That Wholesome Girl From Tarzana CaliforniaSaturday, December 13, 2008
Bettie Page dead at 85.
I received that yesterday, understandably, as Wiseman is a fan of the whole genre. My immersion or perhaps awareness of glamour photography, pin-ups and fetish began when I moved with my family to Vancouver in 1975. I swore that when I arrived I would immediately be able to go to any newstand (not so at the time in Mexico City) and purchase a Playboy without feeling guilty or ashamed. This I did. Soon after I found myself being hired (imagine that!) by the folks of the Drake Hotel, Marr Pub, Cecil Hotel and the No 5 Orange to shoot posters to decorate their strip bars. By the standards of today those posters were in good taste, not showing much. I would categorize them as glamour, which curiously is one of the few words in which Americans retain that u. In fact I have two fat folders in my files labeled Glamour I and Glamour II. These two files are within four large filing cabinet drawers labeled Nudes. You see I have taken quite a few nude photographs in my years in this city. But I never indulged in pornography, and not because I didn't try. I discovered that to shoot pornography one has to quench one's innate sense of good taste. Even though I cringe when most people call my nudes by that "oh-so-horrible" epithet, tasteful I have to admit that most of my pictures are tame. If they are tame it is entirely all my fault. I have discovered through the years that a woman's imagination for the erotic is richer, more intelligent and in many cases crasser than a man's. I have been gently urged or pushed by some of my female and some male subjects to go beyond my parameters. In most cases I balked.
Much of Bettie Page's fame should be attributed to the erstwhile model and photographer Bunny Yeager. Yeager grew impatient at the clumsiness and lack of originality of the male photographers that took her pictures and decided she could do better. She started taking her own pictures (that's a self portrait of Yeager here with Betti Page) and became so good at it that she launched her career as a glamour and pin-up photographer. On the way to fame she took the memorable pictures of Bettie Page with a pair of chettahs while wearing nothing (in some versions) and a tiny leopard-skin swimsuit in others. When Playboy's Hefner invited her into the fold and to travel to Chicago, she decided to stay put in her home in Miami. Her career might have suffered because of this decision.
It was in Yeager's photographs of Page that I discern that wholesomeness that Page is so famously attributed with. Note this from my copy of Bunny Yeager's Art of Glamour Photography (1962 AMPHOTO New York)
The photographer working in the home can use any kind of lighting he prefers: flashbulbs, strobe, floodlights, or just existing light. Let us go now from room to room to show you what can be done with each surrounding.
Wing-type chairs are good for portraits, as the model can peek at you from around one of the wings while she sits in the chair...
Now let's go to into the bedroom. A frilly feminine bedroom of course is more desirable that a plain masculine one. A prop that you might care to buy and keep on hand for such purposes is a quilted satin comforter in some photogenic colour like blue. They don't wrinkle easily and I've found you can even wash them in the washing machine when they get soiled without damaging them pictorially. If you have such a prop, you can change the plainest looking bedroom into one of grandeur... well almost.
Yeager's little book is just like that, charming in its innocent way of a time that we now see as being quite innocent even if it wasn't. As a photographer I had my versions of Bettie Page. Two that stand out are Maddalena di Gregorio, below left and right, and Katheryn Petersen. The former gave me hints of a darker existence of chains and cuffs but I was much too afraid to look in.
She would smile at me in her generous Italian mother role, almost hiding a much more complex and probably more exciting nature. Or as in the second picture of Maddalena here, she would grow serious and sad and somehow become the universal Flemish Maddona/Eve. It was perhaps here with Maddalena where I lost all hope (gladly) of ever wanting to take pin-up and glamour photographs. Perhaps nobody ever penetrated Bettie Page's veneer of wholesome feminity. It was with Maddalena that I discovered that there was more within and that it was much more arresting.
Katheryn Petersen posed for me many times. She was flexible and easy going with a quick smile that almost made me forget her super-model wide cheek bones and astounding eyes. But every once in a while she would say, "Alex when I show up at the studio just shoot. Don't ask any questions." I did this a few times and once when the pictures involved some tying up I told her, "I feel so sorry for you. You look so helpless!" Her retort convinced me I had no idea about her ways, "That's the last thing you are supposed to say," and she smiled and made me feel comfortable again.
Not that she didn't sometimes scare the hell out of me. Once she became a vampire in my studio. I almost wished I had brought a turtle neck sweater.
In 1956 my mother got her job teaching at the ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company) town of Nueva Rosita in the state of Coahuila. She told me of a young bachelor mining engineer she found charming called Juan Jaime. Perhaps I was too shy or Jaime was shy, too, since I don't remember talking to him much. We lived in the American Hotel (that's what it was called) as did Jaime for three years. We had our three meals (home cooked) at the hotel. Next to the dining room there was a den/living room with a magazine rack. Juan Jaime would walk in some days and he added his magazines (he must have been subscribed to them) Argosy, True, Esquire (and sometimes!) Playboy. I would sneak in and nervously look and read them. I distinctly remember reading in True an article on a young boxer called Cassius Clay who boasted that some day he was going to be champion of the world. These magazines (Esquire at the time was a girlie magazine) provided me with my first real glimpses of the female anatomy. My previous experience had been lame Mexican magazines that showed, page after page, pictures of Brigitte Bardot's cleavage. I was far too young to have discerning eyes so I have no recollection of Bettie Page appearing in any of Jaime's magazines.
But now and in the last few years I could not see the women on Granville Street in stark white skin and dyed black hair in bangs with piercings, here and there, not to realize where the inspiration had come.
Nor when I first met Bib Naked (seen above with our mutual friend Nina, another muse of mine) quite a few years ago not notice who one of her role models was. Who would have known as I was guiltily looking into Juan Jaime's Argosies that some day I would be teaching a class called The Contemporary Portrait Nude at Focal Point? Thanks to Maddalena, Katheryn and many others I came to understand that you cannot teach nude photography in this century with any kind of justification that would satisfy my inner feelings of what is correct and what isn't. Such a class has to have more.
Four years ago when I went with Rebecca and Rosemary to Buenos Aires my new and modern Canadian sensibilities chafed at looking at toothpaste ads showing women in bikinis with big smiles holding a tube of Colgate. I got into massive arguments with my Irish/Argentine rugby nephews when I protested the stupidity of such ads. They questioned my manhood and thought that Canada had corrupted it. I told them I could not justify the photography of women in bathing suits posing by muscle cars or large motorcycles. I could not tell them that I would even opose modern versions of Bunny Yeager's bikini pictures on a beach (with the blast of that handle mount flash). They would not have recognized Yeager nor would they have known who Bettie Page was.
In my Focal Point class The Contemporary Portrait Nude I emphasize the humanity of our subjects that face our cameras. I have the school hand out my Model Protocol to any new model. My students read it, too. I listen and watch closely how my students talk and deal with the nude models of our class. Our classes run smoothly in what in most circumstances would offer lots of moments for stress and embarrassment. A few months ago in class 9 (there are 10 sessions in each course) one of my students asked a strangely costumed Yuliya what the purpose of the outfit was. Yuliya, below, with that casual but unsettling glance of hers told him, "It's used for sitting on a man's face." Who would have known, even a couple of years ago that one of the segments of my contemporary nude portrait class would be as contemporary as having one themed on fetish? I now find it entirly logical.
My argument for this is that in spite of Bettie Page's popularizing (all smiles even when she was gagged and tied) this genre called fetish, it really did not achieve a mainstream status until recently. I believe that there are now weekly fetish parties in Burnaby. If they have them in Burnaby ( I dare say this as I used to live there) then it must be mainstream. From Yuliya we have found out that fetish has rules set in stone. "A dom would not do this," she will tell our class, adding, "Only a sub would pose like that."
Not too long ago I saw a French photography magazine in the window of Sophia Books with the delightfully luscious Sophie Marceau on the cover. I bought it. Inside I was startled (not by the Marceau spread) by a photograph that featured a woman from the waist down (wearing brief underwear) who had octopus tentacles wrapped around her long legs and slim ankles. The photograph was in an equally startling bold and sharp colour. I immediately coined the expression and labeled the photograph as "nouveau fetish". What then would replace the tired, structured world of fetish in the 21st century where pornography is so prevalent that even it does not shock anymore?
I believe I have the answer. A few years ago I had one of my favourite models in my studio. At her request we were making some liberal versions of the Audrey Hepburn she adored. This involved elegant hats, long black satin gloves, fishnets and a silk scarf. She was not wearing much beyond that and my studio was cold. My model put on a coat. It was difficult not to notice that it was a man's heavy wollen Herrinbone coat. I asked her, "Where did you get that?" She looked at me with almost no emotion and said, "It is my father's." I took my picture. It is as startling and as scary as the octopus legs. I cannot show it here. But it was then that I knew that any attempt at nouveau fetish has to come from within the model and the photographer. The shock is internal. It is in the glance of the face. It is more subtle without the need for chains, cuffs or fake (and or real) blood.
Would Bettie Page have known this? I am sure she (like my Maddalena) would have known. But good models that they both were, Maddalena is alive and well and living in Milan, they stood their ground and waited for the photographer to discover it and perhaps draw it out. It is the failure of Page's time and of her contemporaries, those male photographers who never seemed curious enough to look further. As for Katheryn? Here she is below with her Bettie tattoo.
The book cover at the beginning of this, La Vida Invisible (2003) by Spanish novelist Juan Manuel de Prada is a fictional story based on the time that Bettie Page (called Fanny Riffel here) dissapeared at the height of her fame in 1957, her private life of three decades, her fight against poverty and mental ilness (she was institutionalized in California after attacking her landlady) and her emerging from it as a born-again Christian. In the novel, too, is the account on how she was summoned by the US Senate committee headed by Estes Kefauver that was investigating pornography. An attendant at the asylum becomes a friend of Page and she talks to him candidly while he makes sure of taping the conversations. All this is investigated and re-told through a Spanish journalist who goes to Chicago to escape the prospect of a boring marriage. In Chicago he meets up with a woman who has fallen for a violinist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, a VSO going through severe finacial times! De Prada's account of our fair city is not a pleasant one:
La calle tenía ese aspecto pulcro, enojosamente pulcro y grisáceo, que los mediterráneos atribuimos a las ciudades suizas; la noche se ahondaba a lo lejos, refugiada en un parque que lindaba con la acera de enfrente, muy escasamente iluminada, a diferencia de la acera a la que se había arrimado el taxi, sobresaltada de farolas que proyectaban sobre el suelo charcos de una luz que parecía la vomitona de un enfermo de paludismo.
The street had a clean and neat look, an upsetting clean neat and grayish, which we Mediterraneans attribute to Swiss cities; the night disappeared into the distance but took refuge in a poorly lit park that bordered the sidewalk across the street while the sidewalk on this side, where the taxi had stopped, was amply lit by street lights that cast puddles of light the colour of the bile of someone suffering yellow fever.