A collection of black and white photographs taken between the years of 1977 and 1984, William Earle Williams’ "Party Pictures" takes a voyeuristic and satirical journey through the exclusive events that littered the social calendars of Philadelphia’s elite.
In his photographs of masquerades, society galas and drag shows, Williams exposes the true nature of these seemingly untouchable wielders of wealth and power. His beautifully developed images force the viewer to see beyond the crisp tuxes and glittering jewelry and into the comical awkwardness of human imperfection.
Exhibited at The Print Center, Williams’ images are unframed, uniformly hung in a single rectangular room. His refusal to title his works further emphasizes their simple yet undeniably striking beauty. Even with a quick glance about the room, stark white figures appear to emerge boldly from black backgrounds, pressing themselves against the surface of each picture.
However, upon closer investigation, the viewer identifies slender, porcelain–skinned bodies drowning in loose, flowing dresses, their thin limbs unnaturally angular and even awkward. Sophisticated women raise their dignified heads towards the light, only to highlight their wrinkled, aging bodies.
One image depicts media magnate Walter Annenberg clumsily entering the 20th century version of 1614 Latimer Street (the address of the Print Center itself). Annenberg stares directly into the camera as if caught off guard, his posture revealing a stumbling gait that reminds viewers that he was, in fact, human.
Much of Williams’ display pokes fun at the circus–like parading of wealth that was so essential to these ‘awkward’ elites. But the gaudy fur coats, exotic plants and strings of pearls provide a sharp contrast to the photographer’s compassionate representations of the infamous drag queen, Harlow. Images of Harlow masterfully evoke a mood of silent suffering, an undisclosed identity crisis that silently lurks as she applies her lipstick in the mirror. Only the shadow of a masculine bone structure hints at the true nature of her indiscernible face.
Similarly, Williams empathetically captures an elderly waiter, unnoticed and uninvolved in the cheerful applause of the guests around him. It seems that the artist’s unflattering depictions do not extend themselves beyond the rich and the powerful. The ungainly reality of human nature limits itself to those who try their hardest to evade it. Despite a slightly biased perspective, Williams’ images provide a rare and candid view into the timelessly fashionable practice of exclusivity.
Party Pictures Now – 5/21 The Print Center 1614 Latimer St. printcenter.org