It was my first week on the job interning for the Annenberg Foundation and already I was sent to cover one of our IRIS Nights lectures, a favorite among dedicated fans.
That night Mark Laita spoke about his new photobook, Created Equal, a collection of black and white photo diptychs contrasting the portraits of everyday Americans by putting, for example, a picture of Baptist minister next to members of the Ku Klux Klan or nuns next to prostitutes. The inspiration for the project is incredible: Laita left behind his polished life in the advertising world to find the real America he grew up with, the one he wanted to make sure the world would never forget.
But what stuck out to me was not necessarily his professional or captivating photos (which are absolutely incredible) but the way he engaged us in the process. I found myself leaning forward, completely engrossed in every word, waiting on the edge of my seat for the next description of the photo pair.
His tales of having breakfast with the Hell's Angels, coercing an Amish man into being photographed or becoming best buds with some weed farmers had me and the rest of the audience rolling in laughter. It felt like you were getting to know his subjects personally and the portraits became more than pictures, they were real life people who were living in the same country as myself. But that was the point. He wanted to elevate the raw and rugged America to a place of glamor and importance.
"I was trying to find hidden gems that are normally overlooked," said Laita during his presentation, "It's not about finding these grand/great people, it's about finding the ordinary people and making them look great."
Later someone from the audience asked him what statement he was trying to make with comparing nuns to prostitutes. Laita just smiled and said he meant to pass no judgment; he simply wanted to ask the question, "How then can two girls grow up in the same county and have two completely different fates?"
And from where I was sitting it was mission accomplished for every picture I saw I asked myself the same question. There are two men who look strikingly similar and I asked myself so how is it that one became a CEO and the other a janitor?
Susan Anderson, an internationally known photographer and expert on the High Glitz culture of child pageantry, recently gave us her take on the industry at our Iris Nights Lecture.
Although she abstained from giving any formal opinion on the controversial subject of beauty contests, she did claim that this is not a new issue we are dealing with. Anderson put on the screen a classical painting of Aphrodite and the golden apple and posed the question, "could this have been the first beauty pageant?"
Her question was meant to explain that society has always idealized women and we have always been fascinated with the fairy tale ending. The fake eyelashes, the artificial tans, the thousand dollar hair dos, and the sparkly dresses all play into a preexisting culture that we are all partially responsible for creating.
Anderson admits that the most popular responses to her work are either to moralize or to laugh. But she offers a different response: to just present. She suggests that the little girls collaborate with her, that they have fun with it and it is their way to act, play a role and take a reality and make it their own.
She offers and interesting perspective because from where she stands it is simply art, it is fascinating and it is visually stunning.