New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 24 May 28 to June 3, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Then and Now
Fiona Gardner
Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941-1976
Mohammad Chowdhury

Photo by Fiona Gardner . Source:
Fiona Gardner, "Rosalind Cinclini Catena at her apartment in Westbury, New York 2008." .
If you have ever traveled in the NYC subway you have certainly looked up to see those insufferable Dr. Zizmor ads. Now imagine instead of seeing the good doctor's face on his incompetently designed ads you saw a beautiful young woman smiling at you and sharing her interests and aspirations. If you were a commuter in the NYC subways between 1941-1976, you would not have to imagine. These everyday women were Miss Subways, winners of a beauty pageant that was actually a long series of advertisements. Created for the New York Subway Advertising Committee by legendary advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, with help from famous model agent John Robert Powers, its main purpose was to prove that subways were a viable place for advertising and to drive commuter eye-traffic from the beautiful faces of Miss Subways to the surrounding ads of cigarettes, chewing gums and so on.

The current exhibition in the New York Transit Museum Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941-1976, photography by Fiona Gardner and text by journalist Amy Zimmer, is a small collection of present day interviews and photographs of former Miss Subways. For five years Gardner and Zimmer tracked down and interviewed them in order to share the stories behind their 15 minutes of fame.

Photo by F.A. Russo . Source:
F.A. Russo, "Meet Miss Subways Poster (detail)" 1941-76.
Small and easy to navigate with clear guidance at every point, the exhibition walks you through a brief history of this beauty pageant, while informing the uninitiated, such as myself, about its cultural impact. It created an ethnically and socially diverse platform where women from all walks of life were chosen and highlighted. Gardner’s photographs themselves are beautifully lit and composed, her subjects photographed in contexts currently relevant to them. Homes, neighborhoods or work places, these are locations that give the women depth and reveal something of their personalities. Gardner photographs them wearing their "Miss Subway" sashes, bringing out the beauty, strength and wisdom that come with age. The juxtaposition of the original “Miss Subway” ads and the contemporary photographs create a wonderful “then and now” effect. Next to each set of photographs are vintage telephones that are a nice touch and give a feel of the Miss Subway era. Picking up the telephone you listen to snippets of candid interviews from 10 of the Miss Subways, who look back and share their experience; it feels like these women are having a conversation with you, which adds a level of personal interaction between the exhibition and its viewer.

Overall, the exhibition is a poignant and intimate tribute to these women. In comparison, the Miss Subway ads come off as shallow and exploitative use of these women (one of the reasons this beauty contest came to an end during the nascence of the Feminist Movement). Meet Miss Subways is a triumphant fusion of beautiful photography and of New York City history.

Fiona Gardner
Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941-1976

New York Transit Museum
Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street
Central Brooklyn         Map

718 694 1600

Tuesday, October 23 to
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Hours: Tue-Fri, 10 to 4; Sat-Sun 11 to 5

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