Three Photographs of Madeline Gins (1955)
There are a number of portraits of her posed face and body, implying that she knew, that someone knew; it was agreed. She had beauty. (Not the expensive, fashionable beauty of the time, no. It was a more disturbing gambit than that.) One has the sense, too, that the camera and film have not captured all that was there to be seen by someone in the room. There is a glossy, creamy quality. Is that her skin or another aspect of the space? She has freckles and perfect, prominent teeth; an extraordinary mouth; terrifying eyes.
At this time her hair is very short. Small, straight bangs frame her forehead, and the odd cut allows errant tresses to complicate her ears. Perhaps it’s not a style obtained at the salon but rather something accomplished at home using kitchen scissors and a bowl. Perhaps she’s done it herself. In either case, there is something mod about the look—mod, as in modern. It seems designed to be worn in the company of sports cars. It’s a do for bikinis, body painting, liberty at the beach. For taking one’s poodle out on a thin leash of white leather while wearing powder-blue mules. For walking the neighborhood with one’s nose cheerfully in the air, contemplating wholesome, themed parties that will in practice be fueled by Schnaps and diet pills. The wearer of this haircut takes dainty, purposeful steps. It’s a haircut of transition. A geometric code of the later 1950s. A pre-feminist coif that heralds a new sort of objectification. This could go badly, but maybe it won’t.
In a poignant study of her face, the girl lies on a lace coverlet on what appears to be a bed. The portraits have been taken at home, in her bedroom or perhaps the guestroom in her parents’ Long Island house. Her eyebrows have been penciled in but not aggressively. This look appears to be an experiment. A thicker line of pencil has been applied along the lower rims of her eyes and then winged upward. The work has been done by someone who has studied photographs of women in fashion editorials but who is unfamiliar with the standard mechanics of makeup and is inventing things. I repeat: the line has not been drawn on her upper lids and then coaxed outward, as in the ubiquitous cat-eye of the moment. Rather, the natural lines of the eye itself have been obeyed. The lower edge of the eye is a diagonal line tending up. The pencil has been directed, logically enough, to follow. It is an approximation of a famous style, altered by the particular memory of a particular makeup artist (a relative or friend). There is humor here, ingenuity, a hint that style is merely a series of arbitrary qualities handled by a canny person.
At the girl’s neck is a handkerchief printed with images: a wagon wheel shows. Another, unprinted textile serves as a headband. The face between smiles without hurry. The decorations are allied with the face. They support the face. Perhaps they defend it.
And here is another image: her whole body posed on a table. She wears a white short-sleeved polo shirt and white tap pants that zip at the side. If she has been made up, the makeup is less apparent now than in the reclining headshot. No scarves. Hair: combed, perhaps lightly sprayed. A cocktail ring on her right index. Her knees raised, toes pointed. She gives a light, friendly glance. It is an everyday way of looking: toward another face, across a small room, out the window of a car at hedges or animals. It suggests recognition—a prequel to a greeting.
Do we want to say that there is something of the “cheesecake” genre to the tabletop shot? The girl’s body fits well on the surface. Perhaps we are invited to mistake her for a television or deluxe lamp. And yet her ease and the ease of her extremely good posture, the neck so effortlessly drawn up, the backs of the hands soft and the thighs soft: these signs suggest that the body has retained its capacity for thought, even as it has been transformed into an image. She may have toyed with the notion of becoming an object but has already tranquilly discarded that ploy by the time the shutter opens. She has nudged it aside.
She glows. She must be contemplating the future. She must believe something about what is to come. She is navigating the outer reaches of childhood, painstakingly unsticking its leaves from her skin, pushing aside damp foliage. She is wading out. The water reaches her hips. She seems to feel that one can simply make one’s escape, that the path to the other side, into the midst of adulthood, is a straight one. What she does not know and cannot see is what all of us do not know and cannot see, when we are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. We will return. Even against our wills. Even after the room we grew up in has been emptied, redecorated, sold and resold, lost, leveled, destroyed by fires or floods, we will find ourselves inside once more, impossibly sleeping in a narrow twin bed.
These images show the girl as she appears in the moments when she dreams of never coming back. They show her as she looks, entertaining this significant fantasy. They are photographs of a rare joy.