Published: January 22, 2009
There are days when it seems as if you’ve been subscribing to all the wrong fashion magazines. A little bit of your world crumbles, or maybe a lot.
A visit to the International Center of Photography may cause such a day. The center is inaugurating a year of fashion photography exhibitions called “2009 Year of Fashion” with four synergistic exhibitions. They culminate in an engrossing survey of pictures from Edward Steichen’s years at Condé Nast (1923-37), when that pioneer photographer more or less invented fashion photography and celebrity portraiture.
But the leadoff of the foursome — and the whole year — is a blast from the present: a snapping, crackling survey of fashion photography from the last two years. With a few exceptions (usually from W magazine) the most impressive spreads are from magazines that are European, obscure or both. At least none of them have ever graced my mailbox.
“Weird Beauty” provides an instant update on fashion photography as a fast-moving collective expression. It is as esoteric as abstract art, and as startling as a sleek, hissing serpent in the drab garden of everyday reality. The alpha and the omega of the collaboration are the clothing designer and the photographer; in between lies the crucial participation of magazine editors and graphic designers, hair and make-up artists, sets (or setting), models and especially stylists. (The stylists’ names are featured prominently on the exhibition labels, just below the photographers’.)
The ceiling-to-floor, push-pull installation alternates between art and commerce in all ways. Tear sheets mounted on board dominate, but selected images repeat as large framed prints for further delectation. There are regular appearances from the field’s leading lights, especially Steven Klein, but also Solve Sundsbo, Miles Aldridge and the team Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, along with one-time visits from some artists, including Cindy Sherman (doing her own styling), Collier Schorr and Sara VanDerBeek; the versatile Terence Koh does a turn as a stylist. Also here are photographers who move easily between art gallery and fashion magazine, like Juergen Teller and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.
In these images, mouths are smeared with lipstick; hats are displayed on skull-like busts of burned plastic foam. The narratives veer from frothy fantasy to surprisingly hard-bitten Americana, as in the unstyled backyard images by Lise Sarfati, who began her career as a photojournalist. And the sexual innuendos and stereotypes never stop: Betty Boop, baby doll, man-eater, slut, saint, S&M toy. Nor do the shifting shades of gender. In several spreads women’s garments — and undergarments — are modeled by beautiful young men.
Clothes for the average woman or man have little place here. Fashion photography is, as others have noted, a cousin of performance art. The choreography is delicate, and the risk of flameout considerable, as even this show attests. The intent is to mesmerize and intimidate with as much fabulousness as can be wedged onto a small tract of glossy paper. This entails exploiting the latest cultural trends with parasitical finesse.
A year of fashion photography exhibitions can sound like overkill, but the center is varying its menu. These shows will be followed by a retrospective of Richard Avedon in May. And next fall the museum’s triennial will tackle the relationship between fashion photography and contemporary art.