The star who changed our notions of beauty

cameraeye1Barbra Streisand has been a star and pop culture icon for so long now that it is easy to lose sight of the revolutionary impact she had on show business more than 50 years ago.

Streisand’s distinctive looks were called “ugly” by some industry insiders who couldn’t imagine a place for the actress and singer in a culture that was then dominated by Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe and other WASPy beauties.

“Ugly” was really code for a Jewish girl who made no effort to change her “ethnic” looks or her name in order to court favor with casting people or the general public.

Streisand knew her offbeat looks were in tune with a changing ’60s pop culture scene and that, as the critic Pauline Kael put it, the performer’s “talent made her beautiful.” From the moment she emerged on the New York City club scene in the early 1960s, Streisand stood out from the crowd, and her rise to stardom was truly meteoric (landing her on the cover of Time magazine at the age of 24).

A gorgeous Abrams book, “Streisand: In the Camera Eye,” shows us how even at the very beginning of her career, photography aided Streisand’s rise because her sense of style and sense of humor came through loud and clear. Photographers and magazine editors loved her looks right from the start.

The book contains excellent text by biographer James Spada that guides us through Streisand’s career. The book begins with pictures Streisand made at the age of 18 with photographer Craig Simpson who was told by a friend that “he knew a girl who had an interesting face and asked me to take some pictures of her.” These shots demonstrated how the right make-up and lighting could give the teenager an exotic quality way beyond the visual interest of a portrait of a conventional “pretty girl.”

The book then takes us through more casual pictures from Streisand’s early stage appearances — including a 1961 off-Broadway show called “Another Evening with Harry Stoones” — where she still looks great without any glamour girl augmentation.cameraeye2

By 1962, the performer’s supporting role in the Broadway musical “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” marked her as a major talent on the rise. She earned a Tony nomination and a Columbia Records contract within a year and Glamour magazine deemed her worthy of a spread with pictures by Bob Willoughby who had photographed Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.

Jerome Robbins — who would come in to perform salvage work on the Broadway musical “Funny Girl” two years later — wrote a tribute to Streisand in McCall’s: “Her beauty astounds, composed of impossibly unconventional features. Her movements are wildly bizarre and completely elegant. Her body is full of gawky angles and sensuous curves. It scrunches, elongates and turns on in the spotlights.”

Streisand no doubt benefited from the emergence of several European film actresses during the early 1960s — especially Monica Vitti — who were bringing a more natural type of beauty to U.S. art houses, paving the way for a similar shift in American movies later in the decade.

As the book shows in 170 photographs — most of which have not been published before — Streisand became a superstar in 1964-1965 by conquering Broadway in “Funny Girl” and by demonstrating in her hit CBS TV special “My Name is Barbra” that an ever-growing national audience was ready for the style changes she represented.

In 1968, after some nervousness on the movie studio’s part, Streisand conquered Hollywood with “Funny Girl” and became the biggest female star in films for the next decade.

The book’s cover image was taken while the performer was filming the 1970 musical “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” As Spada notes in the text, by that time the non-issue of Streisand’s looks had to be taken off the table. cameraeye3Cecil Beaton who designed the costumes for the film and took many photographs of the star said, “Her face is a painting from several historical eras. She is a self-willed creation.”

The beautifully designed “Streisand: In the Camera Eye” is a very compelling biography in the clever form of one stunning picture after another.

(Photo credits: Book cover/Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s; right – from ‘Streisand: In the Camera Eye’ (Abrams) David Drew Zingg – Look Magazine; above left – from ‘Streisand: In the Camera Eye’ (Abrams) – Columbia Records)