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October 29, 2007

Bon-Ton Sexy Babes

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Sometimes my daughter complains when I write about sexy stuff -- like many younger people, including myself years ago, she seems to feel that one's own parents live on a higher plane than the rest of the world.

For that reason, and in part because I blog using my own name, and mostly because Michael is the 2B go-to guy on sexy topics, I usually write about other things. There are exceptions, of course. Here I wrote about pin-up artists. And here I wondered why a noticeable share of gals posing for girlie calendars and covers of magazines dealing with guy-hobbies (hot rods, trucks, motor cycles, etc.) looked like they had IQs on the south side of 90.

But most things, including sexy pictures of women, are aligned on a continuum; there can be found other species of models than the vapid variety. Speaking of models, fashion photographer Helmut Newton would use some of the models from his fashion shoots in nude, arty-yet-semi-erotic poses. Haute-couture fashion models seldom look stupid. Those models, along with Newton's lighting and other technical skills (not to mention a slightly surrealistic aesthetic disposition) rendered his nude photos art, rather than porn, to many observers.

Newton did much of this work in the 1980s and 90s. Another, now nearly unknown, photographer who did astonishing work was Alfred Cheney Johnston whose career apogee was the 1920s when he was the main photographer for Florenz Ziegfeld's famed Ziegfeld Follies.

Needless to say, when it came gorgeous women with a theatrical bent, Ziegfeld was able to select the cream of that crop. Johnston took many hundreds of photos of them and other similarly beautiful women. Some of these pictures have been collected in this book (see cover below).


Johnston placed his subjects in "arty" poses, not the flamboyant ones used by Newton. Usually the women were partly clothed -- sometimes with nothing but a scarf draped over crossed legs. Even though many photos showed plenty of flesh, they seem curiously prim by today's loose standards. Moreover, I, at least, find Johnston's women more alluring than Newton's. Why is this so?

It's so because Johnston usually made the women seem classy whether or not they actually were. These women look dignified, not trashy and stupid. Partly this was Johnston's posing and use of props. But mostly it was because Ziegfeld selected classy-looking women in the first place. This is evident in some photos in the book where the women weren't from Ziegfeld; although most of his subjects -- Ziegfeld or not -- exuded quiet beauty, a few were ordinary or even less.

Another thing. Johnston's women are seen as being both beautiful and remote. Almost untouchably perfect. Forbidden fruit, if you will. In my opinion, this makes them far more attractive than the "democratized" "sexy" photos that are today's coin of the realm.

Am I wrong?



posted by Donald at October 29, 2007


Donald, you're absolutely right. Was thinking along similar lines myself, recently.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 29, 2007 4:40 PM

I coined what I think is a wonderful phrase to describe my ex-girlfriend's "limited" new guy.

She asked what I thought was wrong with him and I replied - 'wrong side of the bell curve, baby'

God, proud of myself!

She didn't get it though.

Posted by: B Wood on October 29, 2007 7:21 PM

Trivia: Ziegfield is often assumed to have been Jewish, like many people in entertainment, but he was actually of German Lutheran descent -- his father was a church musician. At the same time, before WWI the actually-Jewish Marx brothers performed a "German act" of a type then common (the Katzenjammer Kids still survive in cartoon form). Meanwhile, in the Austria-Hungarian Empire and Russia anti-German nationalists often included Jews in with the Germans. (E.G., the composer Musorgsky when talking about the composer Rubenstein). A lot has changed in a century.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 30, 2007 7:13 AM

In my opinion, this makes them far more attractive than the "democratized" "sexy" photos that are today's coin of the realm.

Do you think the latter-day ladies seem "obtainable" precisely because they seem so standardized and mass-produced (aka affordable Chinese factory goods)? (Yeah, I know, that may merit a "duh" in response, but you may care to expand.) The difference that leaps to my eye is that the Ziegfield models look soft, warm, and feminine - they may have an aura of "hands off!", but you know they'd be warm to the touch. The later ones look hard and cold, if not downright embalmed sometimes.

(Slightly OT, but I can remember being annoyed when the Newton-esque aesthetic first infested the glossy fashion magazines I enjoyed looking at: not only for its tediousness (oooh, S&M lite for the booboisie, how edgy) but because it drove out what little remained of prettiness and elegance, which was my only reason for exposing myself to their sales pitch, anyway.)

Posted by: Moira Breen on October 30, 2007 11:03 AM

No, Donald, you're not wrong. The best glamour photographers have always understood that it's the viewer's imagination that does the heavy lifting. A delicate balance between the alluring and the mysterious reaches locations that Helmut Newton's in-your-face-baby titillation cannot.

Posted by: Rick Darby on October 30, 2007 5:50 PM

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