Camera Lucida

Susie Linfield teaches in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at New York University and is a contributing writer to Book Review

Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.


“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792)

For he being dead, with him beauty is slain,

And, beauty dead, black chaos comes again.


“Venus and Adonis” (1593)

The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.


“The Brothers Karamazov” (1879-80)


Annie Leibovitz’s photographs do not cajole or seduce the viewer; there is nothing coy or suggestive about them. Leibovitz made her name shooting rock stars for Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1970s--a time when rock was risky and exciting--and her style hasn’t changed much since then. Her pictures are bold, confrontational and entirely unapologetic.


Leibovitz’s new book, “Women,” is a high-concept coffee-table project--which is neither inherently good nor bad (like every other genre, coffee-table books range from terrific to terrible). “Women” includes more than a smattering of entertainment and political celebrities--Drew Barrymore, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Barbara Boxer, Courtney Love, Lil’ Kim, Patti Smith, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor among them--but Leibovitz also includes some considerably more ordinary, or at least lesser known, American women: soldiers, coal miners, cheerleaders, a rabbinical student, a farmer, a teacher, a waitress. At heart, though, Leibovitz remains a celebrity photographer: The single best photo here is one of model Jerry Hall breast-feeding her infant son Gabriel Jagger. Hall wears shiny gold high-heels, a fur coat and a sullen, defiant, regally insolent expression that must have humbled even Mick, at least occasionally.

The centerpiece of the book is not any one photograph but a critical essay by Susan Sontag, much of which focuses on the relationship between ideals of female beauty and the photograph. Sontag observes, rightly, that it is impossible--for women as well as men--to view any photograph of a woman without (at least unconsciously) immediately evaluating the subject’s beauty: “In a woman beauty is something total. It is what stands, in a woman, for character.” But for women, beauty has traditionally been a source not of power but of paralysis: “The identification of women with beauty was a way of immobilizing women. While character evolves, reveals, beauty is static, a mask, a magnet for projection.” Historically, female beauty has been inextricably bound with the feminine “virtues” of pliability, passivity, submission, even wistfulness--not, certainly, with strength, intelligence, creativity or accomplishment. (Kant clarified this world view when he separated the sublime, which he defined as male and which “moves,” from the beautiful, which is female and which “charms.”) Most important, female beauty is entirely contingent, defined by its ability to arouse male desire. Sontag writes: “To be feminine . . . [is] to attract. (As being masculine is being strong.) While it is perfectly possible to defy this imperative, it is not possible for any woman to be unaware of it.”

Today, Sontag observes, “the identification of beauty as the ideal condition of a woman is, if anything, more powerful than ever”--due in part to the “hugely complex fashion-and-photography system” (a system with which Leibovitz, who now works for Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines, is on intimate terms). Yet photography’s social impact is paradoxical: Though it has done so much to objectify women, it has also helped make women visible participants in the world. It is no coincidence that in societies reacting against modernity, which is also to say against feminism, women are veiled, segregated, hidden: “In a few countries, where men have been mobilized for a veritable war against women, women scarcely appear at all. The imperial rights of the camera--to gaze at, to record, to exhibit anyone, anything--are an exemplary feature of modern life, as is the emancipation of women. . . . In many countries struggling with failed or discredited attempts to modernize, there are more and more covered women.”


Still, the question arises: What connects the women in “Women”--or, more specifically, the images of the women in “Women”? Why should three poor, tough, skeptical members of San Antonio’s West Side Crips gang appear in a book with three of Houston’s grinning, blow-dried, face-lifted, jewel-bedecked millionaires’ wives? What does it tell us about the “New South” to see a multiracial group of five dirt-encrusted, lunch box-carrying, weary Alabama coal miners in a book with six white, slightly bovine Mississippi debutantes attired in long satin dresses and pearls? What does it mean for two grotesquely damaged victims of domestic violence--one has had her left eye bashed out--to share space with Carly Fiorina, president of Lucent Technologies, as she sits in her sleek, safe, very private jet? What universe, other than the constructed one of this book, does Josephine Barlow, a maid at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, share with Madeleine Albright or Martha Stewart? What categorical imperative, what organizing principle, is operating here?

Perhaps anticipating these questions, Sontag writes that “Women” is an expression of female “diversity.” Diversity is a fine idea--who in this day and age would argue against it?--but it is about as substantial as a marshmallow. Indeed, the layout of this book--in which, for instance, an intensely concentrating Shen Chu, a factory worker in New York’s City’s Chinatown, is directly juxtaposed with a radiantly smiling Elizabeth Taylor--exposes diversity’s essential moral bankruptcy, its rejection of distinctions, its banal leveling. Sontag inadvertently hints as much when she writes, “Photography is in the service of the postjudgmental ethos gaining ascendancy in societies whose norms are drawn from the practices of consumerism. The camera shows us many worlds, and the point is that all the images are valid.” Some images, though, are more valid than others, which is why Random House is publishing a book of Leibovitz’s photographs rather than, say, yours or mine.

The frenetic, sometimes startling juxtapositions of “Women” may strike some readers as exciting. In my view, they drain the book of impact; though many of the individual photos here are arresting, “Women” as a whole is far less than the sum of its parts and often feels surprisingly flimsy. But where an underlying intelligence does inform the editorial choices--as in an eight-page series of four Las Vegas casino showgirls--the book becomes far more intriguing and far more energetic. Not surprisingly, the showgirl section is the most revealing, funny, sad and refreshing part of “Women.”


We see the women as they “really” look; their expressions are clear and frank, their faces devoid of makeup. Akke Alma has long, blond braids and wears a cross; Narelle Brennan wears blue jeans and a striped shirt as her two young daughters cling to her; Linda Green looks stern, indeed severe, with her hair tightly pulled away from her angular face; Susan McNamara has short cropped hair and librarian’s glasses.

And we see each woman after she has put on her work clothes and her work face and transformed herself into a fantasy of male delight: Alma wears a spangled red bikini, thigh-high red boots, red fishnets and a huge red feathered headdress; Brennan is clothed in a pair of light-blue tights, long light-blue gloves, an extravagant light-blue turban and a heavy necklace of silver stars, with her breasts exposed; Green wears a crystal bikini, crystal bracelets, crystal fishnets and a crystal headdress, and she carries a large puff of white feathers in each hand; McNamara sports a long black wig, an enormous gold cape, a spangled gold bikini bottom, a spiky gold headdress, no top and, of course, no glasses. Yes, Virginia, it’s still a man’s world--though every woman is now free to make a buck any way she can.


Sontag’s analysis of the fundamental powerlessness that underlies the obsession with female beauty is dead-on. But it is not especially new, and it brings her perilously close to those art historians, artists, curators and supposedly progressive cultural critics who, beginning in the early 1980s, threw out the beautiful baby with the polluted bathwater. Those who attacked beauty as inherently reactionary and sexist eventually found themselves supporting several untenable positions. First, they argued that beauty has certain essentially oppressive characteristics, at the same time insisting that power relations are contingent on culture, history and context. Second, they argued that beauty was frivolous and weak, yet stifling and powerful. Finally, they argued that a world without beauty would be a fairer, better, freer world. This is not a good argument to make, for nobody with a functioning mind and a beating heart wants to live in a world without beauty.

By the late 1980s, beauty had assumed the place that sex inhabited in the 1950s: repudiated in public but secretly yearned for, and spoken of--if at all--in only the most embarrassed, fumbling ways. Luckily, a variety of critics has been rectifying this silly situation. Dave Hickey’s “The Invisible Dragon” electrified the art world in 1993 and made beauty respectable again in at least some parts of it. Hickey has a fanatical hatred of all art institutions (in “Dragon,” he claimed that Alfred Barr Jr., founder of the Museum of Modern Art, and Joseph Goebbels had “roughly parallel agendas”). But one needn’t share Hickey’s wilder antipathies to applaud his key insight: that beauty’s forceful directness establishes a “vertiginous bond of trust between the image and the beholder” that is essentially democratic; beauty, he writes, is “the last redoubt of the disenfranchised and the single direct route from the image to the individual without a detour through church or state.”

Two years later, in “The Scandal of Pleasure,” Wendy Steiner argued lucidly and passionately against reducing works of art to either arid aestheticism (in which art is drained of content) or political slogans (in which art is drained of formal qualities). Steiner noted the odd consortium of forces that had allied themselves against beauty: deconstructionists, art curators, “the Islamic fundamentalists who could not tolerate Rushdie’s wicked fun, the feminists who fear pornography’s ‘rape’ and the cinema’s fetishism, and the Marxists who denounce beauty as co-optation.” The attack on beauty, Steiner wrote, is a radical simplification that separates us from the basic--and potentially subversive--human experience of artistic pleasure.

“On Beauty and Being Just,” Elaine Scarry’s concise new book, makes the far more counterintuitive claim that beauty is an intrinsically moral, indeed politically beneficial, force. Most illuminating is Scarry’s discussion of the relationship between beauty and truth, which is a bit more complicated than the poets told us.


Beauty and truth are not synonymous, Scarry argues, but they are intimately connected: Encountering the former will inevitably prompt us to seek the latter. Beauty is a double agent that introduces us to “the state of certainty” yet also, “sooner or later, brings us into contact with our capacity for making errors. The beautiful . . . acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction--to locate what is true.” Thus, beauty “ignites the desire for truth by giving us . . . the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error.”

Scarry maintains that beauty is an antidote to narcissism: When we encounter the beautiful, we become “decentered,” unbalanced, opened up to the world outside ourselves. But her contention that beauty guides us to justice is far more problematic, indeed unsubstantiated. Symmetry, reciprocity and equality are, Scarry somewhat mysteriously argues, at “the heart of beauty”; thus, “folded into the uneven aesthetic surfaces of the world is a pressure toward social equality.” Scarry insists that the “decentering” aspects of beauty, along with its supposedly inherent egalitarianism, prepare us, indeed train us, for justice: “Because beauty repeatedly brings us face-to-face with our own powers to create, we know where and how to locate those powers when a situation of injustice calls on us.”

This is an interesting idea, but entirely unconvincing. Its major drawback is that it has no discernible connection to the real world that we inhabit or to any historical period that we know of. Rather than trivializing beauty, Scarry has weighted it with far too much importance; its function now is to change the world, or at least lead us to a far better one. But Scarry’s theory is utterly useless in explaining, for instance, those lovely classical music symphonies that were played at Theresienstadt.

Then again, what could?


Photgraphs are fortunate: Unlike women, they needn’t be beautiful. A photograph’s first--and perhaps only--imperative is to make us look at it.

For the past couple of months, “Women” has been lying on my living-room floor, and I have noticed something about it. Every person who walked into my apartment--from intimates to slight acquaintances, from an electrician to various writers to the photographer Tracey Moffatt--pounced on the book as soon as they spied it. They would pick it up, seat themselves down, and spend the next 10 or 20 minutes intently hunched over it.

What were they looking for? Different things, no doubt, though I don’t think that finding beauty was their primary aim. They were searching, I think, for hints of knowledge (which is different than information), for aesthetic stimulation (which is different than sensation), for new ways to look at, and therefore to think about women and the many worlds they live in. Despite its drawbacks, “Women” provides all that. Watching my friends I learned: It’s hard to resist this book. *