This one is called Untitled (Purity). By Sophia Wallace.
  • Courtesy the artist
  • This one is called Untitled (Purity). By Sophia Wallace.
Sophia Wallace was born in 1978 in Seattle. She went to high school at NOVA. Then she went to the University of Ghana, to Smith, and then to NYU. Last year she had a show of photographs and video at the Vienna Kunsthalle, and now a selection of those works appear back here in Seattle, at the Photo Center Northwest's show Author and Subject.

Her series is called On Beauty. She hired male models, but shot them in "feminized" style: their bodies partly concealed, partly exposed; their gazes lowered, indirect; their expressions innocent yet come-hither; wearing makeup applied to highlight feminine aspects and diminish masculine aspects of their features. She simply treated the male models the way female models are typically prepared and photographed, in advertising, in magazines, in much art.

It's surprising and revealing how strongly the construction of femininity comes through, despite the fact that the models are plainly men. The clash of genders is apparent, even though the pictures are plain, understated, polished, entirely nonaggressive. The limitations of what we are each expected, or allowed, to do with our bodies are plain to see. Men just don't hold their hands, or their heads or shoulders, that way.

This one is called Untitled (Chastity). By Sophia Wallace.
  • Courtesy the artist
  • This one is called Untitled (Chastity). By Sophia Wallace.
There's also a video playing in the gallery, with headphones. On the screen each model appears in two views, frontal and profile, for a few seconds, silent, as the artist asks questions. The models' faces appear to be registering the questions and thinking about them, but they never answer. They remain modest, like classically agreeable females: seen, not heard.

The questions are about the experience of being photographed. "What was it like being posed the way I posed you? Did you ever feel that your body was not safe?" "How do you feel if someone says you're effeminate?" "What does it feel like as a male model to stand in for the idealized man?" "Do you like being looked at?" "What does it mean to be a man? Do you feel pressure to be strong all the time?" "What's the experience like of having to make yourself appear available to both men and women?" The viewer formulates rolling answers.

For the exhibition in Vienna, the kunsthalle released a very good video interview with Wallace. I recommend watching the whole thing. She explained that some of the models said they felt liberated being shot this way. But they all wiped off the makeup before going outside.