Is It Even Possible to Comprehend a Work of Art Without Seeing a Woman Next to It (for Scale)?
Examining an enduring and strange stock photo phenomenon.
Ben Davis & Julia Halperin, May 10, 2018
Spend enough time looking at auction reports, as you inevitably will if it is auction season and you are on editing duty, and you’ll feel like you are stuck in some kind of “glitch in the Matrix”-style loop of art-business cliches about how the “market is robust” and collectors are willing to pay “top prices for top material.” You’ll also find yourself looking at a lot of pictures of auction previews, which really occupy the overlapping space in the Venn diagram where the bland, the posh, and the uncanny meet.
In these photos, taken and supplied by press agencies and used in auction coverage across the globe, you’ll see a lot of art handlers pictured handling art, lending a little dynamism to otherwise deadly dull installation shots. With high-profile lots like Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s last year, you’ll see major paintings flanked by sour-faced guards or animated specialists, to signify “Importance.”
But the really, really notable cliche of the “auction preview” genre is “women standing awkwardly near art for scale.” It’s seriously weird, and it is undying.
There are many questions that this genre invites: Can the women positioned at these angles actually see what they are looking at? Why in god’s name would a photographer ever ask one to sit down? Has there been a rapture just before each photo was taken that sucked up anyone who is not thin, white, and between the ages of 23 and 33?
We think it’s pretty clear why these strangely positioned images exist—but we’ll let someone who’s actually worked one of these things explain. Alice Gregory’s all-time-classic 2012 n+1 essay details her experience navigating the strange office culture inside Sotheby’s, and it so happens that it concludes with her being asked by a photographer to pose in front of an Andy Warhol “Fright Wig” work for just such an occasion:
“Oh, good. She’s blonde,” said the photographer. I made a face at him. “For the contrast.” He sighed. “You’ll stand out against the purple.” I followed his instructions and approached the painting, gazing up at it from a few feet away at a quarter-angle to the camera. I shifted my weight subtly from one hip to the other and pretended to see things on the canvas that I hadn’t before. Standing next to the painting, I was a live specimen of powerlessness: in service of sums of money too great and too senseless for me to comprehend. “Back up a little,” the photographer instructed. “No, that’s too much. Yeah, stay right there. I need you to look diminutive.”
So, inspired by the classic post “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” from the Hairpin (RIP), we’ve pulled together a few years worth of the phenomenon as a demonstration. Happy bidding!