I was sitting at a Starbucks in Hollywood waiting for a friend when a striking young woman walked in. She was in her early 20s, with long hair, long limbs, flawless skin and large, dark eyes. The place grew quiet. Men, women, baristas, all were stunned by her perfection. None of us were ugly, but she was extraordinary. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," Keats wrote. Yet it is the transitory nature of beauty that attracts us. Sunsets, puppies, smog-free days do not last. That exquisite girl could gain 100 pounds or contract leprosy; certainly, she will age, sag and wrinkle. Even knowing that, we are riveted.
What is our fascination with beauty? Furtively, I sometimes flip back to the grainy black-and-white Calvin Klein underwear ad to ogle the model's flat stomach, the curve of hip and collarbone. My husband walks up and I quickly turn the newspaper page. "Uprising in Madagascar," I exclaim. Am I hoping Kate Moss will rub off on me? Or do I need more proof that I will never measure up? It's a masochistic push and pull, both futile and shallow, yet I crave it.
A 1999 study at the University of Toronto concluded that women who scrutinize fashion magazines come away angry and depressed. Pornography also can leave the viewer feeling disgruntled and dissatisfied. But people keep buying Vogue and Hustler. Voyeurism may not help us, but we can't help ourselves. So we sell it in coffee-table art books about the breast, the nude, the pubescent waif. If it's a black-and-white photography book expensively bound, it's considered OK to stare.
Just in time for the holidays, an eclectic stack of art books -- all concerned with beauty and image -- has come out. After all, 'tis the season of inadequacy. We are bombarded with commercials showing functional families enjoying snowball fights in cashmere and glittery parties where no one gets drunk on the eggnog and throws up in the bushes. We can never give enough, be enough or make enough holiday magic to fill our stockings, much less our souls.
I could give "Two Million Miles" (Te Neues: 240 pp., $85) to my best friend, but she'd probably end Christmas night sobbing into her hot cocoa, "I will never have legs like Charlize Theron!" And what is the point? Andrew MacPherson's compendium of years of glamour photography is a dressed-up version of People magazine. We are all fascinated with celebrity; it's the same impulse that makes us slow down as we pass by car wrecks. But he doesn't tell us anything new. He so carefully art-directs his subjects -- Theron, Johnny Depp, Janet Jackson, Bono and many others -- that each becomes lifeless. Even the U2 concert photos feel airbrushed. No one sweats.
For sheer perfection without angst, I recommend "Alberto Vargas: Works From the Max Vargas Collection" by Reid Stewart Austin (Bulfinch: 144 pp., $45). These paintings from Vargas' nephew's collection are obviously the product of female idolatry. No real woman could be that plump yet firm, that blemish-free, that perky and curvaceous without help from a surgeon. Vargas is a master, and the progression of his work from 1920s posters for Ziegfeld to painstakingly drawn pubic hair for Playboy in 1972 is a delight. His life story is well told by Austin. Vargas was married once and forever to a pretty but very real woman. His obsession with lovely legs and shoes came from his schoolboy glimpse of a teacher's button-up boot. The first black pinup for Playboy in 1964 was a Vargas creation. She was the perfect uncontroversial choice, like frosted cake, a luscious, creamy, boneless confection. His drawings seem to breathe on the page.
Photography is uniquely static. Henri Cartier-Bresson described it as capturing the "decisive moment." With a snap of the shutter, an entire life is frozen. What fascinates me is imagining what happened next. What was the moment after, and the one after that? Can a photo be prescient? If I look carefully enough, can I see the future? Take "Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis" by Alfred Wertheimer (Insight Editions: 244 pp., $65; special limited edition, $395). I am not an Elvis fan -- although an Elvis impersonator officiated at my sister's second wedding. Still, I could not take my eyes off these pictures. At 21, Elvis was pouty and sexy, slick as his pomade. Did I see despair in his eyes because I knew he would end up a bloated parody of himself, dying ignominiously on his bathroom floor? The photos of his family and the Colonel hovering over him, the series of him pushing against the luncheonette girl in the hallway, were not celebrations of his burgeoning career but predictions of doom. Or was I projecting?
Doom is obliquely the subject of "Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens" by Liz Goldwyn (Regan Books: 304 pp., $44.95). The photos are of women from the 1930s, '40s and '50s, in sequins and feathers, rears to the camera, backs arched and red mouths open and wet. Perhaps dead beauties are less depressing to look at, but I found these women erotic and brave. They lived on the edge of society, and many of them came to a bad end. It's not the best-written art book I've read, but the pictures, the lore and the details more than make up for that.
Beauty, stardom, sexual titillation. Frankly, it was exhausting. I can't sing or draw, I have short legs, and I will never learn to spin the tassels on my pasties. But one day, I might be a petty criminal, and if I am, I hope my mug shot ends up in another volume of "Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots" (Steidl Publishing/Steven Kasher Gallery: 306pp., $50). Mark Michaelson has edited and designed a marvelous, oddly feel-good book with page after page of "hookers, stooges, grifters and goons." It is a glance into a stratum of American life from the 1880s to the 1970s. The hairstyles change, but the expressions continue to be scared, cocky, drunk, superior or resigned. The writer Kio Stark has an essay in the book about the beauty she sees in these austere photos because the faces are both "elusive and persistent.... They churn our imaginations." The photos were chosen not as a history, Michaelson writes, but because "they contain some sort of magic, elicit some strong response. The faces
Finally, I held the future, "Face: The New Photographic Portrait" (Thames & Hudson: 240 pp., $50). William A. Ewing laid it all out for me: The portrait is dead. Or at least dying. Some of the new "portraits" in Ewing's book are strangely breathtaking; some are just creepy. They are done by artists and imagists. Some are altered by special effects; others are simple shots of faces that usually make us avert our eyes. Photography may be ready to take the next step, but I'm not prepared to send Christmas cards with manipulated photos of my kids. The text that accompanies this book is equally wonderful -- a study of the face and what it means to us, including quotes by philosophers and journalists and politicians.
When I was researching my first novel, I spoke to a woman who had been blind since adolescence. She said she missed seeing something beautiful. "What do you miss seeing the most?" I asked her. To my surprise, she answered, "My own face." As imperfect as we may be, eyes a little too close together, wrinkles too pronounced, we are still our most familiar sight. There is beauty in that.
My friend walked into Starbucks just as the perfect specimen was walking out. "Did you see her?" I asked.
My friend shrugged. "She'll get hers. Just like the rest of us."
Happy holidays. *