New York Photo Review
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Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Soho Photo Gallery
Central Booking Magazine

PhotoSynthesis:Fashion and the Times

Man Rays Lips by Patrick Demarchelier. Source: ICP.org
Patrick Demarchelier, "Man Rays Lips"

So obvious is the relationship between adornment and sexual display one hardly need mention it. The birds have made a big thing of it, and of courtship in general, of which they are the masters. For us humans, however, sexual display– which is meant to attract the ‘other’– has often crossed the border into narcissism, that strange and sterile country of the self. Magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue are its Lonely Planets– official guidebooks to an increasingly arcane, convoluted, and oftimes perverse territory.

Along with Hollywood glamour photography, fashion is one of the main branches of the estheticizing and theatrical end of the medium. And like the movies its style changes with the period, each period frequently dominated by a major artistic personality. The 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s were the period of Avedon and Penn, their work characterized by starkness, straightforwardness, strong compositions, and simplified strobe lighting (although the latter is less true in the case of Penn,) with the theatricality of the earlier Cecil Beaton-Edward Steichen period generally frowned upon.

All this began to change with a more creative use of color and the re-introduction of fiction pioneered in the 80’s. After the asceticism of the Avedon-Penn years, lushness and fantasy were a welcome change. Elaborate mise-en-scene started to replace Avedon’s relentlessly white seamless backgrounds, theatricality his monastic simplicity.

At the same time, the division between Art and Life, long under siege in the fine art world of Duchamp and Company, began to break down in the mass media of fashion as well. In the name of Edginess and with the perennial necessity to come up with something new urging them on, fashion photographers began to expose the dark side of their world.

The traditional worship of beauty, already floundering under the advent of decidedly anorexic and unhealthy looking models in Avedon’s day, underwent its own dark night of the soul with heroin chic incarnating the life-style of the fashionistas themselves. Self-doubt if not self-hate dominated, as, increasingly, the sadomasochistic and drug-induced pleasures of the Beautiful People became the stuff of art directors’ dreams.

There were complaints about it, of course, but it was exciting to be so ‘transgressive’ (which is a fancy word for naughty) and excitement in fashion is the bottom line. In the work of people like Terry Richardson porn itself began to go mainstream with the glaring hardness of crime scene photography its new look.

 by Ralph Gibson. Source: ICP.com
Ralph Gibson, "Caroline Winberg (Harper’s Bazaar, May 2005)

But the work and decade featured in the new ICP Bazaar show is less characterized by perversity than it is by parody and pastiche. The re-introduction of illustration along with the kind of collage and line work Moholy-Nagy pioneered– oh way back when it was new–the use of comic book-storyboard layouts and a generally déjà vu campiness also came strongly into play. All of it spoke to the renewed emphasis on editorial concept with the photograph itself simply one element in a heavily art directed approach.

Endlessly drawing on older ideas and images, filled with self-conscious imitations of pop culture iconography, this is a style that is a collage of everything that went before. In this is it not dissimilar to the situation found in the galleries, the high art neighborhood just around the corner also suffering from a dearth of truly new ideas and serious talents.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of striking images in this show, perhaps the most striking by Ralph Gibson, a photographer not generally known for his fashion work. Beautifully conceived and executed, his swimsuit shot has the strong forms and interesting vantage point he is famous for. Among the older photographers Hiro does himself credit with the kind of bold graphic concept that has always characterized his work, though his contemporary, William Klein, shows photos hardly worthy of his name. Among the younger photographers, Peter Lindbergh seems to have taken the lead. He does everything well though not so distinctively as to possess a signature style of his own. In that he mirrors his era, which also does not possess a signature style of its own. Any one of the covers exhibited (Sarah Jessica Parker running, Drew Barrymore gesturing, Kate Hudson smiling) is nice enough, though invariably reminiscent of something else one has seen. A series on Madonna shows her doing her perpetual hooker routine, while looking more and more like Faye Dunaway. Then there is Jennifer Anniston imitating Barbra Streisand (give me a break) and Patrick Demarchelier duplicating Man Ray.

So it goes, one celebrated face imitating another, one not-so celebrated image mimicking another. Chronicling an era in which endless recycling alternates with a depression-fraught realism straight out of rehab (in fact they do a rehab layout inspired by Marc Jacob’s stint therein,) this show highlights a decade whose imaginative exhaustion is prettily apparent. For that reason alone it is interesting– if, that is, one is interested in fashion and the times.

by Barbara Confino

Barbara Confino is an artist and writer whose work is housed in such collections as The Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the British Museum. Her graphic history, The Genetic Wars, can be viewed at www.thegeneticwars.com. Her writings on art and culture have been published in ArtsCanada and The Village Voice among other publications. She is currently associate editor for The New York Photo Review.
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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery