How do we define beauty? An exhibition that opened this weekend at Century City’s Annenberg Space for Photography aims to dissect societal perceptions of what is aesthetically pleasing through a selection of photos that capture such moments as a sultry (and scantily clad) Cindy Crawford, shot by Albert Watson in 1992, and 13-year-old girls getting weighed and measured at a weight loss camp, photographed by Lauren Greenfield.

The focus of “Beauty Culture” (which runs until Nov. 27) includes supermodels, plastic surgery and toddler beauty pageants as seen through the lens of more than 100 fashion and documentary photographers such as Melvin Sokolsky, Tyen, Lillian Bassman, Matthew Rolston, Herb Ritts and Gilles Bensimon. There’s also a 30-minute documentary from Greenfield, which contains interviews and insight from the exhibits’ featured photographers as well as actress Jamie Lee Curtis, modeling agents Eileen Ford and Bethann Hardison and models Crystal Renn and Carmen del Orefice.

“We wanted to celebrate as well as show the underbelly of the beauty industry,” says exhibition consultant Manon Sloane.

The exhibit includes about 500 photos, which are organized by subtopics such as the modeling industry, with a wall of no-last-name-required faces that have been captured by fashion photographers such as Bensimon and Watson. Superstars from the 1990s such as Linda, Naomi, Christy and Helena are mixed in with several of today’s more ubiquitous fashion stars, including Jessica Stam and Karlie Kloss.


Another part of the photo exhibition, “The Hollywood Glamour Machine,” includes a group of mostly iconic photographs -- images of Veronica Lake, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and the modern-day bombshell, Angelina Jolie. A 1933 portrait of Jean Harlow taken by George Hurrell hangs next to a 2010 Rolston image of Kirsten Dunst cast in a similar fashion.

Marilyn Monroe has been awarded her own subtopic -- “The Marilyn Syndrome” -- in which images of Kate Moss, Lindsey Lohan and Anna Nicole Smith, all channeling Monroe, are displayed with several pictures of the actress. A quote from Gloria Steinem seems to sum up the mystique and status of the late movie star: “The woman who died too soon became the woman who would not die.”

The color of beauty is also examined in the show, via photos of models (Alek Wek and Du Juan) and celebrities (Jennifer Lopez and Sade) with varying ethnicities and skin tones.

“The whole point of [the exhibit] from my approach is deconstructing the world we live in and understanding what’s behind these pictures in the magazines -- understanding what we’re seeing,” says Greenfield, whose previous work has delved into similar subjects. Her books “Fast Forward” (1997) and “Girl Culture” (2002) focused on youths dealing with body image, identity and an accelerated adolescence. Her 2006 documentary, “Thin,” told the story of women at an eating disorder clinic and another documentary, “Kids and Money” (2009), delved into the lives and spending habits of privileged teenagers living in Los Angeles. “We are so influenced by these things and most of the time we don’t question them. It’s [as common] as the air we breathe,” Greenfield says.


Greenfield was commissioned by the Annenberg to do the documentary portion of the exhibit, which includes footage of toddler beauty queens with spray tans and outlandish costumes, female body building and Jackie Goldberg, Ms. Senior L.A. 2005, who confidently says in the film that “the question really isn’t ‘To be or not to be’ ” but rather “ ‘To age or not to age.’ ” Her pink-tinged hair and enthusiasm for the latest and greatest in facial fillers would have one assuming she believes in the latter.

Greenfield also filmed a group of female high school students looking into a two-way mirror as they make themselves up for their on-camera interviews."I really wanted to take a 360-degree look at the issue from all different perspectives,” she says.

In addition to the still photography and the film, the exhibit includes an interactive component in which visitors can slide into a photo booth to have their picture snapped and then digitally alter their hair styles and colors and pick various facial features to see what they would look like with blond hair or short hair or a different nose.

“Everyone can become a co-conspirator and understand the mechanisms of what goes on [in the beauty business],” Sloane says.

Though the subject matter and exhibit are sure to incite some critical discussion and may inspire viewers to delve into more complex definitions of beauty, Samantha Ojo, a high school senior and one of the subjects in Greenfield’s film, puts it simply: “It’s funny how we base beauty on this one [ideal]” she says in the documentary. “And the closer you are to that one thing, then the prettier you are.”

Now there’s some food for thought.