In general, I prefer the caught in the moment action image. I like the informal glimpse into the life of the photographed as if they don't know that they are being caught on film. I like the idea of catching "A Life in Context" and I think that this is generally best done in snapshot type photos. However, there is something about the image of a woman dressed in her finery that I find alluring. It pulls my imagination back into another time and place faster than most other types of images. Posed in sumptuous dress with attention given to her setting, whether a Victorian, flapper, or 40s belle, the subject of a formal portrait like the one to the left is highly feminine and nationalistic.
Dress, hairstyle, pose, and environment are staged by the photographer to make these women look their best. Soft focus and carefully crafted lighting also helps to create a mood based in a bygone era. The women of these portraits are an American (or Western) ideal that is perhaps best expressed through the art of photography. These portraits show a "feminine" quality that promotes an envisaged view of the perfect woman. The women of these portraits display a dreamy quality. They can be said to reflect what many women want to be and the qualities that many men want their partners to have. They display a comfortable lifestyle and contentedness that we wish for ourselves and our fellow citizens. The prevalence of these images reflects the role of the female experience in shaping society and in developing our sense of history. They provide both insight into a woman's sense of personal identity, while also showing the context and collective molding of a national identity. This picture is what it means to be a successful American to many, many people.
Yes, I realize this is a narrow and somewhat flawed view of our society, leaving big gaping holes for stereotypes, chauvinism and other negatives to leak through. I realize that there are many potential arguments against idealizing this kind of display of wealth and this sort of objectification of women. The allure of the idea that we might all be able to get closer to this world of "perfection" by identifying with a portrait is at least in part fantasy, but I think it hits a sentimental button much like the Disney princess phenomenon. There are good points and bad points to the stereotype, yet there is still an attraction to it.
Nonetheless, I love these images for their beauty and sentimentalism despite any negative connotations that can be conjured from them. In the context of American life, these images tell a lot about our values and our history as a community. They tie themselves to an American dream that is evident in other forms of visual arts from the late nineteenth, early twentieth century period and in our literature from those times. As "orphan" photographs, these posed images ground the unidentified woman in a culture that forms a large piece of the American narrative. As items from the world of archives, they document the lives our foremothers led and reflect an image toward which we have been taught to strive.
Looking for more about women in portraiture? please see
Interested in more images of women? Here are a few great resources from archival repositories:
Harvard University Library Open Collections Program Women Working
Library of Congress Women's History Picture Pathfinder
Women's History Photos on Flickr from the Smithsonian
Brooklyn Public Library Women's History Photo Gallery