Fans in a Flashbulb

“Trick Mirror Shows Some Human Conceits”

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Yale Joel, [Woman checking eyelid in trick mirror, lobby of Broadway movie theater, Times Square, New York], 1946 (1930.2005)

Yale Joel, [Man adjusting overcoat and grimacing, while looking in trick mirror, lobby of Broadway movie theater, Times Square, New York], 1946 (1833.2005)

Yale Joel, [Woman moistening her lips, as others are checking out their own profiles, while looking in trick mirror, lobby of Broadway movie theater, Times Square, New York], 1946 (1834.2005)

Yale Joel, [Booth lighting shows LIFE photographer Yale Joel on the other side of trick mirror, shooting photographs of unsuspecting public in lobby of Broadway movie theater, Times Square, New York], 1946 (1835.2005)

From the darkened interior of a stuffy booth in the lobby of Loew’s Criterion cinema in Times Square, Life magazine photographer Yale Joel stole these portraits of unguarded moviegoers through a transparent or “two-way” mirror. Published in Life on December 16, 1946 (pages 14-16) with the headline “Trick Mirror Shows Some Human Conceits,” the portraits shown above, captioned “eye-prober,” “lip-moistener,” and “self-admirer,” appeared in a grid alongside “skirt-twister,” “hat-tilter,” and the more grotesque and embarrassing “molar-checker,” “chin-tweaker,” “pants-hoister,” “nose-blower,” and “shoelace-tier” (unwittingly aiming his rear end directly at Joel’s hidden camera).

Life presents Joel’s hilarious, surprising portraits as a harmless diversion and curiosity (much like the popular “Celebrities Without Makeup!” editions of tabloids today). However, the surreptitious technology used to obtain these photographs, their unrestrained dissemination in a national magazine, and the condescending tone of accompanying text (inane anthropological observation describing Joel’s collective portrait as a “remarkable record of the vanity of the human race”) raises complicated ethical issues: questions of personal privacy, surveillance, and ownership of one’s own image, to which people have become increasingly conscious since 1946, in an exponentially more image-saturated culture. Deliberately, singularly conceived to catch vulnerable men and women in unflattering states of “vain” preoccupation, Life‘s mirror trick might stir up controversy (if not a lawsuit) if undertaken in 2012.

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