What do you see? This is the question my professors would ask me. Describe what you see to me as if I were blind. So let’s take a deeper look.
Initially I see a woman sitting in a beauty salon. She sits in the beauticans chair in front of a large mirror, holding a smaller handheld mirror in front of her face. She appears to be examining her hairstyle. She isn’t smiling or frowning. She gazes.
I look around the image to find out what is happening, has this woman just sat down or is she soon to rise up and leave. She is holding a small mirror typically used to examine the final hairstyle at the end of service, so it’s likely she is examining the final look before she exits. The hair stylist has her hands on a small portion of the woman’s hair. The stylist adds the finishing touch to her client’s loose curls. If you look at the reflection in the larger mirror I’m front of them you can see the stylist has a polite smile on her face.
Next to that mirror and slightly off center you can see a male stylist attending to salon business. Moving your eye along the same plane you can see a cropped slither of another salon patron, as well as mirror reflections of other patrons. No one’s face is completely seen full on in any of these reflections except the woman holding the small mirror sitting in the beauticians chair.
This salon appears to be a typical neighborhood beauty salon, full of patrons, resting hairdryers, vanity lights and pictures of hair models along the walls.
This photograph is by Deborah Willis, a historian of photography, and the woman in the photo is world-renowned artist, Carrie Mae Weems. The title of this work is called, Carrie in the Salon. Knowing that the woman in the beautician’s chair is Weems I’m instantly reminded about an image by Carrie Mae Weems I learned about during my studies, titled Mirror Mirror. I’m reminded of more of her works and contributions to the art community. This photogrpah by Deborah Willis is more than a beauty salon image, its a hommage to Weems, women’s empowerment, black beauty, and community.
This is my take on the image, Weems examines her works over the years in a sort of…how far have we come moment. She does not smile or frown, because even though we have come a long way there will always be more work to do. From an onlookers view, I wonder if she ever smile. Or am I waiting on her approval? In the photograph, Weem’s stylist isn’t waiting on approval. The stylist politily smiles and continues to work at placing the final touches to her client’s hair.
These are my thoughts as I try to discover more about the image, it may or may not be the artist’s intent, but it is interesting to explore. In Weem’s reflection, I think about Mirror Mirror and the Kitchen Table Series, the topics of black female identity, beauty and community.
Below is an excerpt from Broad Street Review which explains Willis’s photograph in more depth. I read it after writing down my thoughts about the image. It was an interesting writing excercise for me. If your into writing about art I suggest you write notes about an artwork first, this is your own thoughts and knowledge about the work, then research the art work and make comparisons. It’s a very interesting excercise. I hope you enjoyed reading and please read more about Carrie Mae Weems here, see the sources listed below. Thank you.
“Carrie at the Salon” places the viewer at the stylist’s shoulder, surrounded by a constellation of reflection. There’s the teardrop-shaped glass the customer holds as she inspects her hair. A wall mirror reflects the stylist’s satisfied smile and provides a prismatic view.
Willis captures the whole salon in reflected shards. Six more people are visible, but it takes time to find them. The composition is impressively arranged, enabling the eye to bank and carom like a billiard ball. Rectangles and circles subtly repeat through the scene in drawer fronts, light fixtures, and dryer hoods. Then there’s what isn’t visible.
“Carrie” takes on added significance if one knows that the subject is artist and writer Carrie Mae Weems and that the salon is in Eatonville, Florida, childhood home of Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer of the 1920s. Beyond that lies the meaning of beauty shops to African-American women.
They are a theme in Willis’s photography — and were part of her childhood. In “Mrs. McGee and my mom, Ruth Willis (Apex alums) in her beauty shop in North Philadelphia” (undated), she shows us the neighborhood shop she knows best, where signs remind customers, “No children in the salon unless a service is being rendered” and “Please limit phone calls to 3 minutes.” A posted service menu lists weaves, wraps, press and curls, and wet sets.
Ruth Willis and her client were graduates of Apex College of Beauty Culture, once at 16th and Lombard Streets, which provided training at a time when, as historian J.M. Duffin wrote in a 2017 report, “Beauty parlors offered women a degree of autonomy and economic independence. For African-American women, a career in beauty culture provided a much better opportunity than the work typically available to them as servants, cleaners, or washerwomen.”
The information on this web-page is for educational and research purposes. Article entries and images are not my own. Please review sources and links above for more information. This blog post is for educational purposes only and for sharing valuable information to others interested in the arts.
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