Author Archives: Devan

Chris Marker: Visualising women post-war, post-apocalypse

© Chris Marker Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery
© Chris Marker
Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery

The French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker wrote of the women he photographed on his travels: ‘I stare at them, but not enough, not long enough’. Paraphrasing the poet Valery Larbaud he mused: ‘perhaps, if I could catch up with them [his female subjects]… perhaps I could conquer a world. Or rather they would conquer a world for me’. The first photographs in Marker’s ‘Staring Back’ series, which spanned six decades (c.1950s- 2000s), featured subjects of both sexes in a post-colonial Cold War world, one in which France’s grip on its colonies was continually challenged, and the balance of global power had shifted from Europe to the United States and the USSR.

Marker, a progressive left-wing intellectual was conscious that he did not want to replicate the conventions of colonial European photographers who shot their subjects from the position of perceived racial and intellectual superiority. His above comment, that no amount of staring was sufficient to fully grasp the character of the subject, is pertinent because it suggests that he relinquished the photographer’s traditional claim to mastery over the subject. In a photograph of Russian girls listening to poetry, made in the 1950s, Marker positions himself as a witness to their engrossment. The girls are shot side-on in soft focus with their eyes downcast. The edges of the auditorium seats around them are blurred so as to suggest that everything is touched by the poetry’s rhythm. The girls’ sweaters seem non-descript second skins and the highlights at the crown of their heads take on a dandelion texture, which gives the impression that they too dissolve into the verse’s cadences. The vagueness of the composition appeals to the spectator’s sense of ‘haptic visuality’ which, as the film theorist Laura U. Marks argues, acknowledges the limitations of visual knowledge and uses the ‘resources of memory and imagination to complete’ the image. Haptic images, Marks continues, ‘force the viewer to contemplate the image instead of being pulled into the narrative’. Thus, the vague apparitions in Marker’s image elude their exact location and ethnicity and instead evoke the immediate and universal act of listening. While Marker does not pretend to fully compass his Soviet subjects, his soft-focus treatment indicates his empathy with their poetic transportation.

Marker’s interest in his female subjects’ elusiveness forms the subject of his 1962 ciné-roman La Jetée, a film composed almost entirely of black and white still images, which centres on the protagonist’s obsession with the image of a woman from his childhood. Even after he enters the post-apocalyptic scenario of World War III, he greets her in parallel universes. Although the film is set in the future, the female protagonist played by Hélène Chatelain aspires to a 1960s French New Wave conception of timelessness. Styled in unadorned black and white shift dresses, her face free from obvious make-up and her shoulder-length blonde hair flyaway or in a statuesque high chignon, Chatelain recalls Jeanne Moreau in Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film Jules et Jim. In both films the heroine’s understated styling enables a focus on the corporeal essentials that define the hero’s relentless fixation: the smile, the hair and the hands flying up to frame her face. As Janet Harbord argues, the woman’s hands ‘do not so much obfuscate her expression as stand in the place of it, and mediate it’. The fleeting encounters of the man and woman in their post-apocalyptic worlds reach varying levels of communion, as the film shows how an encounter with a childhood vision can be richly experienced, but not fully achieved.

Marker’s post-war images of women express his extraordinary sensitivity to the tiniest mutations in the female face. However, in the course of this poetic journey, he also exposes the futility of the photographer’s quest to capture the true essence of his mutable subjects.

The above works can be viewed at Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat at the Whitechapel Gallery until June 22, 2014.

Marker, C. (2014) ‘Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat’, Exhibition Wall Text, Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat, Whitechapel Gallery.

Marks, L. U. (1999) The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, p. 163.

Harbord, J. (2009) ‘Chris Marker: ‘La Jetée’ London: Afterall Books, p. 45.

Fashioning Astrology

Detail of ‘Come Meet Me in the Middle of the Air’ by Marta Brysha ( Photograph by Peter Whyte. Materials: embroidery and feathers on silk dupion.

Fashion and astrology, an ancient practice of divination that assumes a link between cosmological phenomena and human lives, in many ways form a natural complement because they are both seasonal and cyclical. The characteristics of each zodiac sign also correspond to fashion’s division of women into types. The latter is a marketing device used to appeal to the consumer’s desire to have a distinctive sense of identity within fashion’s endless variety and fluctuations. Fashion features that typecast by complexion, age or body shape often focus on bringing the physical body more in line with the fashionable ideal. Conversely, astrological typecasting, where style advice is based on mythical traits rather than empirical facts operates on an imaginative, experiential level.

In the process of astro-fashion, stylists and astrologers often promote the appearance of nearer stars: celebrities. The Australian astrologer Mystic Medusa ( uses fashion imagery to illustrate cosmological phenomena on her blog. She argues that ‘certain models and celebrities act as Muses, channeling the public imagination… they (give) out projections, like uber-Jung archetypes’. In Mystic Medusa’s experience the most potent style icons have Neptune, the planet of imagination and dreams, and the zodiac sign of Leo, the attention-seeking male lion, in prominent positions of their birth chart.

Coco Chanel, a conscious Leo, was one of the first women to typecast herself astrologically. As her biographer Justine Picardie has observed, Chanel’s affinity with her sun sign infiltrated her aesthetic: lion motifs were embossed onto her buttons and jewellery, and she named her most famous perfume Number 5 after Leo’s position in the Zodiac. Arguably, for Chanel the lion’s embodiment of leadership and majesty was a foil for her promotion of these conventionally masculine qualities through fashion.

Nowadays, the Chanel model and Leo, Cara Delevingne promotes the lion’s extrovert audacity with her abundant golden mane, cutting-edge designer clothes and a lion tattoo on her index finger. Delevingne’s Instagram profile juxtaposes snapshots of male lions pulling kooky grimaces with her own playful poses. Like Chanel, Delevingne draws upon her sun sign’s symbolism to project the image of a tomboyish fashion leader, but also projects her wild nonchalance.

Although Chanel and Delevingne have used astrology as a means of self-differentiation, stylist-astrologers in magazines have often encouraged readers to emulate a celebrity-type. Thus, for Librans like myself, the harmoniously erotic aspects of our ruler Venus are mediated through Gwyneth Paltrow’s flowing neutrals or Dita Von Teese’s saucy coordinates. While Aphrodite of Knidos had the idealised proportions of c.400 BC, the pixel-perfected media images of Paltrow and Von Teese form modern approximations of the Venusian type. Although the comparison to a media idol with the same star sign ought to be flattering, it can also feel stereotypical and emotionally inauthentic.

Mystic Medusa argues that while there is ‘a grain of truth’ in these celestial-terrestrial star identifications, being stylistically ‘in tune with your astral DNA’ comes from a fuller knowledge of your birth chart. She maintains that dressing for your ascendant, the zodiac sign and planets rising on the eastern horizon at the moment of your birth, which determine your physical persona, is more effective than dressing for your sun sign. Thus with dreamy sea planet Neptune in steely Capricorn in my ascendant my cosmically auspicious look should combine formal and ethereal elements. While I’m positively uncomfortable in anything too structured and boxy, I love black for its simplicity and am something of a mermaid with wavy hair and a penchant for pearls, scalloping and hour-long showers.

It may be that astrological insight reinforces what I already know about myself and my style, but it also evokes the feeling that the pearls, aquatic motifs and little black dresses I have always loved are uncannily appropriate for me. If the scientists are right, and we are made of star dust, why should we not have the option of dressing in a way that enhances our stellar material makeup?

5 minutes with… Carey Gibbons

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Carey Gibbons is a Fourth Year PhD student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, supervised by Professor Caroline Arscott. She was born and grew up in Memphis Tennessee, lived in New York City for ten years, and came to the Courtauld in 2009.

What are you wearing?

A black sweatshirt with a giant shark made out of rhinestones and little orange spikes for the teeth, a black fake leather skirt, black leggings and black lace-up ankle boots.

Where did you find the shark sweater?

I got it from the Forever 21 store in Chicago in January.

What has been its biggest adventure to date?

I’ve only worn it a few times, but I wore it with James (my boyfriend) to the Apple store and we took a bunch of photos on their computer. I guess you could say this shirt brings out my playful side.

Why did you want to look playful today?

It was raining and I was feeling down so I put it on and I felt more upbeat and motivated. Because a shark is a fierce creature it helps me attack my day with ferocity, perseverance and determination. Bam! (pumps the air with her fist)

Is this what you wear to the Courtauld typically?

Yes, it’s pretty typical. I like wearing clothes that incorporate animals in some way. I have a lot of clothes with animal print. I have animal jewellery. I have a shark-tooth necklace which is really important to me and a fox necklace made out of rhinestones that I really like wearing.

Is there a practical aspect to what you’re wearing?

I wear black leggings a lot because they’re really comfortable. My boots are flat… I like to wear flats or low heels so that I’m comfortable.

How does being a PhD student as opposed to a staff member or undergraduate influence how you dress?

I think if I was a staff member or a postdoctoral fellow, then I would make more of an effort to look professional, but for now I’m celebrating the opportunity to wear whatever I want and express myself through my clothes.

What makes you stand out from other Courtauldians?

(Laughs) I seek to combine the sweet and the vicious in my clothes. I would say that other Courtauldians exude a less eclectic vibe and they go for one dominant style, whereas I celebrate my contradictions!

Is there anything about your appearance or dress that marks you out as a Courtauldian?

Courtauldians imbue poise and confidence. Despite going for an eclectic look, I always try and look like I’m composed.

Has your PhD in Victorian illustration inspired your dress sense at all?

Since studying Victorian illustration I’ve become more interested in prints and I’m really into designers like Mary Katranzou and Clover Canyon. I was also captivated by the use of embroidered prints borrowed from imaginary ethnic groups in the Valentino S/S 14 collection. I like experiments with line and pattern to create a mood or evoke a fantasy world.

A ballet dancer’s view: what Tanaquil Le Clercq’s 1940s personal photographs can tell us about her self-image

Some of the most unexpected discoveries during the course of my research on Russian émigré ballet and the body c.1920-50 have been the personal photographs in dancers’ archives.  Personal photographs, unlike the widely publicised media images, which typically feature the dancer in costume and attempt to restage a ballet’s choreography, are the snap-shots taken by a dancer’s family and friends.  Within these latter images, it has been interesting to consider how far the dancer’s self-image, and possession of the learned fluid mannerisms acquired from ballet training, influenced her body image in unofficial snapshots.

The personal photographs of Tanaquil Le Clercq, an American dancer who became a protégé of the Russian émigré choreographer George Balanchine from 1940, when she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet (SAB), reveal an experimental approach to body image and identity.  Le Clercq, who had long tapering legs, a feline profile, and a playful, instinctive sense of musicality, embodied Balanchine’s ideal of an American ballerina.

Three distinctive genres emerge in Le Clercq’s 1940s photographs, which are stored at  the Tanaquil Le Clercq Personal Archive at the New York City Ballet Archive in New York: the diligent American ballet student,  the metropolitan ballet dancer,  and the ingénue exploring her identity.

A series of Le Clercq in exuberant poses, reflective of a typical American dancer, were taken around 1945 by her mother Edith Le Clercq when the family were on vacation in Cape Cod. In one photograph, Le Clecq wears a long, full-skirted patterned dress with a white petticoat and executes a high arabesque on toe, with her arms extended wide at a diagonal. The discrepancy between her legs’ balletic stance and her free arms evoked the naturalist vitality and elevation that were common in official representations of American dancers in dance interest magazines. However in one image, the blurry thrust of a raised leg, and the downcast-eyed, parted-lipped expression of intense concentration, which are different from the dancers’ unmannered ease in media photographs, document more realistically the dancer at work. This unofficial image thus countered the critic Edwin Denby’s myth of American dancers as carefree ‘boys and girls in exuberant health who are doing pretty much what the charming animals do, and are as unconscious of their grace as they…’, with a portrayal of an ambitious dancer on a conscious mission of self-improvement.

A 1946-48 image of a pony-tailed Le Clercq in a black leotard was taken on the SAB’s Madison Avenue rooftop by her then boyfriend Job Saunders. Her weight is slightly forward, her knees are bent playfully and her head is tipped away and twisted to the side as she attempts to synchronise her trained body with the urban context of New York City. Here Le Clercq’s syncopated, sleek body posture reflects Balanchine’s own aesthetic in mid-1940s ballets such as The Four Temperaments (1946); however, her ballet-jazz improvisation on the ballet school’s roof also indicates an independent exploration of her physicality, both as a dancer and as a woman. Interestingly, the boundaries between dance-wear and everyday wear had become looser after 1943, when the New York sportswear designer Mildred Orrick introduced a leotard similar to Le Clercq’s, thus encouraging women to imbue a dancer’s sinuous mobility in their everyday body image. In light of ballet’s fashionability, Saunders’ image of Le Clercq on the roof, perhaps unconsciously, positioned her as a hyper-visible City style icon.

Fellow-dancer Patricia McBride’s 1944-5 photograph of a loose-haired Le Clercq, crouching in a black leotard and holding a round mirror that reflects her face, presents a more mysterious view of the dancer. The Polaroid frame, which crops Le Clercq’s body from both ends, provides a cloistered perspective, while the abundant wavy hair flowing down her back suggests a semi-erotic state of abandon and perhaps even evokes John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). Significantly, the fashion photographer Richard Avedon adopted the figure of Alice in a February 1947 issue of Junior Bazaar, where a modern version of Carroll’s protagonist undertakes a journey of self-realisation through adopting new fashions. While Avedon’s commercial imagery lacks the intimacy of Le Clercq’s, collectively the images imply that the sense of ludic self-discovery represented by an Alice figure was relevant to women’s fluctuating sense of identity in the 1940s – a decade in which women had to adjust to men’s absence during the war years and their reinvigorated presence in peace-time. In Le Clercq’s case especially the mirror could recall the ballet studio ritual, but it is also a poetic device that alludes to an unseen dimension within the subject.  While McBride’s photograph in itself insufficiently explains the young dancers’ self-image, it implies that some aspects of identity were explored through fantasy in a girlish, coterie atmosphere. Interestingly, this dynamic mirrored that of the late 1940s Junior Bazaar photographer Lillian Bassman and her models, who would share their personal experiences and fantasies rather than engage in the camera seduction of photographic sittings dominated by male photographers. Additionally the sense of engaging with something that mattered to the sitter, evident in Mc Bride’s photograph, also applied to Bassman’s introspective soft focus images which portrayed women engaged in private reveries or rituals.

Although they vary in subject-matter and mood, collectively, Le Clercq’s personal photographs indicated that her sense of identity in the mid-1940s was plural and adolescent as she expressed Balanchine’s vision of the American ballerina alongside other more personal aspects of feminine identity. The parallels with contemporary fashion images in Le Clercq’s photographs position her within the collective of young American women who engaged with forming a public persona, whilst they simultaneously cultivated a personal self-image.


Denby, E. (1949) ‘Against Meaning in Ballet’, in Looking at the Dance, New York: Curtis Books.