Working with Ken and Barbie

by William Howze

Dan Weiner’s black & white photographs of the 1950s reveal so many disturbing tensions beneath familiar surfaces that one is prompted to ask if photographs like them are being made today. FotoFest provided an unlikely but provocative comparison in the work of the Scottish photographer Andy Wiener, whose staged color photographs feature the most durable survivors of the ‘50’s Ken and Barbie.

Many of Dan Weiner’s photographs depict conservatively dressed business executives engaged in activities such as discussing the design of everything from laundry detergent boxes and automobiles to Lincoln Center. Other photographs show such scenes as suburban housewives in pedal pushers exercising in front of a television, families shopping for furniture in a department store, and a home sales “Hostess Party.” One’s first impression is that we have seen these pictures before in old copies of LIFE magazine. Weiner, who died in 1959, was in fact a leading magazine photographer of the period.

On the other hand, Andy Wiener’s large (approximately 24" x 30”) pictures appear to have been made in the rooms of a playhouse occupied by Ken and Barbie dolls and furnished with a portable television and simple forms of furniture. The colors range from pastel pinks, yellows, and blues to deeper shades. Though there are actual dolls in the photographs, the scenes are dominated by adults who wear Ken and Barbie masks.

Captions or titles influence one’s interpretation of both bodies of work. Dan Weiner’s photographs are accompanied not only by descriptive captions, but also by excerpts from books and magazine articles of the period. For example, a photograph of three businessmen regarding half a dozen detergent boxes displayed on a table is accompanied by the caption “Packaging decisions by Benton and Bowles agency executives for Procter and Gamble products, New York City, 1956,” and this excerpt from Fortune magazine: “Procter and Gamble wages psychological warfare on many fronts.” Although the obvious interpretation is that these men conduct the war, Weiner’s composition suggests that the men themselves are actually embattled by the boxes.

This ironic use of captions and ambivalent view of consumer values links the work of these two photographers. Andy Wiener, who was born the year Dan Weiner died, gave his entire series the title “Love Scenes, 1998,” and captioned each photograph. The photographs were hung in three groups: Fertilization-Implantation-Gestation-Birth; Love-Marriage-Separation-Divorce; and Domination-Desperation-Analysis-Conclusion. “Fertilization” depicts a woman sitting before a television in the playhouse-like setting. Significantly, the woman is a brunette, while the image that appears on the television screen is that of a blonde Barbie. In the course of the next three pictures, the woman acquires a Barbie-like mask and, apparently through the medium of television, a man with a Ken mask materializes.

Dan Weiner captured a young man apparently in the throes of just such a metamorphosis in a photograph captioned “Potential trainee awaits interview at Michigan State University, East Lansing, 1957.” The young man stands in the middle of an office waiting area. A sign in the background reads “Part-Time & Summer Student Employment.” He is dressed like a junior executive in an open top coat with a plaid scarf over a white shirt and tie, but his expression and posture belie his business-like suit. His forehead is wrinkled and his head is tilted down so that his eyes peer out from under his brows. His gaze is directed out of the picture to his left as if he is about to leave. He is turned away from a poster that asks, “Are you ready for your Interview?” A cartoon-like drawing of a young man who straightens his bow tie with a confident gesture illustrates the poster. The young man, whose hands are jammed in his pockets, appears to be having second thoughts about his readiness for the interview. It seems the image has defeated him instead of preparing him for the changes he must face.

In Andy Wiener’s pictures, images defeat other images. In the Separation-Divorce-Love sequence, the character with the Barbie mask rejects the character with the smiling Ken mask and turns her attention to the television image of a scowling Thor-like character. Soon a character with a Thor mask materializes who, in “Domination,” reduces the Barbie-faced character back into a doll, his plaything.

The temptation to see Andy Wiener’s compositions of 1988 as extensions and confirmations of Dan Weiner’s observations thirty years earlier is irresistible. One’s perception of the subtlety and complexity of the work of both photographers is enriched by repeated comparisons. And Weiner’s staged metamorphoses prepare one to discover potential transformations in many of Dan Weiner’s pictures. For example, Andy Wiener’s use of doll-like face masks to represent social conformity informs the way we see Dan Weiner’s picture captioned “A perfume saleswoman with customers in a department store, Washington D.C., 1953.” Not only can one see the faces of all four women in this picture as masks, one can also see the back of the heart-shaped mirror as a blank face awaiting its own metamorphosis. Similarly, Dan Weiner’s photographs of real people in real situations heighten our curiosity about the real people behind the masks in Andy Wiener’s compositions. The fact that a Scottish photographer chose to use such quintessentially American icons as Ken and Barbie can be taken as an indication of just how successfully those men at Procter and Gamble, and others like them, waged their psychological warfare.

William Howze produces video programs for art museums and teaches an American history course through film at the University of Houston, Clear Lake.