Sunday, May 30, 2010

Modern Icons Chapter 3: Japanese Magazine Ads

My wife reads women's magazines published in Japan. These publications are superior in every way to Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Marie Clare. They are generally larger and cover more subjects than their American counterparts. One issue contained articles on hairstyle, vacation destinations, the life of an expatriate Japanese woman in Paris, interior decorating and cooking. I can't compare the quality of writing, but the most important pages for me are the ads, and the ads in the Japanese magazines blow me away. 

I can't find out if these Ralph Lauren ads were only published in Japan, or duplicated in other markets. Maybe that's not important. Again I am captivated by these images, because they clearly present an ideal to be reached for, an image of life as it could be and should be.


The little boy's heartbreaking good looks are only the introduction. He's gone GQ to the extent of wearing a wrist watch and a gold safety pin in his collar. He's at an age where boys can outgrow their clothes in a few weeks, and boys often destroy their garments even sooner. Consequently, parents rarely buy fancy clothes for little boys; it's an inefficient use of money. That's how normal parents [like me] think. This ad wants to turn that around. It says to us, "You aren't just a parent. You are the head of an important dynasty, and you have an image to keep up. Go ahead, dress him up, you can afford it! The impression he makes will be worth it, even if the soft puppy pees in his lap."

Japanese ideals of feminine beauty include big eyes, and the bigger the better. 

The Japanese ideal relaxes a bit on mixed-race or non-Japanese faces and figures. I have never seen a model like this one in American ads. Her chest, hips and hands are wider than the pencil-thin models in America. I don't prefer one type over another. Recognizing the pattern is the interesting, difficult part. Cultural currents affect us unconsciously. Often, we can't perceive them at all unless we see something different, by accident. 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Max's Camera Work 2

My son Max is six years old now. He got his own camera for his birthday. You can see his earlier photos here.

I looked into her eyes, the most intense eyes I’d ever seen. When she shut them at the end of the day it was like the end of an era.—Scott Spencer, Preservation Hall

I couldn’t stop from thinking of the other life I’d once led. Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.—Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

Just as every lover at some level believes that he or she makes love as it’s made nowhere else on the planet, so every artist clings for dear life to the illusion that the art he or she produces is vital, necessary, unique. Aesthetic elitism, sexual snobbery; these are not the reprehensible attitudes that our culture makes them out to be. They’re the efforts of the individual to secure a small space of privacy within the prevailing din. All people should be elitists — and keep it to themselves. [Books In Bed]
— Jonathan Franzen, How To Be Alone: Essays

I too walked the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me.—Walt Whitman

If despair even [in youth] is terrible, what must it be in age, when the years rush past with a growing pallor and through the dusk we begin to see the stars of eternity?—Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Max's camera can add Disney characters to his frame. Normally I don't like this, but in this shot, it works well.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Modern Icons Chapter 2: Schwinn Bicycle Catalog, 1972

People wish for better lives than they have. Our aspirations follow the direction of our culture's ideals. These aspirations and ideals are presented most powerfully and beautifully in advertising. A compelling ad injects feeling into us: I want to be that! Ads triumph through design and execution. No part of an ad photo is an accident, it all has to contribute to the desired effect. Advertising agencies ensure the quality of their work by throwing the best minds at an image, and a unbelievably large amount of money, more than any artist could afford.

This beautiful photo of a girl with her bicycle illustrates what I'm talking about. If you just glance at it, it looks like a photo you could take yourself, on an afternoon bike ride. However, this impression is entirely false. This photograph is the result of precise staging. It required big equipment and several technicians working together. A large artificial light was placed to our left, so that the girl and the bicycle would not appear in shadow, the sun being behind her head. We can only imagine the effort required to coax the ducks close enough to the bike so their cute parts were photographed, but not their duck-droppings, which surely existed off to the right. Of course, the girl herself had to be beautiful, hair just so, and the bike shiny. Again, we don't want the bicycle for itself, but because it's close to her, in a prettier world.

These images come from a Schwinn catalog, published in 1972. You can see the whole thing here. The photographs were shot in southern California. It looks heavenly, doesn't it? When I saw this catalog, I was living in Texas. If I'd had a choice, I would have packed a car and moved right away. Life in California—drenched in sunlight, populated with healthy, happy people—is the big product here. If we can't move, maybe we'll get a little of this magic if we buy a Schwinn bike.

What single girl wouldn't want to jump into this picture?

This is my favorite page. It's another vision of Heaven and every inch of it is set precisely to convey the message: If you're old, you can stay healthy and pursue romance on this adult-sized tricycle. I'm beginning to look like these people now, so it may be time for me to buy one. 

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Modern Icons Chapter 1: How We Got Here

I like to look at idealized images of people. Advertising makes the biggest impact on me, for reasons I'll write about later. Before I appreciate recent images, I'll set down some notes about how this part of human culture developed.

The sculpture above is known as The Venus of Willendorf. We think it was made between twenty and forty thousand years BCE. This figure may represent an ideal in the mind of its sculptor, but to us in the 21st Century, she looks shockingly familiar. This is woman in a state of nature: female, not feminine. Her body is soft and liquid, an element in the warm, primordial swamp. Femininity comes later. It is a human projection, a rebellion against the female in nature.

Professor Camille Paglia details the tensions between humans, nature and culture in her magnum opus, Sexual Personae. Some modern people grow weary of modernity, and desire a life closer to that of our distant ancestors. They are greatly deluded. If you have ever worn eyeglasses or undergone dental work, you do not qualify for the life of a hunter-gatherer. All culture—almost all human activity—is a direct war on nature. Art is a lie, a denial of who we are, a plot to escape from our true place, under the heel of cruel Earth. Instead of telling the truth, art presents humans as they would like to be.

Our Venus has no place in this Egyptian wall painting. These figures are feminine, not female. Every piece of them is artificial, beginning with their iconic way of standing, with shoulders in opposition to head and feet. Try posing this way; it is impossible. We know who these goddesses are by what they wear and what they carry. This kind of visual clue will remain strong in human representation, right down to the present day. 

The Pharaohs presented themselves as descendants of the gods. These gods represent an ideal, of what the ultimate human being should be. 

Greek sculpture attempted a similar end. This bronze of Zeus or Poseidon [we're not sure which] looks closer to a normal man than the Egyptian gods. However, this is not your uncle Odysseus, but another invention of the perfect human being. Notice his enormous eye-sockets. Artists have enlarged the eyes of their subjects across millenia, from ancient Egypt down to 21st-century Japanese manga.

The next image is one of the oldest Christian icons. It dates from the 7th portrays Saints Sergius and Bacchus. They have large eyes also, but embody a different, less muscular ideal, the Christian martyr. Another departure is that Sergius and Bacchus were presented as real flesh-and-blood people who were born and died. They are direct role models for the Christians in the Sinai Desert, who made this picture.

This business soars to great heights in Fra Angelico's painting of the Last Judgment. Once again, you know who's who through visual clues: where they appear, what they wear, etc. Jesus appears top center, with Mary on his right and John the Baptist on his left. On the ground, significant crowd of people has just risen from square crypt holes in the center of the picture. Those on Jesus's right [our left] are welcomed into Heaven, while those on his left [our right] are sent off to Hell. 
This painting gives us a complete world-view, with both positive and negative role models. Believers knew they should be emulate the people on the left, and avoid any association with the people on the right. To be continued.