Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Power of Appearances

by Sara Johenning

See the early history of fashion photography here.

Steven Klein, Vogue Italia, 2008

Roland Barthes, “Fashion Photography”
Roland Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician of the 20th century. Semiotics is the formal study of signs and symbols. Barthes was very interested in examining the relationship between cultural material, bourgeois society, and power – and found semiotics very useful in these interrogations. Barthes’ comprehensive roster of work includes writings on fashion, photography, and structuralism/deconstructionism. “Fashion Photography” appeared as an appendix in Barthes’ 1967 work, The Fashion System.

Barthes begins by confronting the problems with photographing a fashion garment. This garment is referred to as a signifier, i.e., the thing or object. However Fashion does not only attempt to photograph garments and objects, but it also aims to capture a certain world, mood, or feeling as well. This more generalized concept (articulated in fashion photography via the set) is referred to as the signified. The signified is a concept, indicated by the signifier. The signifier is fixed, whereas the signified is more abstract and can change, according to context, audience, and interpretation.

Guy Bourdin, Charles Jourdan shoes, 1970's

Barthes continues that the Fashion photograph depicts the world as a, “decor, a background or a scene, in short, as a theater” (pg 517). This world captured by Fashion photography is meticulously coordinated and thoughtfully planned out in order to evoke a certain mood, feeling, or idea. Fashion photography establishes equivalences through these worlds, therefore making them concrete and easily accessible associations of ideas. Within Fashion photography, there are three types of styles articulated:

1) objective/literal (travel = a woman looking over a map)

Louise Dahl Wolfe, 1950's

2) romantic (night = a woman in a glamorous evening gown)

“Romantic”, Terry Richardson, Vogue Paris, 2007

3) mockery/outrageous
(comic, caricatured, caught in an amusing stance/attitude)

“Mockery/Outrageous”, Steven Meisel, Vogue Italia, 2009

The purpose of these three varying levels of fashion photography, as Barthes argues, is so that they make Fashion’s signifieds unreal. By making everything else in a Fashion photograph (i.e. set, style, body language, model, etc.) unreal, then the signifier - the garment – what is being sold, becomes the only plausible and maintainable remainder of the image. Fashion photography is not hiding or concealing its meaning, but rather it is making it so hyper-apparent that the only understandable element left is the garment.

Rosetta Brookes, “The double-page spread: Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin & Deborah Turbeville”
Rosetta Brookes is a contemporary professor and writer. In addition to her work on Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, and Deborah Tubeville, she has also published works on Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Kienholz, and William T. Wiley – among others. Brookes is currently a professor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “The double-page spread: Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin & Deborah Turbeville” was originally published in Camerawork Magazine, the 1976-1985 British magazine that was dedicated to a critical and contextual study of photography.

The horizontal frame of the double page spread, Guy Bourdin

Brookes begins her essay by focusing on how fashion photography has traditionally received belittled and insignificant praise from the conventional photography world. Whereas other forms of photography are praised for capturing beauty in the stumbled-upon scenario, fashion photography produces images that are meticulously planned and contrived. Brookes states that, “fashion advertising, in particular, is seen as negating the purity of the photographic image. We see the typical [in fashion photography] instead of the unique moment or event” (pg 520).

Brookes addresses that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, fashion advertising was growing in two directions. One the one end, there were advertisements from the Japanese Avant-Garde brands, Yohji Yamomoto, Issey Miyake, and Comme des Garcons – producing ads where the images where blurred and no product was being overtly sold or communicated to the customer; relying on the customer’s elite knowledge of the brand in order to provoke and/or entice sales. On the other end of the spectrum, as particularly popular in the United States and Britain, were fashion advertisements that were selling lifestyle imagery. This lifestyle communication through advertisement articulated a synthesis between viewing the image of the garment as something we see, and understanding it as something we wear.

Helmut Newton, 1978

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the double-page spread was brought into the fashion magazine in new ways. At the same time, much sexist imagery and sexual stereotyping – mainly seen through fashion photography, was dominating the content of said magazines. Brookes argues that the 1970s lacked the iconic fashion woman of the 1960s (i.e. Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton), and as a result of this voided photographic muse, many models of the decade appeared to represent a, “well-established physical norm” (pg 521). A model’s individuality was reduced to her ability to be recognized amongst and within a crowd of other models. Such monotony and generalized familiarization with models allowed the stereotyping to continue on.

Helmut Newton, 1970's

Helmut Newton was a photographer of the time that had his own specified type of model – she was, “one with the gloss of the image, to be flicked past and consumed in a moment” (pg 521-522). Because of Newton’s use of harsh color and hyper-glossed aesthetic, “the artificiality of the image is emphasized” (pg 522). The Newton model was a woman full of alienness – accentuating and manipulating existing sexual stereotypes; they are both foreign to and archetypes of said sexual connotations. She appears to have no personality at all – transporting her to the realm of the fetishized, glossy, commodified inanimate object. A perfect example of this was when Newton mixed dummies with real models for a shoot in the June 1977 issue of Vogue Paris.

Guy Bourdin for Charles Jourdan

During the post-war period of consumerist expansion and the growth of mass-market industry and consumption, there was a fear that a degree of sameness would plague all facets of culture. Guy Bourdin emerged as a successful fashion photographer in the aftermath of the unsure and marginalized media culture. He used the double-page spread as a structure for communicating and displaying the images in which he photographed. He aligned models and the human body in accordance to the fixed forms of the double-paged magazine spread (i.e. positioning the model’s legs on either side of the fold) – creating an artistic marriage between the abstract human form and the rigid and precise geometric form of the magazine. Furthermore, Bourdin focused on the spatial arrangements of his subjects – whether they were models or shoes. His experimentation with division, alteration, and depth played on the viewer’s expectation and familiarity, creating a ‘trap for the gaze’ with his images, for Bourdin was able to emancipate, “the image from its caption, and the product-image from the product” (Pg 525).

Guy Bourdin for Charles Jourdan

In the post-nostalgic times of the late 20th century, Deborah Turbeville emerged as a photographer focused on the reluctance between self-images. Instead of choosing archetypal and glossy models, like Newton and Bourdin, Turbeville chose models based on their divergence from the intended depicted character/form. In the divide between the model chosen and the message intended, Turbeville allows the viewer to discover the tense reality of acting/pretending in order to adhere to an expected self-image. Turbeville is aware of the hard-to-categorize tendencies of her images, for she claims, “I am not a fashion photographer, I am not a photo-journalist, I am not a portraitist” (pg 526). By separating herself, yet simultaneously drawing from the aforementioned genres, Turbeville allows her images to break up and redefine the structure of representation.

Deborah Turbeville, Bath Series, 1970's

“Extreme Beauty in Vogue” was a photography exhibit last year in Milan. It is currently now available as a book, published by SKIRA. The photo collection consists of various works by Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and most prolifically, Irving Penn. The photographs in the curation depict hyper-stylized and hyper-realized images of the body in relation to unusual cosmetic materials (i.e. tarantulas, diced fruit, etc.). The collection of images is also incredibly detailed-specific, showcasing the technical abilities and masteries of modern mediums and brilliant minds.

Irving Penn, 2002


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