This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Friday January 23, 09 and was written by CHERYL LU-LIEN TAN
Against the backdrop of a crisp blue sky streaked with stark-white clouds, a well-chiseled, glistening man wearing nothing but goggles, hot-pink briefs and white fur boots is draped over a suitcase. His mouth is ever so slightly ajar as his crotch dramatically thrusts skyward.
For many, the racy image, from a 2007 photo shoot titled “Frozen Margarita” in the French men’s magazine NumÃ©ro Homme, may seem more at home in a breathless issue of Playgirl than a museum exhibition. No matter how artfully shot or arresting an image it is, the picture, taken by Dutch fashion photographer Matthias Vriens, is in its essence about an almost-nude man striking a lewd pose.
But now a museum is where you’ll find it. The piece is part of an exhibition that’ll kick off a year-long series of shows that the International Center of Photography in New York is devoting to fashion photography.
“Veruschka, New York”
The series, which will feature hundreds of photographs spread out over seven exhibitions in 2009, is an ambitious — and unusual — undertaking for a museum that has generally showcased works of significant social heft. Cornell Capa, the founding director of the center and a photographer himself who died last May, once wrote that photography had a duty to “provoke discussion, awaken conscience, evoke sympathy, spotlight human misery and joy which otherwise would pass unseen, un-understood and unnoticed.” How does a beefcake shot jibe with that mission?
“Some of the questions that we’ve addressed toward other areas of photography such as photojournalism could also be addressed to fashion photography,” argues Brian Wallis, the center’s chief curator. The photographs “address sociological issues or issues of social history and shape public consciousness and attitudes. All kinds of social views go into the production of images for fashion photography.”
The center began planning this series two years ago. Fashion photography is “an area that involves a lot of inventiveness in order to keep things lively for the reader — to do the same thing month after month, year after year really requires extreme innovation if you’re going to be any good,” says Vince Aletti, a co-curator of the series. “A lot of the people who are working [in it] today are producing some of the most interesting photography out there, and virtually all of that work hasn’t been seen by anyone unless they’re looking very regularly at American and European fashion magazines.”
Indeed, the exhibitions feature the work of several well-respected photographers who are already regarded as artists: Richard Avedon, whose vibrant pictures conveyed the exuberance and motion of fashion in still photographs, is the subject of a show that runs from May 15 through Sept. 6, for example. Hungarian fashion photographer Martin Munkacsi, who shot spreads for ad campaigns and magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar in the early 20th century, also warrants his own exhibition, which is up through May 3. And names such as Hedi Slimane, postmodern avant-garde artist Cindy Sherman (who outfits herself in designer duds for French Vogue) and Juergen Teller (of the haunting Marc Jacobs ads) are included in “Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now,” which also has a May 3 closing date.
The concept for the series began with discussions about the Avedon show, which branched out to also include the planning for one on the work of Edward Steichen, a big name in art photography who drew some fire during his time for doing commercial work as chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair in the 1920s; and another about pictures that weren’t conceived as fashion shots but possess a distinctive style element. Called “This Is Not a Fashion Photograph,” that show includes such works as an untitled picture from Carrie Mae Weems’s 1990 “Kitchen Table Series,” which shows a proud-looking, perfectly coifed woman sitting erect at a dining table and staring straight ahead, almost mannequin-like, as a man slouched nearby reads the newspaper. A 1966 Bruce Davidson photograph of a high-school student smoking a cigarette while carrying a switchblade on East 100th Street in Manhattan depicts the young man in a pose that manages to look both semistudied and not terribly unlike the man-on-the-street images that pop up in fashion magazines these days.
Nick Knight, Courtesy of the artist
Nick Knight’s ‘Boned,’ part of ‘Weird Beauty,’ one of the International Center of Photography’s shows.
In the case of the Steichen show, co-curator Carol Squiers says she was interested in showcasing the work of a shooter who was a pioneer in the genre. Mr. Steichen actually produced some of his best work for magazines. The exhibition’s photos from the CondÃ© Nast archives include portraits of such celebrities as Amelia Earhart and Charlie Chaplin. Many of the works are simple, straightforward glamour shots — some of the more striking pieces are the ones with no bold-faced names attached. A 1934 photograph meant to accompany a story on hand and nail care, for example, focuses on a model who is shown dramatically shielding her face with her hands.
Ms. Squiers wants the pictures in the series to convince viewers that fashion photography should be treated as a serious art form. “I hope one thing they’ll get is just the way imagination unleashed on even a subject as limited as a coat or a dress can go in so many different directions,” she says.
Some of the most striking photographs are to be found in the “Weird Beauty” exhibition. A Steven Klein spread juxtaposes a plus-size woman in intimate situations with a young, muscular pretty boy with long hair. “It’s a great female fantasy and one that you don’t often see,” Ms. Squiers says. A GÃ¼nther Parth spread on hats shows pieces like a bucket hat and a rumpled knit cap perched atop styrofoam mannequin heads with ghastly, eroded features. With their pockmarks and deep indentations, the heads conjure thoughts of horrific flesh-eating diseases, providing a fascinating foil for the expensive, tailored chapeaus.
While American magazines have come under some fire in recent years for promoting so-called heroin chic, many of the most daring pictures were culled from European magazines, such as Vogue Paris and Arena Homme Plus. “I think that U.S. advertisers have a lot of influence in terms of what is permissible for the print or editorial sections,” Ms. Squiers says. “They want pictures where the clothes are shown and there are no disturbing images.”
To be sure, there are some photographs in the series that look so straightforward in concept and style that one wonders what separates them from the pictures in the latest J.Crew catalog. But perhaps the answer is “nothing.” The larger point that this series sets out to make, after all, is that art can and should be found in the most commercial and mass-market forms of fashion photography. Even in a simple shot of a man wearing a suit, staring straight into the camera.
Ms. Tan is a fashion reporter for the Journal.