Saturday, 18 October 2014

Christine Keeler astride a plywood chair: when images become iconic

Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley. Google Images

If there is an iconic image, it has to be that of Christine Keeler astride a plywood chair taken by Lewis Morley in 1963. Keeler is nude but the back of the chair covers her, so nothing can be seen.
I was visiting a photographer friend on Tuesday, with the idea of doing a shoot in his studio. He showed me an original print of Keeler's photograph taken by Morley and signed by Morley. It was so beautiful I practically begged him to photograph me in a similar pose, I really wanted to do my own version of this iconic image. I really wish to thank Hugh Gilbert for humouring me. You can see the image here.
Shoot ended and on the way back home, I could not help reflecting on why this image of Christine Keeler has become so famous and is so embedded in popular consciousness. The Victoria and Albert Museum has an entry on it in its online catalogue , as a gelatin silver print of Morley's endeavour is now part of its photographic collection.  Morley claims this was an accidental shot, the last exposure on the film he was using.
An exhibition of the photograph at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013 prompted Jonathan Jones to write in an article published by The Guardian that "Keeler was in a tradition of unrespectable women in the public eye that goes back to Restoration royal mistresses such as Nell Gwyn. Compare her with Charles II's lover" also at the National Portrait Gallery.
It is very hard to say why a particular image captures the imagination of millions and thus becomes iconic. Maybe it is that the image strikes us at a deep emotional level, maybe it is because it  perfectly captures an instant which cannot be replicated and has a ring of truth, no, authenticity, about it.
It is not just photographs that achieve this status of being instantly recognisable, of speaking directly to someone at an emotional level. Paintings do too. Or images like the wayang (Javanese shadow puppet theatre), replicated even on tees, which have become signifiers of Indonesian culture.
As author Martha Tedeschi states,  “Whistler’s Mother, Wood’s American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.”
I guess Christine Keeler's astride a chair has achieved this status, starting off as a popular image and making its way into repositories of high culture, such as museums and art galleries. 
 Martin Kemp  writes that truly iconic images accrue legends:  extraordinary images demand an extraordinary explanation. Morley's photograph of Keeler shares in this tradition, stories about it abound.
Why so? I am not sure. We all recognise iconic images but it becomes enormously difficult to say why they are so. This mystery makes them even more alluring, enhancing their iconicity.

A friend and member of deviantArt wrote the following comment (I usually  plug my blogposts on dA):
The nature of the "iconic" also interests me... how does an image become so? It's easier, I suppose when it directly captures a specific moment of triumph or trauma shared by millions... the moon landing, The crowd at Martin Luther King's death pointing toward the shooter, etc. In part that photo was associated with a moment in history, the Profumo Scandal, as well as a visual allusion to the newness and differentness of social mores of the time... it helps that Keeler was such a beautiful young woman... who better to be the face of such a moment? But even now that Cold War politics and the pretence of "respectability" amongst those in high places have washed away, the image remains and still has power. I sometimes liken it to parapsychologists' hypothesis of how a haunting works... a moment of such emotional energy occours that it leaves some kind of "print" on a place that some people can feel. Don't know if I truly believe in ghosts... but socially, the iconic image, the moment that leaves behind a symbolic impression that encapsulates an entire experience seems to work like that.

Very well said!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Galliano: forgive and forget?

John Galliano modelling. Google images

I have been thinking a lot about John Galliano, after I was given a link to an interview he gave to Ingrid Sischy for Vanity Fair, over a year agoIt was an interesting read, not least because it highlighted one of the endemic problems of the fashion industry, how it saps the energy of  the creatives that are involved in it, with its imperative to produce, produce, produce. Galliano's meltdown, following an alcohol and drug binge, went viral in 2011, when he hurled anti-semitic insults in a Parisian boite. At that moment he crossed a line and he had to go, there could be no further tolerance of his drug and alcohol fuelled idiosyncratic behaviour. So he relinquished his position as head of the Maison Dior. He  had no choice.
But the fashion industry needs talents like Galliano's and he seems to be sufficiently contrite and remorseful to warrant him a second chance. After all, was Kate Moss not called back to model following her cocaine snorting incident? Miss Moss is an iconic model - here it is, the dreaded little word I discussed in an earlier post. And Mr Galliano is an iconic designer. So why should he not  do what he is best at?
Drugs and alcohol can play havoc with your ability to control your thoughts and behaviour. I have often wondered whether things would have been different if the insults hurled by Galliano had not been videoed and gone viral. In hindsight it is a good thing the video was seen by so many people as it forced Galliano to take stock and do something about his addiction. And he has.

Galliano's Fall 2007 collection
Galliano is no ordinary designer. He has a great team but no collection of his goes without his personal input in conceiving the clothes and the way they are going to be presented. There are designers whose main ability is that of putting together a brand and market it, and designers who create the look from scratch, who are practitioners of the craft - an art really. They are the designers as practising artists. Think of Vivienne Westwood, Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen as opposed to, say, the Victoria Beckhams of the fashion industry.
Galliano has great originality and a vision. His shows were true spectacles, great performances, in which the clothes themselves were 'performed'. His sense of theatricality is supreme. The move of fashion shows into the realm of the spectacular  is very clear nowadays, we only have to think of the recent Paris Fashion Week and the show put on by Karl Lagerfeld.  Unlike Lagerfeld's, whose ironic take on feminism could be construed as trivialising,  Galliano's theatricality does not have a hint of the trivial or cheap.
So yes, I think Galliano should be given another chance. It is rumoured he might take up a position with Maison Martin Margiela. I hope it is true.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Gravity, age and the body.

Cast no shadow: photo by Isaac Julien

I owe choreographer Russell Maliphant two things: a love for Sicily and an introduction to Rolfing. Let me explain. When I was in New York in November 2007 I went to see Cast No Shadow which combined choreography by Maliphant and filming  by Isaac Julien.  Parts of the film  had been shot  on the coast of Western Sicily. It sparked the beginning of my passion for the island of my ancestors, which I had not ever visited till then.  That evening I spoke briefly to Maliphant to congratulate him on his work and found out about his being a certified Rolfer, among other things.
 I never really got into Rolfing however until this year, never felt the need for it, but circumstances have changed. I have been suffering from severe back problems. A traumatic fall when I was much younger has left a mark on my spine and though for years I ignored the occasional ache it has now become increasingly difficult to pretend it is not there, so I have embarked on a tailor made programme, tailor made by me I should say, to try and find out what can be done. The conversation I had with Maliphant all those years ago and an interview with him I read online reawakened my curiosity and I decided to do  a course of Rolfing. It is a course because you need to do  ten sessions at regular intervals for it to be effective. It will help you to realign and learn a new way of inhabiting your own body. It also brings about new thinking and a new body awareness, which sadly most of us do not have.  Apart from Rolfing I am doing as much as possible by way of yoga, exercises for my spine to increase its flexibility etc. I am also pursuing a proper diagnosis through conventional medicine to find out whether I have low bone density and the beginning of osteoporosis, thus am undergoing scans. There is a history of osteoporosis in my family and having seen my mother being painfully crippled by it I am determined to fight it off.

Me in public speaking mode. Photo: City Academy

As I look around it really dawns on me that we are generally so unaware of our bodies. We focus so much on the way we look but we never learn to really pay attention to the way we feel in our body, the way we hold ourselves. As I am doing my course of Rolfing I am also having great conversations with my Rolfer. We tend to talk about the body of course  and in my last session we touched on  the relationship with gravity. Gravity affects us all and interestingly we have two ways of going about it: we either fight it, as I have been doing, in the sense that I always want to pull myself up and stretch as much as possible, sometimes being rather forceful in the way I handle my body -  I am talking more about a feeling, a sensation, than real actions - or we feel oppressed by it, which leads to allowing the body to curve as if carrying a massive weight - and we do carry that massive weight because gravity puts a lot of pressure on us. But there is another way of relating to gravity and that is becoming aware that gravity actually supports us. This change  in attitude can do wonders in the way  we stand, the relationship we have with our feet on the ground. For me it is something that at the moment engages much of my thinking and my actions. I also notice when I look at people in the street how ageing bodies have this tendency to shrink, the upper back develops kyphosis and that is most often, though not always,  the result of poor posture and unawareness.
There is so much that is being written about ageing and so much focus on what to do to conform to that ideal of agelessness that is being touted as what we ought to aspire to.  Though there are many articles that exhort us to exercise and pay attention to nutrition in order to be youthful there is absolutely nothing that  discusses our relationship with our own body and body awareness. This is such a glaring gap. I care little about how my body can look better if I wear x and y. I care a lot about the way I stand, I sit, I walk and I bend.  I care about being aware of my body.
As I age, to me this is the most important thing about my body and my person.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The quest for the perfect gym spa

Outtakes from a shoot with Vanessa Mills
A friend of mine always used to joke that in a former life I must have been a Spartan because of my love for gyms and spas. Not sure the Spartans had much to do with the latter, spas were more of a Roman thing, later taken over by the Arabs and Turks through their hammam,  but basically, yes,  it is true that I spend a great deal of time in gyms and spas and am currently on the look out for the perfect combination of the two.
This undoubtedly should prompt some reflection on the commodification of  fitness  in our contemporary society and the proliferation of health centres, gyms and spas.  Though I acknowledge that fitness is a socio-cultural phenomenon and that I am totally caught up in the fitness discourse, believing that fitness and health are essential to the quality of my life and that they are both linked with life satisfaction and fulfilment, this post will not tackle such issues in a broad, general way. I am merely reflecting, here,  on my personal quest for the perfect gym and what kind of feelings and emotions it evokes.
Some brief background. After being a regular member of a well known gym chain, at a very local club with swimming pool, and a tiny sauna and steam room plus the usual gym equipment and a range of group classes, I got very bored with it and totally fed up with the fact that most of the time one lane in the swimming pool is blocked off for lessons. I was also not happy with the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the changing rooms.
Then I discovered the gym+spa combination and that, I must admit,  is most appealing. So I am in the process of trying different spas which also have a gym and a proper pool.  My, there is so much to choose from. The most expensive ones are not necessarily the best - I was appalled when visiting a 5* hotel with a pretentious set up of just one room with equipment, unmanned, a relaxation pool, a relaxation room and that was it, for £95 a month plus treatments, very expensive,  to be paid for separately. Treatments will always have to be paid for separately, that's not the point. But facilities should be good, considering the fees.

Como Shambhala spa in Bali. Google images
I have appointments at several establishments to check them out. What am I after? A thermal experience - I love the whole set up of scented steam rooms, saunas, plunge pools, relaxation room - plus a gym, some group classes such as yoga and pilates, a swimming pool with at least three lanes. There is nothing like immersing yourself in a meditation while sitting in a steam room or a scented sauna.  What else can you do when sitting still in a heated environment? Everything slows down, even your thoughts. I also love the feel of cold water in a plunge pool and the struggle I go through before immersing myself in it - oh it does take a lot of will power. I love the wetness of a steam room and the casual conversations one strikes with other people sitting there.
If I could, I'd go to a hammam every day. Good for the skin, it seems.
Perhaps I will, once I sort out membership details.  But with the dance classes, the gym, the swimming pool, the hammam - can twenty four hours be enough? And what will I do for relaxation? Apart from having to squeeze some work in...

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The state of being iconic

Photographer: Vanessa Mills. Model: myself  Designer: Sparklewren

A recent conversation with a friend forced me to rethink the widespread use of the word 'iconic'. Once upon a time 'iconic' was a term mostly used by art historians and with reference to images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or saints, as found  in Orthodox churches. Or to Byzantine art.
Then came the use of the word in the sense of cultural icons, with reference to very famous faces and characters such as, in no particular order and by no means limited to these names,  Che Guevara, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison and brands, such as Coca Cola.
We are now inundated with icons and iconic objects. Victoria Beckhams' designs are iconic and she is regarded as an icon of style and  brands, apart from the already mentioned Coca Cola, are also iconic.  Views from the veranda of a luxury hotel are iconic, Californian red elmwood is iconic, basically everything including iPhone/iPad apps, is iconic. Of course I know that those little images on Apple computers are called 'icons' and have been called so for a very long time, but this post is not about those. Apple by the way, as a brand, is also iconic.
Some people complain of an  'overuse' of the word iconic. Is there really an overuse?
So it is that while sipping our iconic cappuccinos, my friend and I began to consider what cultural icons, or better still, the state of being iconic, or iconicity,  is  about.
Let's refer first to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines icon as "a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration". From there iconicity would then refer to the state of being this representative symbol or  symbol of veneration.  This is a broad definition that allows us to throw in some interesting variants. So if we think of cultural icons we can agree that they are not only representative symbols, they often personify them. So far, so good.
But the dictionary does not tell us about the process of becoming or establishing something as a cultural icon.  And this is quite important and perhaps knowing about it can allow us to understand the discontent of those who believe that we are iconizing everything (yes, the word exists, it is American English).

Photographer: Vanessa Mills. Model: myself. Designer: Sparklewren

The crux of the matter, as my friend was quick to point, is that if iconicity in cultural terms is to do with the non-discursive and non-verbal element of cultural and social life, it is also the case that it is linked with consumerism. It is to do with branding and marketing strategies, thus a hotel view becomes iconic through the branding of the tourist industry.
Iconicity creates consensus, in markets, culture or politics, as Woddward and Elliott write in Iconic Power: materiality and meaning in social life.
Well, these are some initial thoughts, would love to continue to explore the issue but not in just one post. Comments always welcome.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A very brief post

Photographer: Marcello Pozzetti. Model: me. On the cover of Her Edit

I have been rather busy, in every possible way!
I have some excellent news (well, for me that is): I am on the cover of Her Edit issue 7, which is about age and I have also an article in there, about being 'an older ' model.
I also did a fabulous editorial shoot with Vanessa Mills wearing Sparklewren designs and am really pleased with the results, which will be submitted to a magazine.
I am also about to embark on a Rolfing course as a Rolfee, I have found someone and I have great hopes. I feel I need to be completely realigned, I have postural problems. Rolfing is a technique created by Ida Rolf, you can read more here, not chiropratic nor massage but it involves manipulation of the fascia.

From the shoot with Vanessa Mills

This post is extremely brief, but I promise to write a more substantial one soon enough. It will be about Professor Dawkins whose rhetoric I truly care little about. As a friend of mine says, Dawkins used to be amusing but not anymore. All in good time.

Have a great week!

Monday, 25 August 2014

When he is not that much into you: chasing emotionally unavailable men

Photograher: Natalia Lipchanskaya. Model: me
This post is a sequel to my previous one and to be honest I am not even sure why I am writing about all this, it is quite outside my usual range of topics. But when I started this blog I decided it would be  an opportunity for me to write about what takes my fancy and somehow this has, and in a big way too. I am now trying to bring the different pieces together.
Yesterday, being Sunday, I woke up later than usual, and had breakfast in bed. As I was sipping my coffee I picked up Kennealy-Morrison's tome which came the other day through the post and which I had only managed to skim through prior to writing my earlier post. I had no idea I would end up spending the whole day reading it from cover to cover, watching some video reconstruction of the last day in Morrison's life, apparently dying not in his bath but in a nightclub's toilet, full of heroin, and reading alternative accounts to Kennealy's story, all the while feeling I was going through an emotional roller coaster.
Strange days: my life with and without Jim Morrison is a hardback, and it weighs quite a bit. I am not used to carrying real books around anymore, I have Kindle and iBooks but this one is only available in this format. I had it in the pretty basket I use as handbag for the past few days but never really had a proper chance to sit down and read it until yesterday morning.

Photographer: Elina Pasok
As soon as I dipped into it, I also began to feel very uncomfortable. The story is well written but Ms Kennealy is really at pains to tell us how she wanted Jim Morrison to be when he was with her, rather than how he actually was, and depicting the relationship she dreamt of having with him, rather than what they really had. You just can't stop feeling that she reimagines it all. Her account sounds so contrived, it really is quite unbelievable at times. For example, she goes on and on about Jim Morrison's sexual prowess, according to her they did it all the time, in and out of bed - very much at odds with various reports concerning his impotence, due to his alcohol and drug consumption. According to her he hardly ever drank when he was in her company, which sounds quite far-fetched, the man was addicted to the stuff, I have lived with an alcoholic and I know you just can't stop them from drinking. Maybe he drank behind a curtain and out of sight? She makes him say some very, very corny lines, and maybe he did say those things but tongue in cheek, as he often did in interviews (have you ever heard the one in which he is ravenous and keeps on asking for food and then launches into a 'What's wrong with being fat' which is quite funny). She is also quite obsessed with herself being 'a tall woman' but she says she was some three inches shorter than him. He was 5'11 so she must have been around 5'8 or 5'8.5 which is not short, but hardly very tall. I guess compared to Pam Courson she was tall and leggy and this is what she really means.
Then there is the story of the abortion and that is pretty harrowing because she did not have a quick termination, in the early stages of her pregnancy, she had it at twenty weeks, a saline abortion, so it was  absolutely horrendous. I cried over her account, it is impossible not to. She was twenty four years old at the time, on her own, Morrison, by then twenty six, did not want the baby - there were some twenty paternity suits brought against him, Morrison did sleep with many women - she was too scared to go ahead with the pregnancy. I will not consider here those rumours, voiced through other accounts, that she was not sure it was his, that's why she went ahead with the termination. They seem to be so cruel. I just think the whole thing was a nightmare and I do understand now why she keeps on referring to herself as the mother of Jim Morrison's unborn child because the abortion she had was an induced labour. She even had to sign a death certificate for the dead fetus, which was more or less the size of a lizard. A lizard baby, I guess,  but in saying this I don't want anyone to take it as a jibe, it really is not meant to be so.

Photographer: Nadia Lee Cohen 
Then there is the constant putting down of Pamela Courson, which after a while does get heavy handed - Kennealy comes across as insanely jealous of the affection Jim and Pam shared. Finally, there is the lashing out at Oliver Stone, who according to her misused the information she had given him. Stone makes out that the whole handfasting ceremony was something that Morrison did for kicks, for extra stimulation, even perhaps under the illusion of regaining sexual potency, and never regarded as anything but something he did whilst high. Kennealy truly believed in the sanctity of it. How she managed to persuade him to do it in the short time they were together is a mystery but there you are, he did go through with it. Kennealy's book came out after Stone's film, in which she even had a small role, and is meant to redress the balance. Many people seem to be unhappy about how Stone portrayed them, he took some licence with facts and events but Kennealy, played so brilliantly by Kathleen Quinlan (even Kennealy liked her though she can't help noticing that Quinlan was "several inches shorter than I", has the best lines in the film "Come on rock god f*** me, f***me good" so she should not complain. Overall I think Stone took her quite seriously and turned her into a Yoko Ono kind of figure, which is quite flattering. But Yoko Ono she is not.
Reading the book was a very emotional experience for me. I found myself curled up on my sofa, unable to put the book down and then when it was all over - when the music's over, I should say - I just wondered why I had wasted a whole day reading about a reimagined love affair with a rock star that has been dead so many years, of whom I am not even a proper fan. What is it to me? I could not find any common ground and was annoyed with myself. Only later I understood what it was. There is something about Kennealy that scares me and also touches me deeply and that is her inability to come to terms with the fact that Jim Morrison was not so much into her after some initial genuine interest yet she turned the whole thing into transcendental, immortal love, the stuff of epic romances and hangs on to this till today, several decades later. For all her claims to be independent and able to stand on her own two feet she barely manages to disguise that she was in hot pursuit of Jim Morrison, whom she must have inundated with calls and letters - pre-email days - and stalked around the country. This is something that sometimes happens to the best of women, it is a kind of addiction as bad as alcohol or smack or anything else and something that they will not admit to because admitting it is most mortifying. For Kennealy it was a very f***ed  up rock god, for other women it is a more ordinary, also f***ed up man whom they put on a pedestal and reimagine as a god, but the feelings are just the same. It is the chase for the man who is already attached and/or emotionally unavailable for a host of reasons. He may not necessarily be bad, that's why I dislike the term toxic men. It's just the wrong relationship at the wrong time with the wrong man.

Quinlan and Kilmer as Kennealy and Morrison. Courtesy: Cinematic Passions by Miranda Wilding
Had Kennealy been able to shake the ghost of Jim Morrison off her, her book could have been an amazing read about a decade that has now gone, but which meant so much, a book full of insights, witty and funny, as undoubtedly she sometimes is and can be. Unfortunately, she never did and instead 'wallowed in the mire' (Ok I do know a few Doors songs, soundtrack of my teenage years together with a few others. I was for example a great fan of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground).
 I would recommend this book to any woman  struggling to understand her need to get involved with unavailable men. As Lowe puts it "Dating an emotionally unavailable man is like climbing Everest with your flip flops". It seems to me that this is what Kennealy has attempted to do, had a near-fatal fall in the process and she is still bearing the consequences of that fall.