Eye of the Beholder
f there was anything that Florence Nightingale Graham craved, it was perfection. When her name didn't match the style of her line of beauty products, she changed it to the more highbrow-sounding Elizabeth Arden. So the cosmetics queen would no doubt have been tickled as pink as her products to see how artfully photographer Philip A. Gordon had captured them in this York Harbor drug store back in June 1937. Through natural-sounding creations such as the orange skin cream and blue grass perfume on the top shelf and the "June Geranium" soaps, bath salts, and brushes on the bottom ("A 'Thank You' gift for your hostess," according to the sign at lower right), Arden created a multi-million-dollar empire even as the Depression sent many Americans in search of soup kitchens.Her quest for perfection even took her to Maine. Just three years before shopkeeper Eleanor Fry commissioned this photograph, probably for use in her own advertising, Arden had opened a retreat she named Maine Chance Farm in the Kennebec County hamlet of Mount Vernon. Here movie stars, diplomats, and politicos could enjoy massages, mud packs, manicures, and a host of other body makeovers — all involving the trademarked beauty products pictured here.
For his part, photographer Gordon has imbued the photograph with a few personal touches that add some local color to Arden's otherwise starkly monochromatic display. In addition to capturing his own hooded image, complete with tripod and view camera, just left of center, Gordon has included the face of his flashbulb-wielding assistant, at far right. But he's also hidden some distinctly local elements, from the reflection of the postcard rack, at far left, that includes a photo of the Trinity Church just down the street, to the manufacturer's label, at lower middle, on the display case identifying it as a product of the Hermsdorf Fixtures Company in nearby Manchester, New Hampshire. Even the reflection to the right of the photographer appears to show the early summer leaves on the trees outside the store.
While Arden, who was so enamored with the Pine Tree State that she used the Maine Chance name even on her out-of-state resorts, might have enjoyed this photographer's subtle touches, she probably would have disdained one aspect of his composition. Having spent her life and made her fortune helping women improve their physical image and health, she would have looked askance at the sugar tablets, five-cent Chocolate Checkerberry Necco wafers, and maple sugar candy that Gordon has left in the foreground of his image. Ms. Arden might not have approved, but we can't help feeling that this clever juxtaposition adds a sweet taste of reality to this advertisement of corporeal perfection.