Perfect Likeness: Photography and Composition, a current exhibition at UCLA’s Hammer museum, explores the tension between art photography and commercial photography. As the description of the exhibition states,
“For most of its history, art photography has linked itself with the contingent, the found situation, the apparently accidental arrangement. Since the decline of the movement known as Pictorialism in the 1920s there has been consistent suspicion among serious photographers of images that are too beautiful, too ‘photogenic,’ too well composed—too perfect.
Perfect Likeness is a return to these “too perfect” images, exploring the rich potential of art photography that utilizes arranged or idealized compositions.
One of the exhibition’s “too perfect” images is a photo by Roe Ethridge, entitled Thanksgiving 1984. In it, a young woman in a bright yellow sweater, with beautiful, blank, blue eyes, sits behind a Thanksgiving dinner, luscious and shiny to the point of looking shellacked. Behind the woman hangs a Japanese tapestry.
The image, with the perfect model and perfect food, would look like an advertisement were it not so unsettling. Like commercial photography, it depicts something we think we want, but unlike commercial photography, asks us if we should even want it at all.
Hyperallergic describes one of the photos from the same series as Thanksgiving 1984, saying, “The dinner spread looks so glossy, like it was prepared to serve as the idea of Thanksgiving dinner and not something to actually be eaten.” Thanksgiving 1984 is more about the idea of a perfect Thanksgiving than what Thanksgiving is really like. Etheridge says in the description mounted beside the gallery photograph that Thanksgiving 1984 depicts a teenage boy’s ideal holiday guest. Etheridge himself was a teenager in 1984. But the photo, with the calmly appropriated tapestry, the abundance of food, and the impersonal, retouched woman, is not just the ideal of a teenage boy, but of a consumerist society.
The depiction of this ideal is unnerving, as many depictions of our desires may be. Thanksgiving looks even more artificial than much commercial photography. The shellacked food seems inedible; the woman doesn’t look us in the eye. Her expression doesn’t communicate much of anything. This “perfect” Thanksgiving is artificial to the point of being inhospitable. Thanksgiving is meant to be a holiday of hospitality, but transformed into a consumerist ideal, it is no longer an inviting place for others or for ourselves at all.
Perfect Likeness is open until September 13. More photos can be seen here.
Untitled (Study in Yellow and Green/East Berlin), Studio Thomas Borho, Düsseldorf, July 7th, 2012
2012. Inkjet print on cotton rag paper. 14 3/8 × 18 in. (36.5 × 45.7 cm). Private Collection; courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London.