by Justina Lee
“On the Marked Change in Fashion Photography” originally appeared in “Chic Clicks: Creativity and Commerce in Contemporary Fashion Photography”, a book published in 2002 featuring a collection of photographs from top fashion photographers. The author is Olivier Zahm, the founder and owner of French culture and fashion magazine Purple. The article sheds light on his ambition as the editor of the bold biannual magazine.
Partly analytical and partly argumentative, the article begins by considering the position of fashion photography in today’s cultural sphere. Zahm believes that it is now considered a cultural value in its own right. At the same time, it is also a confused genre as most fashion photographs are commissioned and thus commercial.
Zahm then laments the “vampirism of commercial fashion photography”. He argues that fashion photography has no actual physical referent. It advertises the ideal yet desubjectified body of the model and becomes the combination of advertising and pornography.
What can be done to save fashion photography? Zahm seeks fashion photographers who are exceptions, who “are capable of breaking the commercial rules of the fashion photo”. He believes that fashion photography should not simply be a glamorous, integrated spectacle, but rather, a medium dedicated to life, to experience and to the fragile human body.
Borrowing from the French philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Zahm uses the term “vampirism” to describe fashion photography which ruthlessly absorbs “all possible territories of reference”. The result is the degradation of a genre with the potential to celebrate existence. Displaying an idealized, unrealistic existence that fuses countless references, fashion photography is marked by “desubjectification” – it does not represent a communicable, specific subject. Again borrowing from Kacem, Zahm argues that fashion photography should be “bio-aesthetic”: in a world dominated by artificial non-experience, all experience becomes a form of creation, an aesthetic work.
Nine years on, Zahm’s article still reflects the state of fashion photography today. Publications commended by Zahm – Dazed & Confused, i-D, Purple – are still exceptions to the rule. Perhaps another question worth pondering – which Zahm does not answer in his article – is whether fashion photography, almost inherently commercial, can ever be better than itself. Does the responsibility fall into the hands of fashion photographers and editors? Or do the standards of fashion photography merely reflect those of our consumerist, superficial society?
Zahm praises Anders Edstrom for his "simple, affectless images" (Above: an editorial from Purple)
Zahm commends Mark Borthwick for shooting models in poses that demonstrate "a real presence of the individual being photographed".