1943, above: Mrs George Washington Kavanaugh and Elizabeth Lehr Decies arriving at the last Vanderbilt Ball at 640 Fifth Avenue in New York just before it was demolished. 1,800 guests attended, in full fig clearly. A set up: Weegee, the photographer, positioned the dishevelled person on the sidewalk where guests were arriving. Not a particularly subtle piece of social criticism.
George Washington Kavanaugh was the son of Luke Kavanaugh, a knitting machine manufacturer and the inventor of a knitting burr. Mrs CGW was sent into posterity by Weegee; he snapped her several times on this particular night. This was a mink-coated bejewelled waistless woman in her 70s with a limitless American textile and manufacturing fortune. Her expression never changes, no matter who the photographer: face forward, sweet smile, full makeup, hair, tiara, she's like an American Queen Mum.
Do I care about any of this? Am I in thrall to wealth? Hardly, but I am interested in the ability of some photographers to be subversive, others to be sycophants: each is creating a narrative no matter how documentary they feel they are being.
Robert Doisneau wasn't taking a cheap shot when he photographed the matrons of Palm Springs below; he didn't set them up, at least any more than they were doing themselves. Slim Aarons genuinely felt he was part of the rich and famous, and serious about it. He wouldn't have seen any reason to set them up. These positions are difficult for us to take seriously in this overly ironized post-irony age— Doisneau's humanism, Aarons's affection, even Weegee's blunt social commentary. And then there is Marina Garnier's curious social eye below, photographing wealthy women in New York at le Cirque for lunch: specimens to be pinned down like beautiful beetles.
Had I not been taken by the moonlit image of a small house in Palm Springs with a T-bird in front of it, I would not have arrived here. But it has led me to think about how one can try to understand worlds we are not part of and how to use art to comment, resist and oppose: not to bludgeon, but to put into context. The rich are not like us; they are always with us.