Sunday, April 10, 2011

Caryl writes: Black--and Blue: The Many Faces of Cathie Black

Last week after less than 100 days in office, New York City schools chancellor Cathie Black lost her job. During her brief but embattled term, Black was criticized for public blunders (she suggested jokingly that birth control was an answer to overcrowding in schools), incompetence (she failed to understand the city budget process despite substantial tutorials) and inexperience (she knew nothing of the complicated public education system when she was appointed and seemed to know little more at the time of her abrupt departure).

But what really bothered Cathie Black about her three months in the cross hairs were the news photos of her. “The worst pictures!” she was quoted as saying the day after her 'resignation'. At least one reporter thought she was directly referring to an early cover story in New York Magazine. (see above)

Black was new to public service, public scrutiny and photojournalists on the run. Her prior position was head of Hearst Publications which publishes such glossy titles as Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar and O, the Oprah magazine. She is more used to seeing photos of herself from glamorous social events with perfect hair and makeup and jewels to match. Or, on the cover of her own best selling book where no doubt air brushing or other photo shop tricks make her look remarkably youthful after a 30-year long career in magazine publishing.

Black indicated in a post-resignation interview that she thought she might have been unfairly treated because she was a woman-- and, I'd add, a woman of a certain age: in her case, 66. She was in a taxing new job with long hours, a steep learning curve and plenty of stress, not to mention a hostile education department that considered her appointment a kind of social nepotism. It takes its toll as recent pictures demonstrated.

I doubt that Mark Nagly, the Getty photographer that shot New York's cover picture, set out to take an unflattering photograph of Black. (He has shot pictures of the new New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Martha Stewart who don't look much better.) Nagly is a news photographer; his pictures are generally unposed, taken in existing light, and seldom touched up beyond cropping.

It is possible that the editors of New York magazine chose an unattractive photo of Black to add a one-two punch to their snappy headline, to make their point that she was undergoing a public hazing--and looked it. But they’ve done it to plenty other cover subjects before her. Remember Bill Clinton in drag?

I've found, however, that women in the second half of their lives (to distinguish from their second lives) generally don’t like how they look in current photographs. Maybe because their perception of themselves is different than the reality. They imagine looking younger, prettier, more stylish until they catch a reflection of themselves in a mirror or store window. Then they see at best, their mother, at worst, a tired, old woman. Have you ever noticed in the paid obituary section of the New York Times that the photos for the women who have died are often from several decades earlier while the men’s head shots seem to be recent?

One of the reasons we started Second Lives Club was to document the triumphs and travails of this stage of life, to celebrate our age alongside our accomplishments, to highlight the beauty of a confident face and engaged mind (See Second Looks). We hoped--and still do--to de-stigmatize aging.

I too was stunned by Black’s photographs. I remembered her as quite attractive in person. I have had that same sinking (or shall I say disgusted) feeling when I look at my own pictures. You should see the photograph taken for my India visa only last week-- but you won't.

Yes, almost from the first day of her tenure, Cathie Black looked tired, stressed, preoccupied with an almost impossible task at a nearly impossible moment. The picture (above right) is evidence that she had taken on a difficult new job that she was deeply serious about accomplishing more than being just competent. The picture shows a woman shouldering the fate of 1.1 million school children.

Next time you see a picture of her from a party or a benefit, she'll be just another pretty face.

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