The images in “Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography” are more than just shot—they are dressed-up, drawn-on, posed, and constructed. The photographs document 40 years of female artifice, from Eleanor Antin’s sepia-toned historical re-enactments of Florence Nightingale rescues to Mary Ellen Mark’s portrait of a young Seattle prostitute on Halloween—dressed as a grown-up French prostitute. Peeking out from these layers of lip liner, taffeta, and (in one case) demure ventriloquist dummies are the women. The relationship between these women and their feminine trappings circles between tragedy and desire—the pack of uniformed New Zealand schoolgirls moored by natural disaster, and the New York transsexuals liberated with gold lamé. Even the seemingly natural shots in the bunch, like Barbara Probst’s photo of two fresh-faced young women under the cables of a bridge, are informed by a final construction: the act of taking the picture.
THE EXHIBITION SHOWS FROM 10 A.M. TO 5 P.M. MONDAY TO SATURDAY AND NOON TO 5 P.M. SUNDAY TO SUNDAY, JAN. 25, 2009 AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS, 1250 NEW YORK AVE. NW. $10. (202) 783-5000.