Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Fiercenesse

I was brought up by my parents to smile for the camera. There was no conceivable alternative. Despite what you might feel on the inside, a composed grin was the face you presented to the lens and, by proxy, to the world. As a result, I have developed an undue fascination with portraits of women who refuse to kowtow to convention.

("The Yellow Glove" by James Cowie, 1928)

No bonus points for guessing that Alice Cowie, pictured here, wore the trousers in the family. Fiercely intelligent and socially ambitious, she practically dares the viewer to meet her gaze, her nose tilted ever so slightly in the air. Husband James was by all accounts shy and retiring and was happy to melt into the background while Alice sizzled. And can we just talk about those gloves for a moment? Yellow was the color adopted by bohemian society back then, code for "artistic", "outré" and all-around fabulous.

Feel the need for your own pair? (I do.) Click here.



This next work is the one that ignited my preoccupation with unsmiling visages.
("Sonja" by Christian Schad, 1928)

I first saw this painting about fifteen years ago when I was living in Manhattan and deep in the throes of an all-black phase. I remember being completely struck by her androgynous sexuality and decadent cool. I was burrowing through the works of Christopher Isherwood at the time, and this lovely creature of the night typified the moral degeneracy of post-WWI Berlin that I had been so avidly reading about.

I think this dress aptly channels the slight sinfulness of the one in the painting.

Photography used to be a much more laborious process, and I'm sure that goes a long way toward explaining the impassive countenances of these next two women. One sat and sat waiting for that infernal "click." It must have been mind-numbing. But the eyes don't hide. Vita Sackville-West may have been bored, but she lost none of her fervent intensity in posing for this photo.
(Vita Sackville-West, c. 1920's, photographer unknown)

I think this jacket from Anthropologie is very Vita. Wear it with a wide-brimmed hat and everywhere you traipse will feel like Sissinghurst.

For some reason, I have waited until now to read Katherine Mansfield, and I'm so glad I did because I have been longing to lose my heart to a new author. She writes with luminous intensity about passionate, often beleagered women who struggle to love and love to struggle, and her stories never fail to deliver an emotional punch-in-the-gut that leave me stunned and wanting more.
(Katherine Mansfield, 1904, photographer unknown)

Here's Katherine in her early twenties -- before the illnesses, before the infidelities, before the loneliness and alienation -- still fiery, still indefatiguable, with so much yet inside her waiting to erupt.

This high-necked blouse would contain your physicality without suppressing your emotional ardor.

So tell me. When it comes to smiling in photos, do you always?

20 comments:

Jane said...

If there is one thing I loathe it is people telling me to 'Smile'!!!!! Even when there is no camera around. I suspect my non smiling face looks a bit glum (don't you love that word) and that is why so many people say this to me. Confession: It took me years to learn to smile for the camera, when I was 9 I truthfully didn't know how, maybe I was a bit sad. So I can really relate to those lovely images. The face In Repose is really a wonderful thing.

Sweet_Tooth said...

okay, I give...now you've got me wanting yellow gloves and that mansfield blouse!

As for smiling in photos, several of my mates and I have instituted a tradition of making the most horrendous faces possibly when taking photos...much to the chagrin of others in the picture. hehe

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Jane and Sweet Tooth: I LOVE that you're not slaves to convention. Bravo.

VictoriaArt said...

You know, I feel in the olden days before everything was fast and ....
talking ones picture was a serious business and almost like a painting. No one would ever grin in painting.
I prefer not to grin or smile too wide, also, because ....well leave that to your discretion....
Don't you love those old sepia portraits, wedding parties and so, nowhere a smile in sight.

pve design said...

Whilst a teen, I went abroad to visit my Aunt in Europe (she was an X-Nun) She gave me the best advice, do "not smile." She told me;
Smiles are like a secret weapon.
I thought she was a bit crazy, but nonetheless valid in her advice.
pve

Helen James said...

Oh I love this post. I particularly love the first image of Alice Cowie, captured so beautifully by her husband. I would love a pair of those gloves except here in Ireland that is the exact colour of washing up gloves! May have to wander slightly over to the red or green spectrum! As for smiling,it is a family joke that in ALL of my childhood photos I have the most impressive puss on my face, there is a classic one of me at my 6th birthday with a gold crown surrounded by beaming friends, candles burning in pink cake and me positively scowling !

French Fancy said...

I try to avoid photos altogether these days, never mind smiling.

I do like the pictures you have chosen and I love the coloured gloves (I've got a thing about gloves)

Angie Muresan said...

I must go and purchase a pair of yellow soft leather gloves. Is it just me, or is yellow everywhere this autumn?

Easy and Elegant Life said...

What a great post. I love the reinterpretation of fashion from the past using garments of today. Excellent...

Matthew said...

It's well known that smiling, which generally results in an open mouth, allows the soul to escape past the teeth.

penelope said...

o. my. good golly. i can't even think about having my picture taken. that D&G blouse has erased all other thought. really enjoyed reading this post.....

A Super Dilettante said...

My dear, it's an interesting topic. I love James Cowie's work. Have you ever seen any of Victorian women photographers; Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementina Hawarden? (here is a link to a blog where you can see Lady Hawarden's pictures - they are really evocative, moody and quite eerie atmospheric photographs where one rarely see the sitters smile (http://nothing-elegant.blogspot.com/2009/05/photography-lady-hawarden.html#)

miss cavendish said...

People smiling at the camera can look too overproduced. I love a natural smile, with the subject caught unawares . . .

laurakitty said...

I hate to smile in photos- I think it makes me look awful, though everyone always says I end up looking to sulky. I don't mind sulky- anything is better than goofy.

I adore all of the paintings and photographs in this post.

Rita said...

Interesting and fun. I conform and smile. I am drawn to pictures where expressions leave something to the imagination.

Ouiser Boudreaux said...

Wonderful post! I'm afraid I am always smiling in photos... too conventional I guess. But I love the idea of saving one's smile. A personal expression not to be given away for just anyone to view. Maybe one day!

and I also love the connection you make with elements of fashion.

Sildenafil said...

I think that my wife would like so much that coat, I will show her your blog post and see if she likes it, if she does I will buy her a coat like this one!

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Catharine Glover said...

You've reversed the Cowie portrait!

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