New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 25 SUMMER ISSUE AUGUST 2012 July 31 to September 4, 2012


Ed Barnas
Picasso et Francoise Gilot by Robert Doisneau. Source:
Robert Doisneau, "Picasso et Francoise Gilot" 1952

Summer is a slow time for many galleries in New York, many curators mounting group shows, either selections from the work of two or three artists or a themed show from the holdings of the gallery.

Women, the current show at Staley Wise falls into the later category, offering up portraits of a wide variety of women from the 1920s to the present in fashion, film, and the arts. About a quarter of the twenty-six photographers represented are women as well. Styles range from staged to candid. As befits the theme, men are largely absent from these photos, appearing in the background in only a handful of these portraits.

Several of the images will be familiar to many viewers, either because they are classics (such as Barbara Morgan’s photograph of Martha Graham’s Letter to the World) or attached to popular films such as Pulp Fiction or Lolita. Other photographs are not so familiar and the casual viewer may be more aware of the “name” of the subject than her appearance. These often have a way of surprising the viewer and I was pleased to have the chance to look more closely.

Doisneau’s portrait of Picasso and Francoise Gilot from 1952 places her in the foreground with him relegated to a small figure in the background - but still visually dominating her as if in a cartoon thought balloon. Is her pensive appearance a presage of their eventual separation in a few years or just the viewer’s hindsight? A similar near-far placement is used in Bob Willoughby’s 1967 publicity still for the Graduate, with Anne Bancroft dominating the right foreground and Dustin Hoffman placed far back behind her. But in this image I feel a conscious visual manipulation rather than the more subtle psychological distance in the Doisneau image.

Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl at Artists' Ball, Berlin by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Source:
Alfred Eisenstaedt, "Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl at Artists' Ball, Berlin" 1928

In a more vintage vein is Eisenstaedt’s intriguing photo of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl at an Artist’s Ball in 1928 Berlin. Marlene’s cigarette holder caught my attention. It was not the familiar straight tube version but one common in Europe at the time that held the cigarette vertically, like a small tobacco pipe. It gave her a visual assertiveness in this image which contrasts with the more uncertain look on Leni’s face. Smoking also caught my attention in Chris Von Wangenheim’s fashion photo of Elsa Peretti wearing a vintage dress. Lit from the side to create a sharply defined shadow on the close background, as if it is the shadow is smoking and not the model. While these images may highlight the retro “elegance” associated with smoking, Ron Galella’s 1980 photo in this show of Bette Davis puffing offers an antidote.

With a quarter of the images created by women, one might be tempted to look for instances of the “male” (or “female”) gaze in these photos (often reduced simplistically to whether the viewer is an unseen voyeur or engaged visually by the subject). However, these are mainly women of accomplishment who are strong enough to confront the camera on their own terms – or ignore it if they wish – whatever the sex of the photographer. They are individuals. If they come across in an image as a particular “type,” it is the “type” they have chosen to present to the photographer.


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