Art History sexism (ctd.)

November 28 2014

Regular readers will know of my little campaigns against 'The Girl Walking Blurrily in Front of a Painting' photo, and also 'The Useless White Glove' photo. Here, in The Telegraph, Claire Cohen, rails against the practice:

Just why is it that the moment it’s time to flog antiques or artworks, auction houses grab the nearest “young filly” (likely an employee who has better things to do). Are we really happy to patronise buyers by suggesting their wallets will magically open at the sight of a pretty girl? The poor women in these prehistoric auction house pictures look out of place – and I bet they feel it. 

How do I know? I used to be one of them.

Before becoming a journalist, I worked in the press office of a leading London auction house. It was a desk job – my first. Yet, time and again I was dragged off to pose alongside various artefacts. Who’s that grinning inanely at a Francis Bacon triptych? Me. Pretending to drive Hitler’s 1939 Auto Union D-Type car, worth upwards of £6 million? Guilty. That figure wearing a Stormtrooper helmet from the first Star Wars film looks familiar. Me again. […]

Posing in front of the camera like a mannequin, it was hard not to feel like the blue-blooded equivalent of the bikini-clad lovelies who parade the ring between rounds at a big fight.

Now, I look at the young women in such sales pictures and cringe. They represent an outdated, old boys’ club – the very image that many of our most prestigious auction houses have gone to great lengths to ditch. 

Actually, I'm not sure the most prestigious auction houses have gone to any lengths to ditch such practices. But actually, who is to blame here? Isn't it 'us', that is, the readers of newspapers and websites whom, picture editors and auction house PRs assume, need to have our visual radar piqued by something else going on in the photo, other than the art? And do we demand, albeit subconsciously, that that 'something else' is eye-catching, attractive, even female? Isn't that the same reason that two identically painted portraits of the same size by Gainsborough can so wildly differ in value, if one is of an old man two weeks away from his first heart attack (£10k) and the other a pretty young woman in a dashing dress (say, £5m)?

I'm not sure what the answer is, let me know what you think...

Update - a reader writes:

This is the most shameless example I've seen:

Also this recent one amused as the girl's reflection in the glass means she appears in the picture twice as often as Rembrandt does"

That might be a perfectly innocent one where they wanted someone looking at the picture but it's never usually an old lady and I suppose in that respect it's no different from most other PR managed images we see. Images of young women are used to promote most things because it sells but perhaps it just looks more ridiculous with art because the artwork itself is supposed to be the visually stimulating image.

The top one is fantastic, a real genre-leading example; white gloves, a young lovely, a Rembrandt, the classic 'I'm not actually lifting the picture' position, and... cleavage! Anyone got any better examples?

Update II - a reader with experience of these things writes:

Not that important but I thought an insider view point might be an interesting Friday distraction and you do always bang on about "the girl in the press photo"!

In my experience the decision to use a young girl is usually never anything to do with the ‘auction house’ or the specialist department of the item in question. Unfortunately most auction house specialists don’t have enough time to dedicate a whole morning to taking copious amounts of press shots from slightly different angles with overly enthusiastic photographers. Nor is there some sort of misogynistic board of chairmen with nothing more pressing to do than demand a young girl is used for the shoot.

Usually the press office is responsible for  the model and usually it will be the youngest employee or intern in the department willing to do what the elders don't have time for. Invariably they are not only young but female as the pr industry seems to female heavy...or at least It is at our auction house as I have never met a bloke working in our pr team in my years!

If anyone does demand anything at all its usually the photographer. Usually free-lance/external anyway, they are often more used to shooting z-list celebrities and therefore think a young lady or a pair of white gloves will make a painting as ‘cool’ to the tabloid readership.

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