You wouldn’t know it by flipping through the editorial pages of American Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, or GQ, but when it comes to great contemporary photography, this is truly a fashion moment. Perhaps because it has little to do with traditional ideas of beauty, and even less to do with documenting a garment, fashion photography—in magazines and in advertising—has never looked as smart, as eccentric, as inventive, or as perverse as it does right now. As fashion photographers have become increasingly adventurous (and well paid), the field has also attracted an unprecedented number of established art photographers who see it as a lively and minimally compromised pop-culture showcase—a place for experimentation and wit.
The crossover works both ways: at the same time artists like Nan Goldin, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Jack Pierson, Collier Schorr, and Eve Fowler are turning out fashion spreads, Terry Richardson, Bruce Weber, Inez van Lamsweerde, David LaChapelle, and Alexei Hay are turning up on gallery walls. But this list can only hint at the pervasiveness of the sensibility shared by art and fashion photography these days—an improbable convergence of the slick and the strange, the disarming and the disturbing.
Over the years, fashion magazines have been havens and incubators for important photographers, from Beaton, Blumenfeld, and Man Ray to Avedon, Penn, and Helmut Newton. All of them worked within, chafed against, and gradually broke free of rather narrow notions of glamour and femininity. Vestiges of those notions hang on in a few mainstream magazines, but many more have adopted an ambivalent, almost adversarial stance toward conventional elegance, mirroring the stylish subversion of designers like Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, Rei Kawakubo, and Issey Miyake.
As the embodiment of this new attitude, most contemporary fashion photographers tend to treat the genre’s history with cool irony, if not outright disdain. Though still active and vital, Avedon and Penn have been relegated to old master status, their oeuvres raided now and then for the sake of postmod pastiche, appropriation, or hommage (see, most audaciously, Steven Meisel’s reworking of Avedon’s Warhol Factory group portrait for ckone). Today’s fashion crew is more likely to draw its inspiration from outside the field—the further outside, the better. Photographers as diverse as Goldin, diCorcia, Weegee, Cindy Sherman, and Seydou Keita have influenced the course of recent fashion photography, as have countless photojournalists, filmmakers, video directors, and contemporary artists.
This broadened context reflects fashion’s new ubiquity. Fashion has always had a voracious appetite for the new, but now that it’s on relentless display in virtually every available media outlet, novelty—if not genuine innovation—is in constant demand. More than any other group, the fashion posse feeds and feeds off of the current magazine explosion. With the increasing availability of foreign publications matched by a slew of domestic start-ups, the newsstands are packed with magazines that wrap wafer-thin celebrity, lifestyle, and arts coverage around a juicy core of fashion photos. Prime examples: Dutch, Big, Flaunt, i-D, Dune, Dazed & Confused, Surface, Numéro, Stare, Self-
Service, Tank, Purple, and Nylon, nearly half of which didn’t exist a year ago. If few of these glossy slabs are nourishing great writers, they are fertile ground for art directors inspired by ’50s cult magazines like Flair and Gentry, and they account for the exponential growth rate in fashion editorial pages.
Admittedly, too many of those pages are filled with pictures that, in an attempt to appear radically avant-garde, look merely freakish. For every great fashion photographer, there are at least 10 ambitious frauds, most of whom seem to think that covering a model’s head in tinfoil and setting her on all fours in an abandoned oil refinery is genius. The flight from bland conventionality too often ends up in bland outrage. Nearly all of fashion’s camera crew dabble in the uncanny and the kitsch—LaChapelle has made a career of mixing the two at high volume—but the best of them have a broader, deeper, and more engagingly personal vision. Most mainstream American fashion magazines discourage that vision’s most outré form, preferring safe, pretty, classic work, much of which could have been made in the ’60s. It’s only when you see the same photographer’s work in The Face, Interview, or Arena Hommes Plus that you realize exactly how much he or she has been holding back; even Spin prints way edgier fashion pages than Bazaar. Comparing Meisel’s covers and editorial spreads for American and Italian Vogue is like looking at two different artists, one playing by the rules, the
other breaking them over and over again.
Meisel, deconstructed by Neville Wakefield in the current issue of the Brit art mag Frieze, still heads the contemporary pantheon of fashion pros. No one else is as productive, idiosyncratic, or surprising; even when he’s stealing ideas, he’s
brashly original. But his peers—including Weber, van Lamsweerde, Richardson, Paolo Roversi, Juergen Teller, Mario Testino, Peter Lindbergh, Ellen von Unwerth, Craig McDean, Luis Sanchis, and current favorites Mario Sorrenti and Steven Klein—are also an extraordinary lot. And every time you turn a page, another rising star comes into view. Fashion photography has gone through some glorious periods, but not since Avedon and Penn were reinventing the form in the ’40s and ’50s has it hit such a peak of sustained creativity, and never before has it supported so many varied and protean talents.
Fashion hasn’t entirely lost its aura of elitism, but the postmod squad aren’t afraid to dirty it up, tear it down, or slap it in the face; a lot of them pretend it isn’t even there, substituting aura and attitude for a garment that’s little more than an inflated label anyway. Ironically, nowhere is this substitution more prevalent than in fashion advertising, which has become over the past two decades both an
unlikely creative refuge and the source of some of the best new photography. Old-school editorial work looks especially tired when surrounded by ad images that are sharper, sexier, and far more arresting.
Testino’s splashy campaigns for Gucci and Calvin Klein are many a magazine’s liveliest moment, as are Norbert Schoerner’s Prada ads, Dah Len’s Guess spreads, and Meisel’s various over-the-top productions for Versace and Dolce & Gabbana. Weber’s Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues, and the ads that are excerpted from them, are among his cleverest and most representative work. Because this advertising appears everywhere—on billboards, on bus shelters, and in every sort of magazine—unsettling, avant-garde fashion photography thrives in even the most timid social and editorial climates. As the fashion moment gains momentum, expect more Calvin Klein–size blowups and flameouts, but they’ll be more than offset by gains in visual literacy. Fashion photographers are retraining our eyes. Keep them open.