'CATWALK - Fashion Models of JAPAN'


Why do we restrict our concept of the mask to representation of the face? Perhaps it is time to begin thinking of the individual, the whole surface of the corpus, as a mask. For it is this totality, not the visage alone, that is involved in what the late sociologist Erving Goffman called "the presentation of self in everyday life." The human body is a complex communications technology: we use kinetics, more commonly called "body language," to express what we cannot - or choose not to - put into words.

Like actors and athletes, fashion models utilize their full selves, physical as well as psychological, in constructing the mini-dramas that erupt down the catwalk or blossom before the lens. To be as aware of one's instep as one is of one's eyebrow, and in simultaneous control of both, is an accomplishment of no small significance. It is easy to dismiss that ability as mere narcissism, forgetting that there are forms of meditation and physical discipline whose goal, after years of training, is to achieve exactly that self-awareness and kinesthetic mastery.

For a fashion model, removing all cloths and props is equivalent to a tightrope walker's working without a safety net. It enforces an absolute self-reliance: the body itself becomes both costume and mask. But these Japanese models who're chosen to stand unclothed before Curtis Knapp's camera have done more than simply strip away the garments they customarily interact with and employ their skills to enhance. They have also taken the opportunity to shed much cultural baggage - taboos against female autonomy, against nudity, even against pubic hair. In these acts of self-exposure, therefore, they have each struck a profoundly feminist stance.

It is intriguing that, as their accomplice in this collective statement, they're chosen a male photographer, born in the United States and not Japanese. Perhaps those inhibitions could not have been discarded before the eyes of a Japanese photographer - or perhaps, conversely, his inhibitions would have intruded on their self-liberation. In any case, Occidental though Curtis Knapp may be, from the evidence it's obvious he's attuned to the idiosyncratic theater of these women's revelations and sees in them what they have found in themselves: that which is female, that which is individual, that which is supple, that which is strong.

While his visual structures are consistently elegant, posed, and classically balanced, Knapp her works against the tradition of the nude in several ways. Almost invariably, he joins the faces of his subjects with their bodies, identifying and individuating them: these are the exact opposite of the anonymous female figure who populate the history of the nude in photography. And he registers their presence on infrared film, which records not the light that bounces off the surfaces of these women but the warmth that radiates from within them. What he gives us hereby is, literally and metaphorically, heat made visible: the essence below the appearance, the ego behind the mask, the energy beneath the skin.