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Marine. Photo by Eric Francis. Alt version here.

A Spy in the House of Glamour

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ALICE A. BAILEY, the theosophical philosopher (author of Esoteric Astrology), suggested that glamour was one of the world's most serious spiritual problems. Her point, I gather from some reading and contemplation, is that glamour is a distortion of reality which blinds us to God and the more subtle human realms, such as awareness of our soul. She describes it in one book as a kind of false light that blocks the true light of the world, and as a man-made state that puts serious impediments on free will.

Today's cover is from a fashion show held last night as part of something called European Development Days. Every now and then the European Commission (a branch of Europe's staggering national bureaucracy) does something fun (by government standards, anyway) and part of this week-long exhibition hall extravaganza involved a display of clothing by designers with an African and Caribbean flavor.

I ended up there last night because one day about a month ago, I was walking down a posh shopping street on the way home from buying seaweed, and outside a clothing store was a woman standing smoking a cigarette looking pretty forlorn. Since I was on a combined expedition to the health food store and urban photo safari, I had my cameras. We almost met like we had an appointment. She seemed to recognize me at first glance; her name is Patricia. She was standing there trying to figure out what to do about her problem: she was a clothes designer, and had models about to arrive for a photo shoot, but had no photographer to work. Could I help out?

I told her yes, in half an hour -- my picture cards were full, so I had to go home and clear them, and I needed more equipment. So I went home, came back, and did my first fashion photography gig. This was on Cosmic Tuesday, by the way, that day when anything you did or thought was supposed to be magnified by a blast of ultraviolet radiation that increased its power 1 million-fold.

So it was, and so it was then, that I started a new branch of my hobby, and last night wound up photographing this event where the champagne flowed freely and the room was full of God knows hoo-ha visiting from the hierarchy of corporations and the diplomatic community and the government...and a diversity of extraordinarily beautiful African and metisse (mixed-race) models starring in the show.

Honestly, I had no idea how I would respond in such environments, as my politics, ideals and theory of sex seem to be so dead-set against this kind of thing. What I noticed, however, was how much fun I was having. After working a few gigs, I also noticed how down to Earth the models were: not like relating to magazine pictures, but rather to affable humans. I was expecting to be treated with the height of snobbery by women who could cause a traffic accident just walking down the street. Instead, it turned out that my talents and presence were welcome.

And as so often happens, relating to people who are doing their best to bring their creativity into the world has an odd way of making things seem something other than evil. (I have never had this feeling on the phone with a Monsanto secretary, however.)

The way femininity is presented at a fashion show is the sexual equivalent of touching the flame of a blow torch. Catwalking is all in the hips, and these women know how to move their pelvic regions so you just have to notice. Admittedly, I may be the only one in the room not in denial about how shockingly sexy they are, but I'm not sure because everyone is trying to play it so damned cool. I respond from my emotions outward, and often I have to remind myself to pick up the camera and take the pictures.

I also know some of the girls well enough to know that they bear little resemblance in real life to what they present on stage. They just would not act like that in the supermarket any more than David Beckham would kick a cantaloupe down the produce aisle. They are not famous or successful enough that it's gone to their heads (okay Beck is a bad example then); they're still making their way through the relatively early stages of an extremely competitive business. They have to do exactly what they're told. They know that unless they are very well established, there is always someone more beautiful. My impression of most of them is that they are fairly conservative, modest, and best of all, there is no attitude that gets in the way of a conversation.

Because I can go backstage, I know that the whole thing is a show, that they are in fact actors, and that they are also hard working young people doing their best to live on their talents. The problems begin, however, when women in the reading/viewing/consuming audience emulate the front part of the show (the blank looks, the sexy poses, the blow-torch routine) without recognizing that it's an act; using an old expression, putting on a glamour. The models know its an act; because it's such a good act, you might not notice from the audience. You might imagine perfect lives of perfect people, forget they are often as insecure as the rest of us; people who have to reveal themselves as part of work, take risks to do what they are doing, and rise above all the conditioning that says they are not perfect enough -- conditioning that would stop most other people.

The same is true for the designers: both Patricia and her business partner Jennifer (who promoted the event) are about 27 years old and -- particularly for Europeans, who tend to think a lot more inside the box than Americans -- they are extremely daring, enterprising, they work 18 hour days and they always have another gig coming up. Get me around that energy and my first response is usually, "How can I help?"

I'm aware that there are many dark sides to this business. I have spent a lot of time interpreting the messages of fashion photography, and I don't like most of them. I know from the last couple of decades of my reporting career that if trouble is anywhere nearby, I'll have no problem finding out about it. I am fully aware that I have not sat down and done something that will be telling -- eaten food with any of them.

Meanwhile, my role is to photograph human beings and present them as such; and to photograph the creative work of the designers and make it useful to them. Photography touches my deepest humanitarian streak. I cannot do work that does not affirm life. But perhaps more than any of this, I would appear to have the freedom just to be there, to appreciate the whole scene, to learn something about photography, and support people I'm truly growing to like a lot in doing their best work.

That, you know, and -- it's quite a party. I can hardly remember when I've had so much fun outside my own apartment.

More next week. We'll have archive quotes over the weekend, and some cover photos from Paris by Danielle Voirin.