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Girls on Film

     You've probably sighted one of them and giggled, when a projectionist has neglected to wind a film past the opening leader. Who is that attractive lady popping up before the credits of a vintage movie print? She's a "China Girl," that's the lingo of the film lab business. What you are briefly seeing is a 16mm or 35 mm color-timing strip, juxtaposing a color bar and a female visage. From 1928 to 1992, film laboratories around the globe used women's faces, ostensibly because of a woman's smooth skin, for color balance and tonal density. Digital technology made these tests obsolete.

      Who were these woman? Many were secretaries, or lab technicians, informally filmed by their colleagues. Some were professional models, placed in lavish settings. What's in common wherever the "China Girl" appeared--the US, Sweden, Germany, France, Japan, China, India- was that it's a no-name profession. Julie Buck and Karin Segal, conservationists at the Harvard Film Archive, have mounted a fascinating 70-piece show of "China Girl" images at the Carpenter Center's Sert Gallery. They hope that a real-life "China Girl" will recognize her image on the wall and come forward. Their Fogg Museum installation is titled "Girls on Film."

     "We found most ot the images while inspecting Harvard Archive prints," said Segal, during a joint interview. "We got images contributed to us from other archives, like the George Eastman House. When you see all these girls, and only for two to four frames each, you can't ignore them. There are so many of them, some so made up, some within a set design."

     "Why such energy, for just two seconds?" added Buck, who entertained a guess about the term, "China Girl": "It could be a racist idea, because usually the hair is pulled back so hard that perhaps the women 'looked Chinese.'"

      The Asian women in the "Girls on Film" show were photographed in Asian countries. The American "China Girls" located by Buck and Segal all have been Caucasian. "We have yet to see a black girl," said Buck, still wishing. "The whole venture was a sort of sexist thing, pretty women in pictures, for a hundred color timers to see."

      Here was a chance for geek technicians at Kodak and other labs to pose lovely women, photograph them, and capture their images, coming on like budding film studios. The images are not exactly cheesecake: the women are usually fully dressed, though some are in bathing suits. One woman in the Carpenter Center show might be nude, but her body is teasingly hidden behind a color bar.

      The "China Girl" images have been tinkered with by the artists, after major rehab of the original found pieces. "Much of it was discarded material, in garbage cans, significantly damaged," said Buck. "Some pictures took more than a week to restore, pixel by pixel," said Segal. What's on display? "We both like the idea of repetition," said Buck. "All the images have been made the exact same size, yet every piece is different, showing how images changed in time, from the 1930s to the 1990s."

      "Sometimes the difference is the posing, where the model stands in relation to the color bar and frame," said Segal. "At times that was manipulated by us, to make things more intense, more claustrophobic." Buck: "There's a tension. We wanted to free these women, but we realize they're still trapped in their images."

(August, 2005)


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