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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

'Posing' probes beauty, identity

Show looks at politics, fashion, and race

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / October 31, 2010

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WILLIAMSTOWN — One of the great, enduring ’60s political slogans, “Black is beautiful’’ confronted centuries of dismissal of African-Americans (Africans, too) as ugly, inferior, and intrinsically other. It was also a statement of the aesthetic obvious.

“Posing Beauty in African American Culture,’’ a proudly sprawling exhibition which runs at the Williams College Museum of Art through Nov. 21, takes in politics, fashion, celebrity, sociology, and much else besides.

The show includes nearly 100 photographs and several videos, ranging in date from the late 19th century to last year. It includes the work of several well-known photographers: Bruce Davidson, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Carrie Mae Weems, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Yet this is very much a show where subject matters more than artist.

“Posing’’ has two meanings here: the presentation of physical appearance, as in striking a pose; and the presentation of a point of view, as in posing a question. Sometimes the two meanings overlap, as in Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s “Nude (Self-Portrait),’’ from 2004. The photograph is printed so darkly as to be almost illegible. Moutoussamy-Ashe, the widow of tennis champion Arthur Ashe, suggests a photographic female variant on Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,’’ half a century later.

The show consists of three sections: “Constructing a Pose,’’ “Body & Image,’’ and “Modeling Beauty & Beauty Contests.’’ The first two are largely interchangeable. The third remains more or less discrete, if only for the narrowness with which it’s defined. Out of that narrowness can come small marvels of social documentation, though, such as Eve Arnold’s “Black Debutante Ball, Waldorf Hotel, New York.’’ Shot from afar, it relies on the title to tell you the race of the young ladies, a nicely subtle way for the photographer to make her point. Leonard Freed’s two “Harlem Fashion Show’’ photographs from 1963 remind us of another form of equality: Uptown or downtown, people want to look good. They also want — what is not quite the same thing — to be seen looking good.

Sometimes the beauty is pointedly black. There are the superfly males in Anthony Barboza’s “Harlem Series,’’ from the 1970s, or the feminine amplitude on display in Renee Cox’s “Baby Back.’’ As beautiful as the model is in Arnold’s “Arlene Hawkins With Afro Puffs, New York City,’’ and she’s drop-dead gorgeous, what you keep staring at is the cumulus tumble of her hair. Lauren Kelley’s “Pickin’ ’’ takes hair as racial statement a step further, with its witty cross of sculpture, millinery, and hair care. A mighty array of clenched-fist afro picks cover a young black woman’s head.

What may be the most jaw-droppingly political image in the show transcends race — though it certainly doesn’t transcend its era. This has to be a conservative’s ultimate ’60s conspiracy nightmare: Stephen Shames’s “At Home, Huey P. Newton Listens to Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ Berkeley, California.’’ Black Panther! Rock music! Berkeley! It gets even worse (or better). Newton, who’s bare-chested and wears white trousers, stands beneath a white chain so situated it looks as though he’s hanging from the ceiling. The political is personal? The political is surreal.

One of the show’s strengths is how open-minded it is on the subject of beauty. The cheerfully stylin’ young man in Jamel Shabazz’s “Rude Boy From ‘Back in the Days’ ’’ could hardly differ more from the shy, going-to-church look of the two young women in Theodore Fonville Winans’s “Dixie Belles, Central Louisiana.’’ Shabazz took his photograph in 1980, Winans in 1938. Even greater than the distance in time is the distance the pictures demonstrate between self-awareness (the man) and self-consciousness (the women). The two photographs together can’t match the knockout connection to the lens made by the woman in Charles “Teenie’’ Harris’s “Waitress at the Crawford Grill, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,’’ from 1952.

Harris’s waitress, like Shabazz’s fashion plate and Winans’s ladies, is anonymous. Beauty is its own identity, after all — the flesh-and-blood demonstration of Paul Valery’s observation that “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.’’ There are famous faces aplenty in “Posing Beauty’’: Billy Eckstine and Billie Holiday, Lena Horne (at her dressing-room mirror, no less — mirror, mirror on the wall, we know who’s the fairest one of all), James Brown, Ray Charles, Denzel Washington, Isaac Hayes, Joe Louis, Lil’ Kim, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Otis Redding, Marvin Hagler, Michelle Obama. As that list indicates, beauty here can be masculine as well as feminine. What’s so interesting with these celebrated subjects is that they seem somehow divorced from their celebrity. In this context, we respond to their faces, simply as faces, even before we notice their names. Valery would approve.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

POSING BEAUTY IN AFRICAN AMERICAN CULTURE

At: the Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown, through Nov. 21. 413-597-2429, www.wcma.org.