Fashion Photography

Nan Goldin, Catherine Lying In Sauna (1985), photograph; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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The first thing viewers see upon entering Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990 is a photograph of a woman wearing an outfit with red and white vertical stripes. Bending awkwardly at the waist, the woman strains to fit herself within the camera’s purview. The setup is a mix of extremes: The dress is eye-popping and hip, but the props, a can of light beer and a cigarette, are decidedly prole. It’s clear the woman has been the victim of an accident: Her face and neck are covered with scars. Then again, it’s just as clear that she’s not a tragic victim. Everything about the photograph—not least the scarification—is artificial, shot through with a current of disaffection.

Renowned for flouting the conventions of portraiture, Cindy Sherman uses thrift-shop costumes and cut-rate props to assume a variety of guises—B-movie ingénue, boy toy, you name it. But Sherman is never not taking a picture of herself. The true subject of the work is her primacy as an artist. It makes you wonder why the designers at Commes des Garçons commissioned Sherman to do a photo spread for them. Didn’t they understand that in her world nothing supersedes the importance of Cindy Sherman, not even the product she’s ostensibly hawking?

Fashioning Fiction is the first exhibition mounted by MoMA dedicated exclusively to fashion photography. Setting out to explore the “reciprocal influences of artistic and commercial photography,” it features thirteen photographers and includes roughly 100 pieces, all of which were commissioned by fashion magazines. The distinction between fashion photography and fine-art photography is quickly elided, as is, albeit unintentionally, any nod to individuality of vision.

Each photographer has a distinctive pictorial manner, yet the overall tone is of an oppressive uniformity. What we get is a worldview wherein artistic form, while often brilliantly deployed, is freed of human or moral culpability. Attitude and artifice rule; personality is subsumed by attitude. (Sherman is for good reason the opening act of the show.) At the preview, I overheard a MoMA functionary describe as “creepy” Steven Meisel’s The Good Life, an unctuous parody on retro-Americana done for Vogue Italia. She was right: An absence of principle—that is to say, a viewpoint grounded in lived experience—is terrible to see. It is that absence that defines Meisel’s work and, for that matter, Fashioning Fiction.

We shouldn’t expect profound human insights from fashion advertising. Yet the photographers included here seem particularly ignorant of the human condition. The photos of Mario Sorrenti exemplify what the curators tout as the “shift” in fashion photography from “selling products to selling lifestyle.” Sorrenti touches upon the lives of the well-off (privilege is a constant in fashion), yet he is equally fascinated by the marginal and dispossessed. When Sorrenti presents impeccably orchestrated photographs of struggling rock bands, graffiti artists, and handicapped teenagers taking a bong hit, we may well ask: What kind of lifestyle are we being sold? Making a romance of the dispossessed is nothing new. But it is certainly dishonest, particularly when put in the service of peddling high-end consumer goods..

The photographs are notable only for a blithe disregard of narrative complexity. Squalor, poverty, and vandalism are merely backdrops for striking a pose; the stories they tell have no consequence in and of themselves. Is this kind of aloof representation preferable to the “crisp and elegant standards of beauty” affiliated with the fashion photography of, say, Irving Penn? The curators don’t say so outright. Yet in choosing photographers whose work offers “narratives outside the world of fashion” they suggest so.

Taking at face value the “stories about contemporary life” offered by photographers like Cedric Buchet, Ellen von Unwerth, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Glenn Luchford, you could come to the conclusion that life is impossible to experience except through the filter of pop culture and, in particular, the movies. Luchford, for example, trades in Hitchcockian moments of voyeurism and intrigue. In a series of photos commissioned by Prada, a beautiful, blond woman moves through a sequence of suspenseful scenarios: Spying through the peephole of a door; making her way through a snow-covered topiary maze; sitting on the ledge of a building; lying unconscious (or dead) on the grass. It’s hard to tell whether it is the same woman in all of the photographs, but that’s hardly the point. Style divorced from substance can be clever and sure-footed, but it has a tendency to highlight its own shortcomings. In Luchford’s case, an excess of style leads to a stifling artiness. Arrant pretension would seem to be the engine that drives the world of fashion or, at least, Luchford’s version of it.

The only photographer to overcome the clammy evasions typical ofFashioning Fiction is Nan Goldin. Best known for The Ballad of SexualThe photographs are abrasively unglamorous. The four women have heavy, prominent facial features; one is pregnant, all are dour. Wearing men’s underwear or lacy lingerie, they congregate in the locker room or lounge uncomfortably in the sauna. Goldin’s pictures are as contrived as those of the other photographers seen at MoMA. She milks seediness for all it’s worth.

Still, artistic calculation can’t obscure a compassionate and even sentimental vision: Clothes, Goldin suggests, are secondary to the person wearing them. This kind of anti-fashion propaganda posits a humanism that offers an antidote to the preening vacuousness that typifiesFashioning Fiction.  Dependency, an autobiographical slide show documenting life among the East Village demimonde of the 1970s, Ms. Goldin brings a sympathetic, if not ingratiating, eye toMasculine/Feminine, a photo spread done for Vue, a short-lived fashion insert in the Village Voice. She’s obvious in her against-the-grain methodology: Ms. Goldin places women who are no one’s idea of supermodels in the mildewed environs of a Russian bathhouse in lower Manhattan.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 23, 2004 edition of Slate.

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