There is something about undressed, outdated mannequins than renders them automatically unsettling. It’s not quite the same feeling as seeing someone undressed you shouldn’t be (and we all know I’m not that much of a prude). Rather, it’s the unnerving sentiment of witnessing an object rendered obsolete. Naked, a mannequin is stripped of its intented purpose – a plastic object whose sole purpose it is to mimic the human body, created for consumers.
Abandoned, unused, immobile – they also happen to make for fabulous photography subjects.
Don’t these two next photos, by John Vachon and WeeGee respectively, look as though they could be the same mannequins?
Last year marked the first time I had the pleasure of seeing some of Leonor Fini’s pieces when the exhibition In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States was in Quebec City. What a fabulous woman, what strange photos. If only I could have been a fly on the wall when Cartier-Bresson and Fini concocted these images…
Some of the more talented photographers took an interesting spin on the idea that mannequins were designed to be looked at. Designed to stand still, in glass in storefronts, to elicit curiosity, excitement, and desire – hopefully, the desire to be wearing the clothes they were modelling. But when these mannequins are in various states of undress, or better yet missing limbs and wigs, the visual impact packs an even bigger punch.
As I researched some of these photographs, spanning fifty years and several countries, I wondered why mannequins are such a compelling subject. There is just so much to explore in the idea that an object, designed to mimic the human body, serving consumers. There is also the simple fact that one of the main reasons mannequins have been a popular subject for photographers and artists is that they are motionless, and hold their poses effortlessly – as opposed to their living, breathing counterparts.
We could easily get into some of the more controversial elements – how mannequins present an idealized version of the human body, how female mannequins are often sexualized, how they have evolved over the years, etc. I could also join the crowds of feminists who have ripped into famous fashion photographers, namely Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, for the visual ways in which they objectified women, and often involved pairing live models with dopplegänger plastic mannequins.
There’s also the curious fact that the word for model in French is, in fact, mannequin.
But really the main purpose me sharing these images with you is the fact that I find them beautiful and intriguing.