Two photography exhibits examine beauty, seen and unseen

“Posing Beauty” at Spelman College and “Unseen Spirit” by Chester Higgins at the Dawkins Gallery pose stark questions about the notions of beauty

Here was the scene at a recent reception for the photography exhibition, “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.

Two older women stood shaking their heads in obvious disapproval in front of the photograph “Here Comes the Girls,” by Bayete Ross Smith. In the picture, taken in 2005, three teenage girls pose at the prom.

One girl has ornamented her blond bob with sea-foam green streaks to match her scanty, halter-back dress. In the middle stands her friend in a butter-yellow frock with a neckline that plunges well below her ribcage, and her spike-heeled silver gladiator sandals lace all the way up her calves. The third girl wears a white dress that would be the most modest of the three except that its ruffled hem stops just below her derriere. The trio smile confidently, gloriously, and they look like a millennial reboot of the 1990s hip-hop group TLC.

But the two older women looking at the photo stared and grumbled about how scandalous the girls looked and what a shame it was that their mothers let them go out looking like that. Just across the museum from them was another photograph, which might have met their definition of appropriate teenage loveliness. In the 2007 picture “Beauty on West 142nd Street” by Lewis Watts, a young girl stands in the middle of a street in Harlem, smiling demurely and clad in her debutante-ball finest: elbow-length gloves, fur stole, and a white tulle gown so long it sweeps the street.

The notion of what constitutes beauty and how we define it and judge it courses through “Posing Beauty,” (through Dec. 7). It also echoes through “Unseen Spirit,” an exhibition of the work of renowned photographer Chester Higgins Jr., at the Arnika Dawkins Gallery in Atlanta (through Nov. 29). Both shows examine these issues as they relate to black people from Africa to the Americas, but in somewhat different ways.

In the Spelman show, curated by MacArthur fellow and New York University photography department chairwoman Deborah Willis, the exploration of black beauty spans 12 decades. Willis does it provocatively. She begins with a wall-sized blow-up of a reward notice for a runaway slave named Dolly, who apparently fled the ownership of Louis Manigault in Augusta, Ga., during the Civil War. What is remarkable about the notice is that Dolly’s picture is appended to it and Manigault refers to her as “rather good looking” and says he fears she has been “enticed off by some white man.” His lengthy $50 reward notice reads more like a plea of longing than a threat.

From there Willis leads the viewer on, from photographs by the late 1800s photographer of Atlanta’s black elite, Thomas Askew, to contemporary artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Annie Leibovitz. The photographers’ race wasn’t as important to Willis as the race of their subjects.

“There are black, white and Latino photographers in this exhibit because I wanted to work with photographers who were in collaboration with their subjects in looking at notions of beauty and who also understood them,” said Willis. “And a level of humanity was essential to that on the part of the photographers.”

So there is the image by Weegee (Arthur Fellig) of well-dressed folks on “Easter Sunday in Harlem,” that radiates confidence and self-assurance. A photo by Ernest Withers of soul legend Isaac Hayes sporting a striped, blouson shirt that complements the striped wallpaper in his office doesn’t read so much as the photographer’s mockery of Hayes as it does Withers’ acknowledgement of the singer’s boldly confident style. And there is the work of noted Atlanta photographer Sheila Pree Bright, which merges the bodies and faces of real women with those of Barbie dolls, suggesting a troubling notion of what some consider beautiful. Bright’s “Plastic Bodies,” is done with a knowing eye, if not a sympathetic one.

From “Dolly,” at the beginning of the show, to a particular nude called “American Family” by Renee Cox, what is black and beautiful, or not, is explored in every frame.

At the Cascade Road Dawkins Gallery, the work of Higgins also explores beauty but from what Higgins said is a more spiritual side. For decades, this rural-Alabama-born photographer has been on the staff at the New York Times. But he has developed a strong body of work and devoted following for his own photographs of people of color he has been shooting since the late 1960s. A protégé of Gordon Parks and schooled early on by the photo editor of Look magazine, Higgins has viewed his work as something of a mission to challenge negative imagery of African-Americans in particular.

“I don’t believe in sacrificing the character of a person on the altar of their condition,” Higgins said. “I grew up surrounded by dignity, love and compassion. So my pictures are always sympathetic and I make no apologies for it.”

He brings this subjectivity to the photos in this exhibit, including the iconic “Moslem Woman,” in which the soft gaze of a woman is all but shrouded by her hijab. It’s there in the tender face of a Ghanaian girl on her way to school. She is a counterpoint to the common, mainstream image of the starving African child.

“You can tell this child is loved,” Higgins said. “Look at how her eyebrows are groomed, look at the little bit of color on her lips. Somebody fixed this child up for school that day.”

The idea that a photograph reveals a subject’s interior life is well-worn. But a photograph says just as much about the person taking it, including the photographer’s culture, attitudes, values and value judgments, said Higgins. In that vein, Higgins said he believes the visual record is still lacking when it comes to popular images of people of color that convey a sense of beauty. For him, visual representation even now is a high-stakes element when it comes not only to the way they are seen by others, but how they see themselves.

The 35 images in “Unseen Spirit” are a testament to that.