© Martin Guggisberg

© Martin Guggisberg

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Shiny. Glossy. Fresh. Young. Competition to see who wins. The prize? A title, a crown, finishing big in a pageant of hopefuls, teenage girls who traipse about in evening gowns, bikinis, full hair and make up, heels and the commitment to win. Photographer Martin Guggisberg captures the all the awkwardness, the surreal and the banal, the tarnished innocence and the plastic naïveté, the thrill of exhibitionism, adoring the attention, the chance to shine bright in the spotlight as they walk across the stage. It takes a certain kind of Miss to win titles like these: Miss Bikini. Miss Wildwest. Miss Asia. Miss Do-It-Yourself. Miss Handicap. Miss Italy Switzerland. Miss Polefitness. Miss Pit Stop Day.

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Guggisberg’s photographs are glossy double page spreads, recalling nothing so much as the glossy pages of a men’s magazine. The difference is that here they are unposed, unaware of the camera, going about the daily business of the pageant circuit, their bodies, faces, hair an industry unto themselves. This is the business of self-exploitation, of a kind of beauty that is not very pretty but it is not without its appeal. Gone is the grace of the feminine and in its place is the crass vulgarity of mass appeal. It is a kind of appearance, a physical poise, a way of beholding oneself that makes the pageant contender a spectacle to behold.

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Presence, appearance, the ability to embody a feminine ideal, one that is both virgin and whore at the same time, to be seductive and alluring but unavailable at the same time. A tease, a tempt, a twirl, nothing wrong in that it is not indecent so much as in poor taste, like the original reality show contest, only this one is live and it happens just once a year. There is a tradition of this, of judging the fresh new picks, like the old school country fairs of yesterday when the prize pig was awarded the bright blue ribbon for having the sweetest flesh. In exchange for money and honors, these young women happily, and sometimes unhappily, compete for Best in Show.

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It’s easy to be a hater. The photographs aren’t flattering. They’re not rude either, they are just terribly unglamorous. Nothing kills so much as familiarity. Once the mystery is gone the allure begins to fade and on women this young that’s a sad reality. Start early before the looks begin to ebb, and what will be there for these girls but a distant past. These are the glory days. That’s what makes Guggisberg’s photographs poignant. They do not mock or exalt, but rather show us those times the mask has been lowered.

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The effect is one of vulnerability, which is in distinct contrast to the large format, glossy pages that turn effortlessly. Yet stop on any image and something changes, no longer are these just quiet moments but a kinf od desperation is felt. Consider the woman whose arm is missing, the Cerrulean blue of her gown quietly falling over her shoulder, her eyes wide set with worry, concern, her lower lip bitten with a visible tension that strains through her seams. It is all or nothing and she wants it bad. What will happen? Turn the page.

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Bikinis. Yellow. Red. Blue. Puple. Black and White. Shiny stilettos, silver, gold, white patent leather. Strippers without the implants or the drug habit. Aligned backstage before the parade begins. Casual calm but only just so. As one girl looks off into the distance, her eyes focused on a thought that has her concerned. Turn the page.

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Now we see them from the back. The girl in purple has a Chinese tattoo running down her back. She’s also pulling at the bottom of her bathing suit, while a girl in red is content to let it ride all the way up. There are barely any faces, but those that are shown are edgy with anticipation. We’re headed up the stairs on to the stage. This is what it all comes down to, isn’t it?

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We don’t know, we won’t know, who will win. It doesn’t matter to anyone, really, except the girls in the photographs. And they are without name, the photographs without caption. Because it is not who they are that drives this industry but our desire to tell stories about them to ourselves.

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© Martin Guggisberg

© Martin Guggisberg

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