Monday, January 21, 2013

"I" went to the museum and saw some photographs.

Something very obvious occured to me the other day. In writing, moving from "I" as the subject of a sentence to "He, She, or It" as the subject of a sentence is actually quite a leap.  Indeed, it might be said that writing begins with the advent of talking about what "She" did the other day, and why that's important.

I, needless to say, have not made that leap, and so I will tell what I did yesterday.  I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see photographs.  You see, this blog post is about pictures, not words.

Photography is a beguiling art form.  Technologically dependent and luck enhanced -- even I can snap of reasonable photo from time to time -- it nevertheless contains all the formal attributes of other visual media.  Lighting, color, and particularly framing of images strike this untrained eye as important.

Mario Testino, fashion photographer to the stars now showing at the MFA, has developed those skills well.  Yet, he's tricky.  His work is popular culture undoubtedly.  He photographs famous people. Often they are in a state of undress.  His images are destined for magazines.  It is the culture of celebrity and the culture of skin and the culture of fashion.  It is also the culture of selling all of these things.  It's grand in scope but tastes like sugar -- sweet quick energy but not nourishing.

Should this be in a museum?  Is this more than just a ploy to get people through the front door?  Is this art?  Some say no. To me, there is still much there to see.  A well composed portrait of Madonna (singer, not mother of Christ) is still a portrait.  Why not?  Plenty of its 18th century equivalents hang in the National Portrait Gallery in London subject to the ogling gaze of non-comprehending tourists from around the globe.  Testino can make the claim that his portrait mimics an aspect of art more closely, namely that his is culturally self-referential in ways that that a 300-year old oil and canvas image of a duke is not.

This question lurks throughout the show. "Popular" culture and "high" culture intersect more and more.  To its advocates, this is a growing and welcomed democratic trend.  To its detractors, it cheapens us culturally by confusing the two.  Perhaps, this is a longer run battle.  The photo of actress Siena Miller, fully dressed amongst larger than life plaster representations of naked nymphs in a Roman museum expresses this point.  In the image, the modern woman is veritable modesty among the heroic nudity of our Western past.  Men have been depicting women (and men) in various states of undress for thousands of years and knowing it as art.  Those ancient versions may have been the titillating popular culture of their time, meant not so much to edify as to arouse.

Is Testino posing these larger questions?  His intent is harder to deduce.  He seems as much in thrall with his own images as he presumably wants his audience to be.  But fashion, the human body and the desire to see are not new to the camera or to museums.  It's just that at the MFA they come crashing together in bright big bold plasticy colors, the visual equivalent of having a Pepsi to quench your thirst.

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