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The faces of destiny

Yes, these images are captivating. Now look close to read the story of women's emergence in 20th century society.

March 12, 2004|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

Birth control crusader Margaret Sanger appears in one corner, Hollywood darlings Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish in another. A crane-necked Martha Graham dwells not far from a scowling Emma Goldman. Billie Holiday is here, emerging from a shadow, and Grandma Moses there, gazing wistfully past the curtains of her New York state farmhouse, while a little farther on Julia Child pauses beneath a curtain of Italian sausages in a crowded Boston market.

Viewed individually, the 70-plus faces that line the walls of "Women of Our Time: Twentieth-Century Photographs From the National Portrait Gallery," now at the Long Beach Museum of Art, have little in common besides their gender and relative name recognition.

Collectively, however, they bear witness to one of the most dramatic social shifts of the turbulent 20th century: the wide-scale emergence of women into the public sphere of American life.

The actual history of this shift, of course, is long and extremely complicated, its advances fraught with struggle and its progress far from complete, considering the disproportionately low number of women in Congress, leading corporations or directing feature films.

"Women of Our Time" presents a notably simplified version of this story, pairing each image with a short, anecdotal biography but offering little in the way of overview. One in a series of traveling exhibitions intended to showcase the collection of the National Portrait Gallery while that building is closed for renovation, the show has some stake in promoting the value of portraiture as a genre and the tone is understandably celebratory. Each face is presented as a document unto itself, each subject a brick in the growing edifice of American culture.

Think of it as history in cocktail party form, offering viewers an opportunity to mingle with important people, gaze unreservedly upon famous faces and gather snippets of edifying conversation.

There are considerable limitations to such an approach -- we learn only so much about the forest by focusing exclusively on the trees -- but the show accomplishes a great deal within them, thanks in large part to the consistently riveting quality of the images themselves. These aren't merely exceptional women, but exceptional women viewed through the eyes, in most cases, of outstanding photographers: Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott, Carl Van Vechten, Lisette Model, Arnold Newman, Irving Penn and others.

In presenting such a range of styles and tendencies, moreover -- from the staid formality of Victorian portraiture to the sharp lines of Steichen's modernism to the drama of Hollywood publicity shots -- the show says as much about the ongoing development of photographic language as it does about the personalities of the individual women.

The selection is far from encyclopedic, leaning notably toward the more commonly documented spheres of society, such as entertainment, fashion and sports. (As curator Frederick Voss states frankly in the catalog, the museum has been collecting photographs only since the mid-1970s and gaps inevitably remain.) But each image clearly has been chosen with care, whether for historical significance, aesthetic value or, most often, some combination of the two.

What the show lacks in scope, then, it makes up in curatorial integrity.

The approaches range from candid to self-consciously stylized, with noteworthy examples across the spectrum.

The candid shots are memorable for the glimpse they offer into the activities for which their subjects are best known. We see Joan Baez, for example, waiting attentively with her guitar in the wings of the 1963 civil rights demonstration in Washington; Janis Joplin howling fiercely in the onstage darkness of a New York concert; the Supremes twisting and swaying in a brightly lighted recording session; and Marilyn Monroe crooning for a mob of eager Korean War soldiers (in a photograph taken by a Navy medic lucky enough to find a seat near the front).

One Garry Winogrand image portrays a somber Diane Arbus with a daffodil stem clamped rather absurdly between her lips, taking photographs in the littered aftermath of an antiwar protest. Charmian Reading captures civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, sweat cascading down her dark, round face, in the midst of what looks to be a soul-stirring anthem. And, in one of the show's most beautiful images, Model depicts dancer and choreographer Pearl Primus -- who referred to dance, according to the wall text, as "the fist with which I fight the sickening ignorance of prejudice" -- suspended between spotlight and shadow in a wave of intoxicatingly sensual movement.

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