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June 12 - August 2, 2008 at Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood

by Diane Calder

If recent neurological studies prove valid, positive visual stimulation may surpass the power of music to “soothe the savage beast.” Soon airline passengers with anxieties heightened by increasingly intrusive security measures and delayed flights will be dumping Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” from their iPods and turning instead for comfort to images such as Brian Finke’s gorgeous photograph, “Sara, Icelandair.

Selected for the cover of the monograph published to coincide with the exhibition of almost two dozen photographs from Finke’s most recent documentary series, “Flight Attendants,” this 40” by 40” C print is beautifully executed and composed. Nearly bi-symmetrical, it has just the proper degree of exposure to capture rhythmic details in both the high key background and the mid- to dark range hair and uniform of the flight attendant that is its central attraction. Every strand of the subject’s hair glistens. The zipper on the back of her uniform adds a pleasurable hint of sensuality while gracefully defining her spine. Stabilizing the triangular form of the figure, the young woman’s arm directs attention towards the mirror that is the key to interpreting the photograph. An established symbol of femininity as object of the male gaze, the subject matter links Finke’s offering with iconic images of beautiful women as far ranging as “Venus at Her Mirror” by Diego Velazquez and “Beauty Applying Makeup” by the ukiyo-e master, Kitagawa Utamaro.

Utamaro’s representations of desirable women were typecast, eroticized depictions of idealized beauties, bijinga. Caught during private moments, they often exposed the erogenous nape of their neck to view. Finke’s image resembles Utamaro’s in content, point of view and effect, implying geisha/flight attendant affinities.

In the United States that affinity was nurtured during the post World War II boom, as airlines attempted to appeal to traveling businessmen with “fly me” ads depicting gorgeous, young, single stewardesses, ready to serve. However, sexist hiring practices changed with the passage of the Civil Rights act of 1964 when discriminatory restrictions based on age, weight, race, sex and martial status were removed in this country.  Finke’s “Roshayati, Air Asia,” “Sarah, Hooters Air,” “Kate,Tiger Airways” and the brilliant dual portrait, “Lily and Aziza, Air Asia” confirm the continued existence of exacting standards of beauty in job descriptions for several international airlines as well as the short-lived Hooters, which operated under a separate code for public charters. These images are balanced somewhat by Finke’s depiction of male attendants and two nearly ordinary looking women, “Candice and Susan, Hawaiian Airlines” who work the crowded aisles in Finke’s book, but are not included in this exhibition. Finke’s admits that “Originally I started doing domestic airlines, but things aren't what they used to be. I wanted something much more classical and nostalgic, so in the end I ended up shooting a lot more international.”

"Sara, Icelandair," 2006,
C print, 40 x 40".

"Sarah, Hooters-Air," 2005,
C print, 40 x 40".

"David, Song Airlines," 2005,
C print, 40 x 40".

"Lily and Azriza, Air Asia," 2006,
C print, 40 x 40".

David, Song Airlines” is photographed from the back, walking down the aisle, broad shouldered but with his blond hair cut in a somewhat androgynous style, edged in a halo of light. “Alan, British Airways,” brow furrowed, wedding ring on his hand, tends to a dummy during a safety drill. Finke spent time at training centers where flight attendants rehearse and master every aspect of passenger safety. Several of the works in which he depicts safety drills are as dramatically staged as any of a multitude of airline disaster films from “Airport” to “Snakes on a Plane.” Enhanced with billows of smoke worthy of a Gregory Crewdson orchestration, perfectly lit and framed, “Icelandair” is a disturbingly haunting image.
In his introduction to Finke’s monograph, after lauding the photographer’s “ambitions as a documentarian of contemporary culture,” Alix Browne admits that “many of the airlines that Finke frequents are from countries that continue to perpetuate the stereotype of the unflappably glamorous flight attendant, not to mention that stereotype’s attendant nostalgia for the golden days of air travel.” Finke’s exclusive use of Hasselblads and Fuji Pro film, viewed by some as nostalgic also, allows him to capture vivid coloration in large, remarkably detailed prints. Within the range of documentary photography, as Finke moves back and forth between imagery so controlled that it resembles studio portraiture and spontaneous shots closely akin to street photography, he continues to interject his regard for beauty and form into the mix.