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Book Review - Master Breasts
Master Breasts
by Melissa Harris (editor)
Aperture, 1998
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jan 13th 2002

A few years ago, I organized a visiting speaker to my college to talk about ethical issues for women contemplating breast implants. I had to get approval and funding of the talk by a dean at our college, who has since left. During my conversation with him, he told me that he didn't find silicone-enhanced breasts attractive, and was quite happy with the all-natural versions. I wasn't sure how to reply; I certainly wasn't about to reply in kind and share with him my preferences about breast types. I think I just said "oh," and left it at that.

There's a temptation in reviewing a book of photographs of breasts to simply say "oh," and leave it at that. That would be preferable to saying, "I like the ones on pages 106-109." It might also be preferable to engaging in a cultural analysis of the iconography of the breast in the twentieth century. It is difficult to know quite what to say.

There are a few obvious things to say. There are several pieces of writing included here with the photographs. Francine Prose writes a good introduction to the book; performance artist Karen Finley has a short piece and there are three short reflections by women about mastectomies; there's a poem by Charles Simic. There's also a rather long and annoying piece by the Italian playwright Dario Fo, which should probably have been left out.

The book has 112 pages. Nearly all the photographs are of women, but a couple are of men. Many photographers are included, with work spanning eight decades, although it is the 1990s that get the most attention. There's some overlap with Ewing's collection The Body and some of the images should be familiar to most readers. This is an intelligent and diverse set of photographs. Apart from Prose's introduction, there's no commentary on the images, just the name of the photographer, the name of the photograph, and the year it was taken.

Most of the images are artistic in fairly obvious ways, rather than simply aiming for titillation or cataloguing of different breast types. A few are journalistic. Cindy Sherman has two pictures in which she has dressed up in some kind of historical costume revealing her (artificial) large breasts. Other photographers show the human as an abstraction. Some just show body parts, with the rest of the body out of the picture. Most show the breasts as beautiful, even if they are not conventionally pert or busty. Some of the pictures depict breasts as a source of food and comfort for babies, but most show breasts in a sexualized context, even though very few of the pictures are overtly sexual. Many of the photographers are women, which makes a nice difference from most collections of photography.

I'd have liked more information about the ideas of the photographers to explain what they were trying to achieve with their images, but it's fairly easy to see aesthetic or political meanings on the surface of the images. The photographs by Sherman are an exception here, since it isn't clear what she is trying to achieve, although they are nevertheless compelling and intriguing compositions. This selection gives a sampling of different images, and it does not have any overall message or theme other than the obvious. Doubtless it would be possible to come up with a very different selection of images of breasts from the last century, but this is as satisfying a collection as you could ask for given the constraints of a book this size. The quality of reproduction is good, and the large format makes it a pleasure to browse through these pictures.

While our culture is saturated with images of breasts, it's still fairly rare for artists to really address the meaning of those images or to give us alternative ways of looking. This is an worthwhile collection of images that at least raises excellent questions, even if it is a long way from providing answers.

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.