I was sitting at a Starbucks in Hollywood waiting for a friend when a striking young woman walked in. She was in her early 20s, with long hair, long limbs, flawless skin and large, dark eyes. The place grew quiet. Men, women, baristas, all were stunned by her perfection. None of us were ugly, but she was extraordinary. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," Keats wrote. Yet it is the transitory nature of beauty that attracts us. Sunsets, puppies, smog-free days do not last. That exquisite girl could gain 100 pounds or contract leprosy; certainly, she will age, sag and wrinkle. Even knowing that, we are riveted.
What is our fascination with beauty? Furtively, I sometimes flip back to the grainy black-and-white Calvin Klein underwear ad to ogle the model's flat stomach, the curve of hip and collarbone. My husband walks up and I quickly turn the newspaper page. "Uprising in Madagascar," I exclaim. Am I hoping Kate Moss will rub off on me? Or do I need more proof that I will never measure up? It's a masochistic push and pull, both futile and shallow, yet I crave it.
A 1999 study at the University of Toronto concluded that women who scrutinize fashion magazines come away angry and depressed. Pornography also can leave the viewer feeling disgruntled and dissatisfied. But people keep buying Vogue and Hustler. Voyeurism may not help us, but we can't help ourselves. So we sell it in coffee-table art books about the breast, the nude, the pubescent waif. If it's a black-and-white photography book expensively bound, it's considered OK to stare.
Just in time for the holidays, an eclectic stack of art books -- all concerned with beauty and image -- has come out. After all, 'tis the season of inadequacy. We are bombarded with commercials showing functional families enjoying snowball fights in cashmere and glittery parties where no one gets drunk on the eggnog and throws up in the bushes. We can never give enough, be enough or make enough holiday magic to fill our stockings, much less our souls.
I could give "Two Million Miles" (Te Neues: 240 pp., $85) to my best friend, but she'd probably end Christmas night sobbing into her hot cocoa, "I will never have legs like Charlize Theron!" And what is the point? Andrew MacPherson's compendium of years of glamour photography is a dressed-up version of People magazine. We are all fascinated with celebrity; it's the same impulse that makes us slow down as we pass by car wrecks. But he doesn't tell us anything new. He so carefully art-directs his subjects -- Theron, Johnny Depp, Janet Jackson, Bono and many others -- that each becomes lifeless. Even the U2 concert photos feel airbrushed. No one sweats.
For sheer perfection without angst, I recommend "Alberto Vargas: Works From the Max Vargas Collection" by Reid Stewart Austin (Bulfinch: 144 pp., $45). These paintings from Vargas' nephew's collection are obviously the product of female idolatry. No real woman could be that plump yet firm, that blemish-free, that perky and curvaceous without help from a surgeon. Vargas is a master, and the progression of his work from 1920s posters for Ziegfeld to painstakingly drawn pubic hair for Playboy in 1972 is a delight. His life story is well told by Austin. Vargas was married once and forever to a pretty but very real woman. His obsession with lovely legs and shoes came from his schoolboy glimpse of a teacher's button-up boot. The first black pinup for Playboy in 1964 was a Vargas creation. She was the perfect uncontroversial choice, like frosted cake, a luscious, creamy, boneless confection. His drawings seem to breathe on the page.
Photography is uniquely static. Henri Cartier-Bresson described it as capturing the "decisive moment." With a snap of the shutter, an entire life is frozen. What fascinates me is imagining what happened next. What was the moment after, and the one after that? Can a photo be prescient? If I look carefully enough, can I see the future? Take "Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis" by Alfred Wertheimer (Insight Editions: 244 pp., $65; special limited edition, $395). I am not an Elvis fan -- although an Elvis impersonator officiated at my sister's second wedding. Still, I could not take my eyes off these pictures. At 21, Elvis was pouty and sexy, slick as his pomade. Did I see despair in his eyes because I knew he would end up a bloated parody of himself, dying ignominiously on his bathroom floor? The photos of his family and the Colonel hovering over him, the series of him pushing against the luncheonette girl in the hallway, were not celebrations of his burgeoning career but predictions of doom. Or was I projecting?