Sage Sohier, Witness to Beauty @Foley

JTF (Just the facts): A total of 18 photographs (17 color, 1 black-and-white), matted and framed in white, and hung against white walls in the eastern room and the foyer of the gallery. All the works are archival pigment prints. Twelve are issued in editions of 5; eight in editions of 3. Two white wooden vitrines, containing magazines and tearsheets, stand in the middle of the main space. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was published in 2016 by Kehrer Verlag (here). Hardcover, 108 pages, 96 color and black-and-white illustrations, 12×11 inches, with essays by Marvin Heiferman and the photographer. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: An obvious truth seldom acknowledged is that some people are destined to be better looking than others. Before the age of 10, children from Alabama to Zanzibar are able to identify which boys and girls, moms and dads, are attractive and which are not. Ideals of beauty may fluctuate across cultures and eras, and ugly ducklings can grow into swans. But contrary to any code of laws designed to ensure equal opportunity for all, the genetic code dictates who is born with a tall and trim physique, high cheek bones, unblemished skin, thick hair, luminous eyes, straight teeth, and a beguiling smile.

A few lucky oddities maintain physical integrity past middle age or, even more unfairly, improve on earlier versions of themselves. The editor Ben Bradlee was a more handsome buck at 65, with a splash of gray in his sideburns, than as a callow Harvard undergrad. Georgia O’Keeffe was sexier at 90, wearing her wrinkles in New Mexico’s deserts with incomparable aplomb, than she was as the naked 30-year-old muse for Stieglitz. Harry Belafonte and Clint Eastwood are over 80 and still virile dudes.

The photographer Sage Sohier is personally familiar with this injustice. Her mother, neé Wendy Burden, is a former New York debutante and fashion model who, in the late 1940s, was photographed by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Philippe Halsman, and other notables. Miss Burden’s lovely face was seen on the covers of Life and Look.

Sohier’s book, from which the Foley show is excerpted, is both a tribute to her mother, young and old, as well as, indirectly, a self-portrait. The camera being one of the chief means for perpetuating ideals of beauty and marking the passage of time, her project is also about photography—what it reveals and disguises.

Both mother and daughter recognized a glamour imbalance early on and it seems to govern their relationship to this day. “As a child I grew up as a witness to her beauty,” Sohier writes in the book. “I used to lie on her bed, with the dogs, and watch her try on clothes and study herself critically in the mirror. As I grew older, there was no use competing with her and so I assumed my position, quite happily, on the other side of the camera.”

A black-and-white photograph from 1980—it’s the first one in the book and is also included in the show—describes what must have been a common domestic sight: her mother assessing her face and figure in a mirror, wearing a low-cut gown while half-a-dozen rejected outfits lie strewn around her bedroom.

There are numerous precedents for the sober, clear-eyed intimacy Sohier was after in this project: Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home, Mitch Epstein’s Family Business, Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters, Sophie Calle’s Rachel, Monique, and Tina Barney’s portraits of her sister, brother, and sons, to name a few.

The task that Sohier has set for herself, though, is more fraught and delicate. If Sultan and Barney ask you to guess whether a picture was staged or spontaneous—and Sohier herself has often employed such doubts to add tension to a scene, especially when photographing people and their pets—she knows it won’t help her in portraying a calculating and self-conscious subject who was once a model. Having worked for the strictest task masters in the fashion business, her mother knows how to compose her features into a mask, which angles and light and make-up and clothing colors will create desired effects.

Sohier finally decided it was useless to think of catching her subject unawares. As a result, the poses are almost uniformly formal. Sohier’s choice of a view camera and tripod limits the improvisational gifts she has demonstrated often before. In some cases here—Singing for the Christmas Guests (2006), Imperial Dinner (2008), Mum and Dick on His Last Day (2011)—the rigidity dampens whatever emotional sparks might have ignited the performance under less controlled conditions.

Her mother also no doubt harbored anxious concerns about how she would be portrayed by her daughter. Honesty is not always the best policy with someone you love. Sohier’s evident pride in her mother’s life-long beauty and theatrical grandeur needed to be balanced by candor if their relationship was to be compelling in a photograph. Given these constraints, Sohier does a credible job. While picturing her mother’s freckled hands and arms, signs of aging that no fashion magazine would allow in its pages, she was also documenting her own attempts (facials, swimming) to mitigate the body’s inevitable ruinous decline.

One can see that, if she had wanted to devote herself to her appearance, daughter could have kept pace with mother in the looks department. Clearly, though, Sohier has decided not to, and probably not because she doesn’t consider herself pretty enough.

The series seems to have originated in 1994, when she photographed her mother as she was seated in front of a vanity table and studying herself in a heart-shaped hand mirror, both reflected in the room’s larger mirror surveyed by Sohier’s camera. This image was first reprinted in her book Perfectible Worlds (2007), a group of people who are giving it their all to live inside their own bubbles, whether by constructing doll houses or reenacting the American Revolutionary War. That 1994 photograph is a centerpiece in this show.

A lot of mirrors can be observed or detected in her photographs, and there are even more reflective surfaces (water in swimming pools, lakes, bathtubs.) The symbols of Narcissus, the son of a God trapped in self-regard, are scattered throughout the book. Despite the devout admiration for her mother in these scenes, Sohier seems to be an extra in them. A life that depends on the approving gaze of others is evidently not for her. She is careful not to satirize her mother, although a generational distance clearly separates them. Sohier is the more independent woman, a professional photographer who studies the world rather than is looked at for a living. The sad fact is that models need photographers more than the other way around.

The lifestyle of upper-middle class WASP women in post-WWII America is another subtext to Witness to Beauty. If the backgrounds to the portraits can be relied on as socio-economic indicators, Sohier’s mother has enjoyed a comfortable life, with no serious money worries. It’s a risk for Sohier to show us the expensive chintz-upholstered furniture in her mother’s Washington, D.C. home, the conventional paintings on the walls, the vacations at the Four Seasons resorts. Those who didn’t grow up with these advantages are bound to feel some resentment. Sohier would have been two-faced, though, if she had tried to hide that she has a shared upbringing in this milieu.

Men have tended to be more forthright about the gradual, unwelcome process of aging on their bodies. The photographs of John Coplans and Lee Friedlander have exposed their graying tufts of body hair and double chins with comic gusto. Although many women have photographed themselves recovering from plastic surgery or the indignities of childbirth, not many have exhibited the nerve of, say, Ann Noggle in celebrating the slackening of the body’s envelope and other physical imperfections.

Sohier’s take on growing old is tender, her feelings for her mother sweetly protective. With caveats, this view of her family could be called feminist. Her book is a matriarchal group portrait that includes her sister Laine. The men here—her father and step-father—are bit players

She is too discreet to give her mother’s age but from the date on a childhood photo in the book, Mrs. Morgan must be 90 this year. To judge from the photographs taken in 2014, she is no less a majestic presence now than in her thirties. One can guess why. Sohier reproduces a color photograph by Horst from a 1948 issue of Vogue of two dark-haired beauties, wearing sleeveless gowns and seated back-to-back on pink satin. The caption reads “Mrs. Dan Platt Caulkins (right) and her daughter, Miss Wendy Burden.” Or, as Sohier refers to them in a note: “Mum and Gran.”

Some parents inherit and pass along the beauty gene to their offspring. Sohier’s family seems to be one of those lucky few.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $5000 for the smaller prints (+ $500 for the frame) to $7000 for the larger prints (+$600 for the frame.) Sohier’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Sage Sohier, Foley Gallery, Kehrer Verlag

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Children photographing their parents is a particularly interesting portraiture niche in photography. It’s nearly always the case that the parent will do whatever is asked in a show of support for their offspring. Perhaps here, as mentioned, the subject’s vast experience in front of a lens means a mask is offered by default.

    The most beguiling composed portraits of this ilk I’ve seen was many years ago at an exhibition of photos by primary school children, maybe 8 year-olds, of their parents, from what seemed a fairly impoverished socio-economic catchment area. This army of earnest students brought back technically imperfect but emotionally perfect moments of familial intimacy that no outsider could ever have captured. They were brimful of love.

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