Although Edward Steichen, one of the Museum of Modern Art’s earliest and most influential photography curators, was also the first great American fashion photographer, the Modern has never shown much interest in fashion work. Classic fashion photos by Hoyningen-Huene, Munkacsi, de Meyer, and Avedon have popped up in the permanent-collection galleries from time to time, and Irving Penn’s work for Vogue was an important element in his 1984 MOMA retrospective, but the museum’s 75-year history doesn’t include a single show devoted to fashion. That puts a lot of weight on “Fashioning Fiction,” opening Friday at MOMA QNS. The show attempts to shrug off that historical burden by focusing on developments in a brief recent period—roughly the 1990s—and sidestepping the conventional survey. The result is more tantalizing than satisfying— an intelligently selected tasting menu instead of the expected feast.
Susan Kismaric and Eva Respini, a veteran MOMA curator and a relative newcomer, have clearly shaped the show to appeal to the museum’s widest audience. To that end, they’ve chosen work by a number of photographers who have only dabbled in fashion—including Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Tina Barney, and Larry Sultan—and made decidedly eccentric choices among professionals in the field. Because the decade they’ve chosen to examine was characterized by what their catalog essay calls “a somewhat fraught exchange of sensibilities between the contemporary art world and consumer culture,” Kismaric and Respini can hardly be criticized for mounting a show in which fashion seems almost incidental to the demonstration of that exchange.
Even the most casual observer of the fashion scene will have noted the emphasis on lifestyle over clothing during the past several decades, especially in the advertising campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Abercrombie & Fitch. Narrative has been one of the prime engines for fashion work since the mid ’50s, when Avedon photographed Suzy Parker engaged in the bustling life of Parisian bars, restaurants, and casinos. But narrative took on a new importance in the ’80s and ’90s, if only because it was also driving some of the most successful art photography of the time. A story line, however fractured and fanciful, became the obvious common ground between Steven Meisel and Tina Barney, Steven Klein and Gregory Crewdson, and it’s one of two organizing devices Kismaric and Respini have seized upon for “Fashioning Fiction” (the other being a rather more vague exploration of the snapshot and the family photo).
Because a fashion story is typically spread out over as many as 30 pages, the focus on narrative work also dictates the show’s design. With the exception of Sherman, each of the 13 photographers is represented by a single editorial assignment or advertising campaign. This is especially effective, even for material that is not strictly narrative, emphasizing the interdependence of fashion photos in their natural habitat, the magazine, and allowing us to see the development of theme and variation from image to image. Like any compelling fiction, these sequences also serve to focus our attention on the layers of rich, weird invention involved in each element of the story, whether it’s the mysteriously misty landscape that Glen Luchford concocted for his 1997 Prada campaign or Meisel’s hilariously broad parody of all-American family life, published in Italian Vogue that same year as a sly rebuke to the reactionary post-heroin-chic happy-face movement.
But these curatorial decisions are less likely to impress the average MOMA viewer than the exhibition’s satirical slant—one that reflects the uneasy, anti-fashion attitude that prevailed for much of the ’90s. Sherman’s enormous self-portraits as a clownishly demented couture client open the show, setting a tone that’s immediately underlined by Juergen Teller’s equally huge and even more devastating portraits of actual couture customers. Barney is considerably kinder in her elegantly calibrated tableaux of artists, writers, actors, and socialites at home, but we’ve already been primed to look for fatuousness and grotesquerie, so it’s hard to ignore even the slightest flaw. But some of the show’s most arresting work turns its back on glamour and embraces ordinary life and all its flaws: Nan Goldin (on assignment for a short-lived Village Voice fashion supplement called View) photographs her woman friends lounging around the dingy Russian baths in lingerie, and Mario Sorrenti imagines a slacker heaven with himself as a graffiti writer, a band of friends rehearsing in a garage, and a guy lighting up a bong in a deliriously messy room.
Glam and grunge come together in Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s extraordinary 12-panel “Cuba Libre” sequence, originally published in W. Set in a crumbling Havana and featuring a single model and a cast of showgirls, Japanese businessmen, and local citizens, this is, like all of diCorcia’s work, narrative at its most intriguing and open-ended. Each image has a strange, offbeat beauty and an oddly melancholy sense of history. These are exactly the sort of pictures that make fashion photography so vital right now, and it’s gratifying to see them recognized, finally, at the Museum of Modern Art.