Sunday, December 14, 2008

The 1950s--Suspended

You know, I really don't mind saying that I, like millions of others, really dug Bettie Page.

Bettie somehow personified the true nature of sexuality for me. In Dan Savage's terms she always appeared to simply be 3G--good, giving, and game.

Even in the "dark world" of bondage, Bettie was clearly in it for the fashion. She always had a look about her that said it was just about having fun. Fun that was in painfully short supply in her life.

Bettie liked kitsch--leopard prints, for example, figure repeatedly in her work.

She made many of her own costumes (yeah, I know, she's frequently naked), and for a period was a fixture in the world of New York "camera clubs". Groups of amateur photographers would pitch in to hire a communal model to pose for them. Occasionally the shutters clicking would be fronting empty cameras, as film was an additional expense that could be foregone, but here was a real model willing to get naked in front of you. The number of photographers (many of whom have hidden their shots of Bettie away to this day) made her arguably the "most photographed woman in history." Search the web for pictures of Bettie and you'll see what that means.

Bettie's bangs have become iconic, as iconic as Bettie herself. In front of the camera, Bettie was in control--something sadly lacking in her personal life. She was somehow the consummate model, different for every shot, and yet letting the "real" Bettie shine through.

Whether in fetish gear, leopard prints, or nothing at all, Bettie always gave off an aura of comfort with herself and her body in front of the camera. This sense of sexual positivity cost her--most obviously when she was called upon by Congress to explain the bondage films and stills she appeared in for Irving Klaw.

Bettie eventually left modelling and spent time in Angola as a missionary, spent time in an LA mental institution, and generally dropped out of sight. Eventually she found her way back to those who still loved her, still idolized her.

She even made a few bucks off her image (and who better!?). But she was clear on one point: no pictures. She didn't want to be remembered for who she'd become, but for who she'd been.

She wanted us all to stay in that lovely world she and her photographers had created, and I, for one, am happy to acquiesce. The world is not smaller for her leaving, it remains the same--a place where Bettie happily performs for the camera, we are happy to be complicit in the act, and Bettie is happy to have us watching.

What Was It About Bettie Page?
The Radiance of Bettie Page, 1923 - 2008
Bettie Page

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