Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Power of Appearances, Part II

by Katherine Hom

See the recent history of fashion photography here.

Steven Meisel, State of Emergency, Vogue Italia, 2006

“Doing Fashion Photography,” Erica Lennard
Erica Lennard is a photographer born in New York in 1950. She has published 14 books and has worked with Perry Ellis, Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, and Rolling Stone. She is also well known for her work photographing gardens.

In this article Lennard’s reflections on her work reveal many of the ideas central to realism. When shooting models she looks to bring out a “personal quality” by being quiet and only directing their movements in an attempt to make them relax enough to be natural. She looks for a feeling of vulnerability. She prefers hair and makeup to be simple and unartificial and draws inspiration on how to pose models from real life, film, and paintings.

Erica Lennard's photo for Perry Ellis in the 1980's

Reflecting the blend of between art and photography that realism takes she states, “I consider my fashion photography an extension of my own work as an artist.” And wants to portray women that others can relate to “instead of frozen hard sex symbols habitually seen.”

She also prefers to work in natural light, out in the direct sunlight. She finds magic in the ability of light to transform reality and wants to document what happens in a place when light falls in a specific way. All her pictures are done outside of a studio in the available light.

She also notes the difference between doing work for European magazines versus American magazines. In Europe, magazines give the photographer total freedom to choose models, locations, etc while the editor simply chooses clothes and oversees shooting. In America the editors want to maintain a certain look and models are chosen from a small group of typical girls used.

“Escaping to Reality: Fashion Photography in the 1900s,” Elliott Smedley
Elliott Smedley is a UK fashion editor and stylist and has worked as a styling consultant to Burberry since 2002. This article, “Escaping to Reality: Fashion Photography in the 1900s”, was published in Fashion Cultures: Theories, explorations and analysis, by Stella Bruzzi and Pamela Church Gibson in 2002.

In the 1990s a realistic style became prominent in fashion photography. This included capturing models “behaving like human beings”, doing realistic activities. According to Smedley, this shift in aesthetics had a lot to do with the link between fashion and art. He states that the fashion world will periodically try to shed its overly commercial image, and in doing this, plays towards art. In this case, the art was documentary photography, which aims to represent human experience and plight. Since fashion photography usually creates fiction and the ideal, this lean towards documentary photography opened up a whole new realm of possibility.

Nan Goldin, Matsuda, “Naked in New York,” 1996

To understand why the style of realism in of the 1990s was so significant, we need to look back at the history of fashion photography. As a reaction to fashion illustration, photography grew extremely popular during the 1920s and 1930s. Readers of magazines wanted to see the fashions displayed thoroughly and faithfully rather than as a decorative art. Photographs were seen as realistic depictions without artistic distortion. However, it really just continued the trend of creating visual fantasy that women could aspire to. Also using aristocrats and socialites furthered this concept. Movements such as modernism and surrealism influenced fashion photography, introducing graphic and geometric, and dream-like photographs. Realism inspired a less formal approach, depicting models for the first time in motion. Static poses began to disappear, replaced by “moments of narrative, fleeting impressions and relaxed actions.” Also prevalence of commercial pictures over elitist imagery reflects the influence of sportswear and Hollywood on fashion photography. As their potential to be commodities increased, models became uniformly youthful and unblemished.

The 1940s and WWII was a pivotal moment for realism in fashion photos since displays of excess and frivolity were discouraged and fashion itself moved into a more austere realm to ration goods. Lee Miller was a key photographer of this period, praised for shooting women in wartime and everyday situations in British Vogue. During the 1950s Richard Avedon captured looks, mannerisms, and gestures, and Irving Penn focused on the anthropological and sociological elements of fashion photography. Trends that emerged included the “spontaneous snapshot” and the use of location rather than studio. Still many of these photos contained a “fiction of reality”, an imagined image of what a women would look like to others in this situation.

Bob Richardson, French Vogue, 1960's

In the 1960s the role of fashion photography became involve with discussions of race, sexuality, and class. The “Terrible Three”, David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Brian Duffy emphasized sexuality in their photographs. Models like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, known for their ‘ordinariness’ became role models for the new generation as the dominance of couture dissipated. Fashion imagery of metropolitan youth culture reinforced the idea of the “liberated new woman”. Bob Richardson added a new side to this woman, creating snapshots of her despair and melancholy while located in wealthy and glamorous settings. He created a tableauz with realistic themes. Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton continued these themes in the 1970s. They created highly stylized and explicit images, which embodied cultural debates like the eroticism of women and fantasies and myths of sexuality. They were accused of being exploitative and regressive.

Meanwhile a new side of documentary photography was emerging through recording punk street style of the time. This first occurred in photojournalism, in an attempt to document the new social phenomenon. In 1978 Vogue came out with Not Another Teen Punk Book, featuring portraits of punks. This inspired the magazine i.D. in 1980, that showed photographs of people spotted on the street rather than models, turning the focus onto the fashionable ordinary person. The idea of living a fashionable lifestyle democratized fashion. Realism stepped in to fill the space between the ordinary fashionable person and the superhuman ‘supermodel.

This style of realism in the 1990s was a deliberate ‘anti-glamour’, labeled the ‘school of London’. The contructed image was rejected for the “artless, the unstaged, the semi conscious, the sexually indeterminate and the pubescent”. The precise photographic techniques of the past were abandoned. This style had roots in the insecure political climate and global recession of the time. Major photographers included Corinne Day, David Sims, Juergen Teller, and Nigel Shafran. Corinne Day was one of the first with her series of Kate Moss from The Face in 1990 entitled ‘The Third Summer of Love’. She was shown as a young free-spirited girl, in simple relaxed clothing, near nudity in a natural way, lacking grooming, with playful gestures, squinting and laughing. These supported themes of innocence, teen spirit, and immaturity. There was something very intimate in these photographs, as if this was a private unstaged moment. The technique as well as the bond of friendship that Day an Moss shared resulted in this combination of realistic documentation and fashion photography. From this optimistic innocence Day’s style shifts towards pessimistic loneliness and urban alienation. In the series ‘Under Exposure’ for Vogue in 1993, Moss is shown alone in a cold starkly furnished flat, half dressed. There are connotations of poverty and a sense of isolation, alienation, and boredom. There is a grim reality present here signaling to awkwardness and uncertainty of youth. Next to glossy glamour photos in Vogue, these images and themes stood out stronger. Where once fashion photography was primarily concerned with creating a fantasy and unattainable ideal, this new documentary style challenged traditional practices. What is told instead is a “narrative of misfortune”. In its voyeuristic ‘real-ness’, these images could be discomforting and their context can confuse the intention.

Corinne Day, Third Summer of Love and Under Exposure

A major influence was Nan Goldin, who created a photodiary of her life and friends as an art piece. While Goldins snapshots convey an intimacy, the intimacy of Day’s photographs scould be seen as exploitative possibly because the role of fashion photography had always been to sell something and never a reflection of something really true. Rather than being seen as an art piece in revealing situations and needs of less fortunate, it might be seen as promoting a destructive ideal since fashion photography traditionally sells a lifestyle. Goldin faced this problem as well in her work for Matsuda and Helmut Lang. As art and fashion photography blend, it is difficult to keep the two from bleeding into one another. Validity of personal word can come under question, as if working in fashion somehow compromises its sincerity.

Nan Goldin, Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Matsuda below

An image by Juergen Teller brings up another side to realism. In the photo the model, a bruised and battered Kristen Mcmenamy, is nude with the word ‘Versace’ written in lipstick in a heart shape on her body and set up against a very contrived backdrop. Teller seems to suggest the exploitation of women by the fashion image. However this almost comes off as a parody of realist fashion photography. By mixing realist snapshot aesthetic with the contrived backdrop, his ‘realist’ message is displayed as inauthentic, putting other realist images under question as well.

Juergen Teller

Rolard Barthes said that this new movement creates a new social value in which the private becomes public in an attempt to “affirm what has been lost through virtual reality.” These images “seem to reinforce the bonds of human community by reclaiming lost areas of compassion and humanity”. In this way fashion photography has taken on the function that photojournalism has lost, with the ability to reach a wider audience than art or social documentary photography could. These images challenges conventional ideals, democratizes fashion, and forces us to ask questions and address wider concerns. 

The contemporary result is Inez & Vinoodh, Before After for V magazine showing both real life and studio.


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