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.