-plus digital images. Through pictures of celebrities and models including Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Cindy Crawford and Gisele Bundchen, “Beauty Culture” is meant to ignite a debate about today's multi-billion-dollar fashion and beauty industries. Yet the expanse of portraits and editorial photographs rarely represent anyone who's not reinforcing unrealistic ideals, and the so-called social critique winds up being just another celebration of female beauty, rather than a legitimate appraisal.
There are tons of pictures of people such as Beverly Johnson, Cheryl Tiegs, Liz Taylor, Kate Moss, and Angelina Jolie — all women who've helped define modern beauty. But where are the photographs of those who've actually challenged it? It would have been easy to toss in a few pictures of people such as, say, Rossy de Palma, Tilda Swinton, Chyna, or Beth Ditto, but when it comes to non-conventional examples of prettiness, “Beauty Culture” follows the glamour industry and stays away. Sure, there are a few token images of people like Venus Williams who might be described as unconventionally attractive, but they're overshadowed by more typical mainstays of sex appeal such as Christy Turlington, Helena Christensen, Naomi Campbell and Megan Fox.
One exception to the exhibition's fatal flaw is an eponymous documentary by Lauren Greenfield, photographer behind THIN, kids + money, Girl Culture and Fast Forward: Growing up in the Shadow of Hollywood. Greenfield's 30-minute film exposes the sobering side of the beauty industry through interviews with casualties as well as those who've successfully faced up to traditional definitions of beauty. Yet the rest of “Beauty Culture” only comes across as a glorification of contemporary society's elite group of knockouts, bombshells and sexpots — even if the Annenberg claims otherwise.
Despite the exhibit's shortcomings — or maybe because of them — the Annenberg claims that “Beauty Culture” has already drawn “record-breaking attendance figures,” prompting an extension of Saturday evening hours to 9 p.m. during the summer, beginning July 2. The star-studded IRIS Nights lecture series might also have something to do with the show's continued success: journalist Merle Ginsberg appears with photographer Matthew Rolston on June 30 at 6:30 p.m., and on August 25 at 6:30 p.m., photographer, author and Mötley Crue member Nikki Sixx weighs in on beautiful women — a topic he's sure to know a lot about.
“Beauty Culture” is on view through November 27. Hours are Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (beginning July 2), and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., at the Annenberg Space for Photography at 2000 Avenue of the Stars, #10, Los Angeles. (213) 403-3000, www.annenbergspaceforphotography.org.
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