One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.
— Oscar Wilde
In these two photographs of young girls — one by Andy Warhol from the collection of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, the other by Mary Ellen Mark, in the Mead’s collection — the girls are the focus. Their clothes — matching collared dresses in one and plaid jumpers in the other — are recognizable markers of innocence and youth. There’s nothing unique about these dresses. The works derive their power and sense of art from the way the girls make the viewer feel. In both photographs the girls look directly into the lens with solemn expressions that show confidence and independence. Warhol and Mark strip away preconceptions about children’s naïveté to bring these pictures beyond visual appeal and into the realm of art.
In Alen MacWeeney’s Bridesmaids Dresses and Mary Ellen Mark’s Two Girls on a Lawn, Miami, the photographers focus on pairs of dresses that are more elaborate, special-occasion creations. But are they works of art? The two powder-blue, tulle dresses in MacWeeney’s photograph hang on a clothesline from cheap plastic hangers. They sway on the line, worn only by the wind, perhaps drying from revelries the night before or in preparation for a wedding ceremony soon to come. Surrounded by the bleak gray stones and hazy sky of the sparsely populated Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland, the blue dresses are a source of light and joy. In Mark’s photo, meanwhile, two young women sit side by side on the ground in long white dresses, their skirts spread across the grass in circles that echo the umbrellas behind them. With their hands folded in their laps, they tilt their heads and look into the camera. These photographs are aesthetically pleasing in their compositions, one of the formal features that makes something a work of art. The photographer frames the dresses — and dresses the frame — for the viewer, and it is for the viewer to judge the works as art.
Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017