by Melissa Harris (editor)
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 13th 2002
A few years ago, I organized a visiting speaker to my college
to talk about ethical issues for women contemplating breast implants.
I had to get approval and funding of the talk by a dean at our
college, who has since left. During my conversation with him,
he told me that he didn't find silicone-enhanced breasts attractive,
and was quite happy with the all-natural versions. I wasn't sure
how to reply; I certainly wasn't about to reply in kind and share
with him my preferences about breast types. I think I just said
"oh," and left it at that.
There's a temptation in reviewing a book of photographs of breasts
to simply say "oh," and leave it at that. That would
be preferable to saying, "I like the ones on pages 106-109."
It might also be preferable to engaging in a cultural analysis
of the iconography of the breast in the twentieth century. It
is difficult to know quite what to say.
There are a few obvious things to say. There are several pieces
of writing included here with the photographs. Francine Prose
writes a good introduction to the book; performance artist Karen
Finley has a short piece and there are three short reflections
by women about mastectomies; there's a poem by Charles Simic.
There's also a rather long and annoying piece by the Italian playwright
Dario Fo, which should probably have been left out.
The book has 112 pages. Nearly all the photographs are of women,
but a couple are of men. Many photographers are included, with
work spanning eight decades, although it is the 1990s that get
the most attention. There's some overlap with Ewing's collection
The Body and
some of the images should be familiar to most readers. This is
an intelligent and diverse set of photographs. Apart from Prose's
introduction, there's no commentary on the images, just the name
of the photographer, the name of the photograph, and the year
it was taken.
Most of the images are artistic in fairly obvious ways, rather
than simply aiming for titillation or cataloguing of different
breast types. A few are journalistic. Cindy Sherman has two pictures
in which she has dressed up in some kind of historical costume
revealing her (artificial) large breasts. Other photographers
show the human as an abstraction. Some just show body parts, with
the rest of the body out of the picture. Most show the breasts
as beautiful, even if they are not conventionally pert or busty.
Some of the pictures depict breasts as a source of food and comfort
for babies, but most show breasts in a sexualized context, even
though very few of the pictures are overtly sexual. Many of the
photographers are women, which makes a nice difference from most
collections of photography.
I'd have liked more information about the ideas of the photographers
to explain what they were trying to achieve with their images,
but it's fairly easy to see aesthetic or political meanings on
the surface of the images. The photographs by Sherman are an exception
here, since it isn't clear what she is trying to achieve, although
they are nevertheless compelling and intriguing compositions.
This selection gives a sampling of different images, and it does
not have any overall message or theme other than the obvious.
Doubtless it would be possible to come up with a very different
selection of images of breasts from the last century, but this
is as satisfying a collection as you could ask for given the constraints
of a book this size. The quality of reproduction is good, and
the large format makes it a pleasure to browse through these pictures.
While our culture is saturated with images of breasts, it's still
fairly rare for artists to really address the meaning of those
images or to give us alternative ways of looking. This is an
worthwhile collection of images that at least raises excellent
questions, even if it is a long way from providing answers.
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster
communication between philosophers, mental health professionals,
and the general public.