PRINT October 2000


FOREVER TORN BETWEEN ITS AMBITIONS as art and its allegiance to commerce, fashion photography is so confident right now that for all intents the distinction has dissolved. Serious fashion types call the genre's most accomplished image makers “auteurs,” and the conceit seems more apt than ever. If the fashion photograph has traditionally been calculated to seduce, to startle, and, of course, to sell, today it often simply sells itself. Forget the clothes; forget the model; vision is all. Take twenty-seven-year-old Alexei Hay: Lifted out of the editorial context, his pictures rarely betray their function. “I never think about the clothes when I go to a shoot,” he says, and the fashion usually does seem incidental, if not entirely beside the point.

In fact, Hay would probably object to being described as a fashion photographer. He works regularly at Harper's Bazaar, where he must think clothes, and recently signed on to shoot Gucci's new ad campaign (he says the prominent bulge in one model's pants was not his idea), but he seems more excited about blowing up TV sets and cereal boxes for the New York Times Magazine than trekking to the California desert with an entourage of makeup artists, hairdressers, and models in fur. Though Hay talks about adapting Irving Penn's portable tent for his Gucci shoot—removing the back wall for an oddly unnaturalistic effect—the sources that feed his head are an unlikely mix, from James Nachtwey and vintage Face spreads to Helmut Newton and forgotten '70s cheese whiz Cheyco Leidmann. Maybe that's why the best of his work, though extremely polished, still feels real: frisky, funny, a little tucked-up.

Hay's realism—like that of his peers—is frankly fake, involving heightened theatrical effects that draw on both photojournalistic and Hollywood conventions and owe a lot to Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who has moved seamlessly between magazine and gallery work for some time now. Hay, who apprenticed as diCorcia's assistant, readily acknowledges the influence of his former boss's trademark style. He slips into the diCorcia mode with ease, expertly blending artificial and natural light, sketching in a narrative with a few suggestive strokes, even managing to approximate the master's deceptive effortlessness. But he's up to something else, too, something nastier and nervier and brashly comic. The pictures in his first gallery show, at Bronwyn Keenan last year (another is set for spring 2001), gnawed at the glamorous mythology of adolescent alienation, buying into it, but goosing it too. The ambivalence was shrewdly managed—and unnerving. Even if he sympathizes with the young men and women in his photos, he's more interested in seeing their messy stories play themselves out than in identifying with his subjects or protecting them.

This strategic ruthlessness is nothing new in fashion work, but Hay tempers it with flashes of genuine feeling, usually for kids who think of themselves as outsiders or outlaws. Each of his spreads for Big's Music+ Fashion issue features an adolescent alone with an instrument in a grimy recording studio—all poignant, solitary figures staking out a bit of creative space between massive amps and sound baffles that look like slabs of Minimal art. For a Dazed & Confused cover, Hay photographed rap scourge Eminem smoking a bong, his blue-eyed gaze mesmerizing, anxious. In an inside spread, Eminem grasps the pipe, exhales a puff, and tilts his head back to stare through slit eyes into the camera. Standing behind a card table covered with large knives, he's flanked by a pair of punky dudes Hay found hanging out on Eighth Street. One holds a machete and is trying hard to look pugnacious; the other has a bad haircut and a stoned glaze. They're all lost boys, toying with danger, teasing fame, ready to go up in smoke.

Boys, lost or otherwise, are Hay's strength. The models in Bazaar and the girls in Gucci don't inspire him the way some rocker kid with messed-up teeth and an outdated shag does. He understands masculine aggression and vulnerability, brutality and grace—or at least he's trying to. For an issue of Dutch, he rounded up some tough-looking young guys from New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade and photographed them in designer furs. None are conventional beauties; their faces are scarred, freckled, and scruffy. Hay juices up the menace of their presence in a European fashion magazine—one wields a blunted baseball bat, another has a razor blade between his teeth—but he loves their cold-eyed heat, and he uses them to redefine elegance. In one picture, two machos in Versace stand at a window overlooking the FDR Drive. Half in shadow, half in sunlight, the men are intimately close, one holding a joint and looking out at the passing cars, the other naked from the waist down and looking straight at us. It's a strange, charged moment, something you feel you've stumbled upon by accident, like sex in public. Is this a fashion photograph? It is now.

Vince Aletti