Ladies of the Lens

A photo by Karen Roze.

Yesterday I found a series of photos by Ellen Von Unwerth, posted on a website. I read the comments people had left in reaction to the editorial. Said one commenter of Von Unwerth’s body of work, “She ALWAYS makes girls look like either sluts or rape victims.”

Personally, I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but I have long felt that women who photograph other women have a connection with their subjects men don’t have. They are more adept at finding both uncommon strength and unsettling weakness in their images. Whether it is because their own experiences inform their work (as they must) or because their models feel more connected, it’s hard to say – both, perhaps – but the difference is there.

Last night the WOMEN X WOMEN exhibit opened at Fashion House. The press release promised “the exhibited works [would] capture beauty, vulnerability, and strength of the model through the photographer’s eyes with the artistic direction drawing on the photographer’s own memories, style, and dreams.”

This may have been an overstatement.

I was very excited to see the images, I was disappointed to find that most of them, while they were certainly competently executed, were also absolutely typical of the majority of mainstream high-fashion photography. The models were predominantly white, thin, and expressionless, slumped in editorials that hardly covered new ground. There were, however, a few standouts.

Karen Roze’s untitled editorial was an aggressive blend of deep shadow and saturated colour. The model appeared from the ether with the determination of an avenging angel. Maude Arsenault’s “Masha 14” was just the opposite. She documented her model, Masha, dressed in over-sized bows and voluminous gowns. In her heels and makeup, there is no mistaking this model is still a child. Her expressions are plaintive, her eyes slightly bewildered but locked onto the lens (and the audience). It highlights an unsettling vulnerability and the viewer-as-consumer must answer to why she is there at all.

Finally, Genevieve Caron’s editorial (also untitled) shows an extremely pale model, dressed in a severe Edwardian-style dress. She stands stiffly, all forehead and jawline, holding up one edge of her dress to expose a thigh. Her pose is reminiscent of vintage erotica, with the exception that she stares unapologetic, almost brutally, into the lens. Her expression is deliberate and she dares the audience to question her motive.

While, in all, I found the exhibit a bit underwhelming, that’s only one opinion. If you want to check it out, it’s open to the public today, Friday, March 20 (from noon-6:00pm), and Saturday, March 21, 2009 (from noon-5:00pm) at Fashion House, 560 King St West in Toronto.

2 thoughts on “Ladies of the Lens

  1. i’m really glad that you wrote this posting, g. i was genuinely excited about a #lgfw event that was going to incorporate a genuinely artistic element — photography by women, esp in light of holt’s cocktail party celebrating the ‘fabulous five’ — greta constantine, philip sparks, denis gagnon, jeremy laing, etc. — all male designers. but to go to a condo development office — see condo plans still remaining on the walls, the photography in head shot size, in frames that fell periodically from the project fair boards — well, it was disappointing, but then again, it still remained the most pronounced interdisciplinary event (of course, what does that say — not much/too much?).

  2. I was really looking forward to this being an innovative, original, and inspiring project. While the photos were well-composed and beautifully styled, the content lacked imagination and diversity. I felt little connection with the images, and no indicator of a ‘female eye.’

    I was thinking about Dove’s “Real Women” campaign, which I think is a great endeavour, and an important one. But I would really like to see “real women” in fashion photography – something beyond the contrived, manipulated imagery of high fashion. To see “real women” as models, muses and makers of art. The acceptable look and body type for models is so narrow and specific that we need art shows like this one to broaden the scope and explore the possibilities, not just reinforce the existing types and formulas.

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