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The Barbie Movie premiers this week, and we’re doing a deep dive into the fun history of one of the photos of Greta Gerwig (pictured in this NYTimes article).

When I came across this NYT article, I couldn’t get the image out of my head (below). It was familiar, but I couldn’t figure out where I knew it from. Then, as luck would have it, I came across a tiktok video about one of the photographers who took this photo, which led me to cracking open my old art history books for this post. In honor of one of my favorite childhood toys, and the movie that’s taken Twitter by storm, we’re getting into a little history lesson in photography. Allow us to introduce you to Greta Gerwig, who worked on movies Lady Bird and Little Women, and is also the director of the Barbie movie.

Gerwig was photographed by the famous duo, Inez and Vinoodh. They are a Dutch-American photographer duo whose work has been featured in fashion magazines and various advertising campaigns. Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin have been working together since the mid-80s, with a focus on fashion and fine art. They were commissioned by the Times for this photo of Gerwig (above).

Gerwin is pictured in black and white with a card cut-out in color, of an eye, that we all recognize as Barbie’s eye. If you’re familiar with photography history, you might recognize this composition! If you’re less familiar, this photo by Inez and Vindoodh was inspired by a picture from the 1800s by the French photographer, Pierre-Louis Pierson. Pierre-Louis Pierson was a photographer and portraitist while the medium was in its beginnings, the early 1840s. His studio became one of the first to specialize in photography that was retouched with oils or watercolors. This specialized skill led him to becoming the photographer for the French Emperor Napoleon III. Having the Emperor as his client, of course, opened the door for him to add other powerful people to his clientele. He photographed the imperial court and other businessmen, actors, and socialites. His studio became a place where the wealthy class created a name for themselves and used that to solidify their social status among the bourgeoisie.

In 1856, Pierson met the Countess of Castiglione. The Countess was considered the most beautiful woman of her day. Born as Virginia Oldoini, she had an arranged marriage to Count Castiglione at the age of 17. Soon after their marriage, she was sent to Paris to persuade Napoleon III to support the unification of Italy, and she was rumored to be the Emperor’s mistress. It was a short-lived affair, but it nonetheless helped the Countess establish a notable reputation among the wealthy class. She was known to live an extravagant lifestyle (that eventually bankrupted her husband, leading to their eventual divorce), and was a true Parisian socialite. With Pierson’s studio being the trendy place in town with this new portrait technology, the Countess added her name to his client list as well. He would remain her photographer for over forty years.

The Countess and Pierson explored an intense photographer-model relationship, where she became a master at crafting a role to play in front of the camera lens. They created a playful vibe in the studio where they would improvise characters and personalities while she dressed in extravagant hairstyles and outfits. She would often direct Pierson on the camera angle, or would even retouch her own photos. She essentially became her own creative director, making decisions about sets, costumes, and wigs. Most of the characters were inspired by myth, literature, or the Bible. They also would recreate defining moments in her life, almost as if she started seeing herself as one of the mythological characters she was playing. Through this creative process, the Countess of Castiglione started to examine her own role in society, and how she had been used as a “character” in other peoples lives (the wife, the seductress, the diplomat, etc.). This collaboration between the Countess and Pierson stretched way beyond the typical professional portraiture of the day. Together, they secretly produced over 450 photos, which was quite rare for that point in time.

This almost frenzied collection of photos, is considered to be one of the first examples of self-portraiture, way before the time of artists like Cindy Sherman. Who knew we had a Parisian socialite from the 1800s to thank for the start of selfies, right? This make the Countess one of the most iconic female artists, just like Gerwig is a director. But we can also understand how these concepts of female identity, appearances, and fashion relate to the Barbie doll. The Countess of Castiglione used photography to explore the significance of dressing up, keeping up or changing appearances, and manipulating the means of being viewed by people, not that different from us or our beloved Barbie dolls.

These are the important questions of identity and womanhood that the plot of the Barbie Movie promises to address. In more ways than one, Pierson and the Countess’ project calls attention to similar pressures that Greta Gerwig is trying to shine a light on in Barbie: the characteristics of a human “Barbie Doll” is both a representation of how our culture welcomes unrealistic expectations for women, but also how we defy those expectations.


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