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by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
Dazzlingly inventive, hugely artificial and hyper-sophisticated fashion images by 40 photographers are plastered over the walls, floor to ceiling, in "Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now," the new exhibition filling the ground-floor galleries of the International Center of Photography. In a notably budget-conscious approach, curators Carol Squiers and Vince Aletti have used magazine tear-sheets rather than original prints (though the show does include 20 actual photos), as if surrendering to the reality that this kind of material is everywhere.

The curatorial strategy also keeps the pictures in what you might call their natural habitat, preserving the wildly ingenious art direction of the pages and staying closer to their original purpose and meaning -- whatever that might be. And lest you wonder why you might need to go to a museum to look at pages from fashion magazines, the show is dominated by images from little known glamour rags like Numéro Zero, Purple Fashion and Pop Magazine. Generally the publications are European, though some recent features from Condé Nast’s W and American Vogue make the curatorial cut.

So, what makes weird fashion weird? An esthetic of extreme artifice, for one thing, for which photographer, stylist and art director invent extravagant visual scenarios influenced by everything and anything, from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to soft-core porn.

Sometimes it seems to be about skin, as with the hunky male model striking contorted poses, wearing nothing but a teeny red bikini and huge white fur boots, for the too-cool-for-school article titled "Frozen Margarita" that Dutch photographer Matthias Vriens shot for the French magazine Numéro Homme. Also eternally chic is the macabre, as in a spread featuring hats shown in glorious Technicolor on what appear to be decaying human skulls.

Star photographer Steven Klein is known for his taste for soft S&M, with his photographs of Madonna in riding gear and a grimy Brad Pitt from Fight Club were exhibited in contemporary photo galleries. Here the curators give us his 2008 V Magazine spread, "Prints and the Revolution," for which he buried a prone model beneath piles of ornate textiles, making her part of a lush abstract composition that channels the dazzling Symbolist patterns of a Gustav Klimt painting.

Fashion photography is now emblematic of avant-garde high design, and "Weird Beauty" recognizes that the fashion photographer is no longer a despised and marginalized servant of commerce. The worlds of art, branding and fashion have fused, with commercial photographers like Klein and Juergen Teller promoted esthetically and artists like Nan Goldin and Collier Schorr hired to shoot fashion features or ad campaigns.

Cindy Sherman is represented here by a sequence of her grotesquely masked impersonations of fashionistas, costumed head to toe in Balenciaga. Vogue Paris published it in August 2007. And Teller expanded his signature ad campaign for Marc Jacobs -- featuring artists in low-key "non-glamour" shoots, for a change -- into a feature for the summer 2007 issue of Purple Fashion Magazine. In it he arranged William Eggleston and Charlotte Rampling in a series of deadpan poses that seem to suggest some dysfunctional predicament.

Other photographers, such as British lensman Tim Walker, combine the methods of Surrealism with the refined elegance of classic black-and-white fashion photography. Walker pays skillful homage to both Horst and Dali, for instance, with his odd, whited-out photos of two ethereal models for Vogue Italia (January 2008).

Exaggeration, ingenuity, art history, science, theater and independent film are all gist for the newest fashion photography. The exhibition illustrates just how etiolated, even dehumanized, photography has become in its constant search for something shockingly different. What the pictures are selling is not an individual dress or hat or shoe, but an atmosphere that makes viewers covet the aura of the brand and feel part of a privileged cultural elite, a cool global in-crowd.

The accompanying show, "This Is Not a Fashion Photograph," confirms the fact that fashion fantasies have thoroughly colonized ordinary life. For this "curator’s eye" exercise (a sidebar to the main events), Vince Aletti has mined some 70 images from ICP’s permanent collection, ranging in date from the 1880s till the present.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not hard to find images by art photographers that could double as fashion work. Aletti posits that pictures by photographers like Berenice Abbott, Tina Barney and Robert Mapplethorpe (who did accept commercial assignments), usually classified as "authentic," can be seen as investigations of the ways that individuals present themselves in the world. Everyday reality is, after all, just another fashion show.

Nothing reveals the radical evolution of fashion photography over the last century more dramatically than the contrast between "Weird Beauty" and "Edward Steichen: In High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937," the concurrent ICP retrospective of Steichen’s lucid fashion photos and celebrity portraits. Reverently installed against gray walls are some 175 of his vintage images, almost all borrowed from the Condé Nast Archives.

(This show is a variant of the much traveled Steichen retrospective organized in 2007 by ICP alumnus William A. Ewing, now director of the Musee del’Elysée in Lausanne, and Todd Brandow, executive director of the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography in Minneapolis, with the help of Carol Squiers and Musée de l’Elysée’s curator Nathalie Herschdorfer.) 

Condé Nast has long purveyed aristocratic taste to a mass audience, hiring Baron Adolph de Meyer as Vogue’s first staff photographer in 1914. De Meyer
revolutionized fashion photography, transforming Pictorialist high-art conventions into a vehicle for recording style, fashion, personalities and glamour in a way that spoke to a popular audience’s desire for a glimpse of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

When Steichen, who was 11 years younger than de Meyer, became Vogue’s chief photographer in 1923, his move into the world of commerce scandalized his arty colleagues, who scorned commercial work. But, as Steichen himself said, "Commercial pressure is an amazingly productive force." Art is, after all, eminently adaptable, as easily at home in the pages of Vogue as on the walls of a museum or gallery.

This thoughtful, even reverent exhibition traces Steichen’s capacity for creative reinvention as he shifted from a soft-focus Pictorialist style, his metier since the beginning of the century (when he co-founded the Photo Secession group with Alfred Stieglitz in 1903), to a mastery of sharp-focus modernist clarity by the mid-1920s. Already an accomplished portraitist, Steichen had to learn from scratch how to stage and manage fashion shoots and how to use artificial light.

One of the show’s most interesting items is a short 1937 film that captures his dramatic direction of a glamorous photo-shoot. (Steichen benefited from technological developments in photography and lighting such as the availability of nitrate film, advances in lighting and the invention of the flashbulb in 1927.)

Developing a concise and consistent visual language, Vogue’s star pushed fashion and advertising photography beyond the gauzy romanticism of Pictorialism to a vision of what we can now perceive, in retrospect, as modern beauty. His work also benefited immensely from the radical improvements in art direction adopted by Dr. Agha, whom Condé Nast hired as art director in 1929. Dr. Agha replaced Heyworth Campbell and his conservative layouts, bringing freshness, energy and order to what had become rather tedious and stale magazine design.

Steichen’s editor at Vogue, Edna Woolman Chase, once observed that, "Fashion can be bought. Style one must possess." His fashion pictures flawlessly convey a cool and elevated perfection of style as do his more animated, suavely composed celebrity portraits of such period luminaries as Ginger Rogers, Gloria Swanson (mysterious and compelling behind a flowered black veil) Amelia Earhart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charlie Chaplin and Gary Cooper.

And the clothes, the flawless hairdos, the jewelry and accessories -- they are always splendid, even when Steichen experiments in the late 1930s with color spreads that today look stiffly staged. In the 21st century, these pictures are period pieces, and Steichen’s classic modernist elegance is now retro. The pictures convey a lost age of leisurely high style, a dramatic contrast to the present moment, when the women we see in designer evening gowns are being interviewed on some red carpet by Joan Rivers.

The story shifts gears in "Munkacsi’s Lost Archives," a small exhibition of newly made and vintage prints by Martin Munkacsi (1896-1963), a former Hungarian sports photographer who brought a casual vitality (and a dose of fresh air) to Harper’s Bazaar after he was hired in 1934. This exhibition turns out to be the most interesting show at ICP -- and, since it reflects how the fashion business can chew up and spit out talent, is something of a miracle.

For at the end of his career, Munkacsi, broke and alcoholic, put his life’s work -- some 4,000 glass-plate negatives packed in small yellow cardboard boxes -- into a storage facility. After ICP’s 2007 retrospective of his work, the vanished archive, probably sold off as abandoned property, showed up for sale on eBay and ICP was able to acquire the lot. Now the little yellow boxes are touchingly displayed in a gallery vitrine.

Several new prints recently developed from the fragile glass plates reveal Munkacsi’s manipulation of al fresco set-ups, his process of radical cropping and his sequences of figures in motion indoors and out. After all of Steichen’s Art Deco elegance and the elaborate contrivances of contemporary fashion photographers seeking artfulness, Munkacsi’s black-and-white sequence of a laughing blond girl in the back seat of a convertible, hair blowing in the breeze, vibrates with unquenchable life. Unforgettable and joyfully present, these are the best pictures in the place.

The Steichen exhibition is accompanied by a well illustrated catalogue, Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years 1923-1937, published by W.W. Norton & Company. Some of Steichen’s earlier works will be on view in "Edward Steichen: 1915-1923," a show of his experimental still-life photographs opening at Howard Greenberg Gallery in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street on Mar. 20,  2009. ICP’s fashion year continues with exhibitions of fashion photography by Richard Avedon and David Seidner.

"Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now," "Edward Steichen: In High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937," "This Is Not a Fashion Photograph" and
"Munkacsi’s Lost Archive," Jan. 16-May 3, 2009, at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10036.

Alexandra Anderson-Spivy is writing Arbiter of Elegance, the first biography of Baron Adolph de Meyer.