In our period of manic and hollow decadence loudly and consistently dehumanizing a public convinced that flimsy trends constitute the up-to-date truth, the always contemporary power of fine art is not diminished. This is most obvious when expensive forms of trash are forced to backflip until they obviate their standard uses. John Ford did this with Westerns, Fred Astaire with musicals, and our best jazz musicians with some of the worst popular songs. Two recent books of photographs have captured the invincible life of human feeling in high places and the indestructible glare of the heart preserved in the still gestures of ritualized dance.
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An unexpected variation on a particular kind of down-home majesty steps up through Michelle Obama: The First Lady In Photographs. Well-selected by Deborah Willis and put into context by writer Emily Bernard, the book is much more than one would expect because the perpetual feeling of vitality found in the image of the first lady is always paced by the peculiar sorrow of the extremely sensitive in positions of great power and ceaseless attention.
Lady Obama has a face formed around the cheek bones and the jaw much like Jane Fonda’s, but it partners with the depth of intelligence and empathy that may come to extend upon Eleanor Roosevelt, our most brilliant, saintly, and plain woman of the empathetic heart. Lady Obama actually seems to be as she appears, the common woman made into a queen by her soulfulness and the love of the people.
Bernard’s essay is articulated above the fray of maudlin sloganeering too common to discussions of black women and what they do or do not look like and what they are or are not. Michelle Obama’s whole card is her humanity, no more, no less, which is always more than enough whenever determined by the thrust of its own vibrancy.
Bernard knows that in a way that takes her short essay beyond the limits so familiar from the writing of black women who have made the choice to slop on militant self-pity with a shovel when not dispensing intellectual buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. These photographs capture a range of things done and felt by the first brown first lady in public or when apparently unaware of a camera. Yet there is always something invaluably unavailable, and it has the sparkle of mystery known as charm.
The aura of a spiritual rapier always remains in place. It is used to silently defend Lady Obama against all of those things that anyone bearing the cross of being considered an icon must hold as far at bay as possible. This aura seems to have a steely presence within her warmth, her gestures, her humor, and her attentive melding of intelligence and susceptible heartbreak.
These are the days of great suffering, at least partially because so many women act like teenagers, groveling before the country’s preference for the female who is fit but young and quite, quite dumb. Michelle Obama comes through these images as a full-blown woman well aware of what can be expected to fill the diapers of even the most freshly beautiful babies. The loveliness, the smell, and the filth of life are as familiar to her as they were to Eleanor Roosevelt, that first six-foot spouse of a president. This gives her sensibility the quality of the The Second First Lady of The Blues in our White House.
While we are always in danger of being frostbitten by the blizzard of fluff that is our celebrity culture, this glossy picture book is actually as human as our world of electronic repetition is loudly empty.
Perhaps the most elusive kind of beauty transforms a plain or even unattractive face and form into a vessel of human magnetism looming in force over both sexes—too hot to handle, too tender to be addressed indifferently, and too filled with vitality to be denied on any serious level of humanity.
These are the days of great suffering, at least partially because so many women act like teenagers, groveling before the country’s preference for the female who is fit but young and quite, quite dumb.
The black, white, and gray images of flamenco women captured on very high-quality paper in the fashion photographs of Ruven Afanador called Mil Besos, or “A Thousand Kisses,” fit that description. These images are like living red-hot pokers daring the viewer to kiss them. So they, like flamenco, are part of a tradition invulnerable to trembling before life at its most decidedly bittersweet.
Fashion photography is usually expensively shot stuff as insubstantial as the literal distance from the front to the back of a photograph. The best photographers laboring on that plateau parallel jazz musicians like Duke Ellington who made fine art within the contexts of high-toned trash. Performing in radiant gutbuckets, they went far beyond the game where white and black interacted among the dehumanizing stereotypes used as a form of ethnic sport.
Afanador does a similar turn with his aesthetic cape in the black-and-white arena of his suitably large Rizzoli book. The photographer takes to flamenco as if inspired by Fellini, whose films were almost always devoted to faces that overturned all conventions of the ordinary or the attractive. Afanador captures the voluminous pulsations of these women so well that they often step up as though about to leave the page behind them in pursuit of something capable of handling the circumference of their feeling or the array of emotions and dreams that they seem to embody.
Whether young or old, typically compelling or nearly grotesque, these women are never subjected to visual tricks intended to make them seem foolish. The level of respect is free of sentimentality; it goes beyond itself into the elevation achieved by dancers who embody or transform movement until it becomes a trampoline sending their spirits climbing, snarling, cooing, and moaning into the air.
These pictures are free of pity, they do not propagate the shining and mushy grease of superficial celebration, and they do not sink down into the unfortunate condescension so common to our moment of cowardly irreverence. Mil Besos takes you to places that have no addresses other than serenity, fire, imprisoning and liberating solitude, and the elemental quality we are hectored to recognize as the sorrowful majesty always underlying transcendence.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. Next year the first volume of his long-awaited biography of Charlie Parker will appear.