Picks and Pans Review: Beauty Photography in Vogue

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Martin Harrison

Not surprisingly, the young, the gorgeous, the narcissistic fill this overview of a glittering cranny of magazine journalism. For the last 50 years, Vogue has published divine examples of female pulchritude captured, like butterflies under glass, by some of the most famous photographers in the world, including Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn. The development of beauty photography as it has appeared in the pages of Vogue is traced in the uninspired if adequate introduction that Harrison, a photography critic, wrote to accompany the 180 color and black-and-white photographs he chose for his book. He notes that by the mid-'30s, it was a Baltic baron, George Hoyningen-Huené, whose photographs set the tone for the hieratic studio portraits of distant goddesses that became a standard Vogue approach to defining beauty. Around the same time, action snapshots of vigorous, sun-worshiping females emerged as another of the magazine's trademarks—with flexible roll-film cameras, Toni Frissell photographed young women cavorting on tennis courts and in swimming pools. Then there was Berlin-born Erwin Blumenfeld, who infused a note of surrealism into his fashion photos. For a 1950 cover, Blumenfeld used harsh spotlights to transform a model into a pale-faced creature with one eye, one endlessly arching black brow and poisonous red lips. Harrison also traces the history of beautiful women taking off their clothes for posterity's sake in Vogue. In the '30s and '40s, the nudes published were back views or, if frontal, discreetly lighted or cleverly distorted. That Victorian modesty has long since vanished. In a 1968 photo, model Veruschka rises like a gilded goddess from the sea. In a 1982 composition Deborah Turbeville's neurasthenic nudes, a few cropped at the waist, drift about a mirrored ballroom. In mood the exact opposite of Turbeville's drowsy maidens are Bruce Weber's athletic models, who splash bare-breasted in turquoise-bright water or—in a 1983 black-and-white picture—hang like Tarzan's Jane from tree branches. Another section on parts of the body shows that feet, hands, eyes, even a hip dabbed with cream can look very strange indeed when photographers zoom in for that tight closeup. These shots so often resemble each other it looks as if one photographer is cannibalizing another's effects. Guy Bourdin snaps glossy red lips framed in black fabric. Irving Penn does a mouth slick with yellow. Hiro photographs an ant perched on a lacquered toenail. Horst photographs a model whose cheeks and closed eyes are decorated with small blue-and-white parachutes. If nothing else, the book makes it clear that in Vogue's hothouse world, where artifice is always lurking, beauty can never be more than skin deep. By definition, the superficial is the essential. (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $30)

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