Art: The Difference Between Boys and Girls

Posted on August 4, 2011

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Photographs by Ranee Palone Flynn/Courtesy Peter Hay Halpert Fine Art

It is generally assumed that people have hidden selves, identities that are different from those we present to the world. Another common belief is that the artful portraitist will trick the truth out of a subject, discovering and uncovering that which was kept private. That truth—what appears to us as truth—very often has the appearance of vulnerability. And what could be more heartbreakingly beautiful?

Ranee Palone Flynn’s pictures of teenagers are filled with this particular beauty—what she calls it “a tenderness and frankness.” Flynn images describe a period of life filled with power and promise and fear, a moment of maturation and separation, uncertainty and concealment, the time when the hidden self is hidden. Says Flynn, “You want to just tenderly say to them, ‘For god’s sake, if you only knew now what you’ll find out 20 years from now. Enjoy all your beauty, you don’t realize how beautiful you are.’”

Flynn speaks from experience, as a one-time teenager herself and as the mother of teenagers, and also as an expert on beauty. She grew up New York and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology as a design major. “I was always interested in film and photography, but those were the most expensive majors—there was no way I could afford the equipment,” she says. She built a career in the beauty-and-fashion business, often working with photographers like Bruce Weber, and eventually began taking pictures and making documentary films. “In the arts—all of that, from composition to lighting, point of view, all of those things play off of each other,” she says. “The medium is just by choice, really, whether it’s painting or cut-out paper, whatever.”

Her career as a fine-art photographer—her work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she had a solo show in 2003—is still a part-time job. A former vice president and creative director for Timberland, she now has her own studio, working in the cosmetics industry. (Following what she calls “a little bout” with cancer a few years ago, she began working with her doctor on a line of skin care products for cancer patients struggling with the effects of chemotherapy.)

It was the notion of beauty—as complicated a prospect as there is, just ask a few 19th-century English poets—that propelled her photography forward. “I discovered, after a lot of work and experience, that I really like beautiful things,” she says. “I began working from what I truly loved–what led me to my career in makeup and skin-care campaigns. I was just compelled by the beauty of people—these young boys who are beautiful, these young girls who are beautiful.”

Flynn’s work, which touches on themes of masculinity and femininity, led her to a small discovery about boy and girls and how they differ, at least in today’s culture. “I photographed many young girls, because it always seemed easier to find girls to photograph,” she says. “But I came to realize that it was the boys that I really enjoyed shooting.”

Girls seemed to be more open in front of the camera, but ultimately were often more controlling, trying to direct how they were being viewed. Boys, says Flynn, put up a front, a façade of power. “When that wall comes down, when you get past it, they completely lay out their awkwardness and you see the truth. It’s quite unlike a female.”

 

But the idea of truth, or truth as beauty, is never anything but slippery. “With the girls, I see beauty in the artifice they present, because it’s vulnerable,” she says. “The thing that challenges me all the time is that I am always contradicting myself.”

Flynn shoots with medium-format cameras, on film—“I’m holding out as long as I can,” and does not crop or retouch her images. And the work has evolved. “At first, I only shot strangers—I was trying to meet people, to challenge myself to get a good portrait of them in under an hour.”

Later, as her own children were growing up, she began photographing them and their friends. “Then one day I realized they too were strangers, though I knew them. I was looking for the side of them I didn’t know, which was so readily there, because they’re teenagers—of course I didn’t know them at all! I lived with them in the same house, but they had a whole other life, as sexual beings, as individuals—all the things they don’t want their parents to know. I was really intrigued by that.”

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