PRINT May 2004

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

It will not come as breaking news to Artforum readers that commercial fashion and art photography have long existed in close proximity, with photographers regularly crossing between the two domains. Artforum, after all, has itself contributed to this development, however modestly, by featuring fashion as a subject relevant to contemporary art and serving as a site for upscale fashion advertising. Be that as it may, throughout the twentieth century artists and photographers have often moved from one camp to the other, among them, Man Ray, Frederick Kiesler, Herbert List, Salvador Dalí, Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, and Andy Warhol, who perhaps represents the ne plus ultra of crossover careers. While greater cultural capital attaches to the practice of photographic art, in most cases greater economic capital accrues to professional fashion photography, especially at its highest levels.

Over the past twenty years, commercial photographers with artistic aspirations have been relieved of the need to produce work that implicitly repudiates their professional practice, as was earlier the case. Here I am thinking of the example of Penn. Hugely successful throughout the ’50s and ’60s as a fashion photographer for Vogue, when he turned to the rigors of art, his chosen motifs were either fat women, skulls, or decomposing cigarette butts. Needless to say, the contrast between such subjects and those of his fashion pictures operated as the very warranty of aesthetic ambition. However, for the artistically inclined fashion photographer today, or the art photographer attracted to the world of style, such overdetermined oppositions are no longer necessary. On the contrary, fashion photographers may now flirt with physical imperfection (to a point), employ nonprofessional models, fabricate mise-en-scènes of exciting squalor or implied depravity, and appropriate any and all styles from the history of photography, while art photography has long been freed from the burden of beauty. Furthermore, the increasing formal “autonomy” of sophisticated fashion photography has made it a more appealing, flexible, and presumably lucrative option for artists and art photographers. Often divorced from the task of representing the commodity as such, this type of experimental or unconventional fashion photography is a growing presence in style and pop-culture magazines such as The Face, i-D, Blitz, Tank, and Dutch, as well as in so-called editorial spreads in print media from W to Sunday-newspaper magazine supplements.

Given these broader options and the long-in-the-making collapse of boundaries between elite and mass culture (or, if one prefers, art and commerce), it is only to be expected that museums would recognize the popular appeal of fashion photography of all types. Thus the Museum of Modern Art’s initial sortie into the brave new world of fin de siècle fashion photography—“Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990”—is by no means the first museum exhibition of its kind and will surely not be the last. Organized by department of photography curator Susan Kismaric and assistant curator Eva Respini, “Fashioning Fiction” is a relatively late participant in the museological celebration of contemporary fashion photography. Over the past seven years alone, London’s National Portrait Gallery has exhibited the photographs of Bruce Weber and Mario Testino, Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie inaugurated its new building with a Helmut Newton retrospective, the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted “Imperfect Beauty: The Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs,” and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art weighed in with “Chic Clicks: Creativity and Commerce in Contemporary Fashion Photography.” Accordingly, a great deal of what “Fashioning Fiction” attempts to demonstrate in its mix and match of art and fashion photography has already been demonstrated, if largely unanalyzed. Generally speaking, the exhibition catalogue proposes the following three theses: (1) A decisive change in the look and content of fashion and style photography occurred in the 1990s, (2) during this period art and fashion photography increasingly suggested narratives of greater or lesser ambiguity, alluded to various film genres and even documentary photography, and evoked “personal” or “lifestyle” projects à la Nan Goldin from the art side and Davide Sorrenti from the fashion side, and (3) this cross-fertilization between artistic and commercial photography affirms the vitality and creativity of both practices (museological discourse is nothing if not euphoric).

With respect to the first notion, the curators deploy the structure of “decade-ology,” a historiographical equivalent to the sound bite by which perceived cultural shifts and transformations are tidily packaged. In fact, virtually all the developments that the exhibition catalogue locates in the ’90s were well in evidence in the 1980s, and The Face, which itself contributed importantly to these developments, was launched in 1980. So too was the ’80s the period when many mainstream fashion magazines supported the crossover activities of artists and art photographers. Yet the bland and simplistic terms in which the catalogue discusses these pictures, whether those produced by art photographers or those produced by fashion photographers, fail to address the substantive issues raised by the photographs themselves. For surely contemporary fashion photography’s various plays with sex and gender, race and difference, are among its most significant elements. And surely another significant aspect of the genre is its ideological address, its complex orchestrations of spectatorial desire, projection, identification, fetishism, voyeurism, and all the other psychic mechanisms that account for the power, the influence, and indeed the pleasure such pictures produce. Last, but hardly least, there is the question of how such photographs—paradigms of the simulacral—impact on social reality, including the self-images of actual women, men, and adolescents.

Because the phenomenon of fashion photography in the museum virtually by definition celebrates the photographer/author, it produces the illusion that his or her imagery is individually rather than culturally generated and often collectively produced. While this authorial emphasis obviously elides the role of the stylist (a professional routinely credited in editorial style photography who often scripts the shoot, scouts locations, and dresses the models), so too does it obscure the web of visual influence—the intertextuality—of all forms of visual culture. Although MoMA credits fashion editors and stylists in the catalogue checklist, few outside the professional field of fashion photography will likely be aware of their central role in producing the exhibited photographs. Accordingly, the act of decontextualizing these photographs by isolating, framing, and mounting them on walls effectively flattens their specificity, their instrumentality, and their original mode of address, and thus the consumer or audience targeted by the photographic work is obscured (there is, of course, no universal spectator).

Detached from its surrounding glossy or newsprint environment and even its original size in halftone or four-color reproduction, any fashion photograph that departs from conventions that might otherwise anchor its meaning (whether glamorous professional models or certain protocols of lighting and composition) becomes indistinguishable from an art photograph of similar style. After all, the prevalence of appropriation from photographic history, the allusion to the “look” of cinema, the simulation of “vernacular” documentary or snapshot forms, and the self-conscious deployment of pastiche (all hallmarks of postmodern visual culture, pace Fredric Jameson) are as much staples of art photography as they are of the more sophisticated kinds of advertising imagery. Consequently—and this is very much the case in “Fashioning Fiction”—a kind of (upward) leveling prevails. Simon Leigh’s “Oh de Toilette” series, if one overlooks the cues provided by their so-discreetly placed toiletries, looks like nothing so much as the self-consciously banal color photography once promoted by MoMA’s photography department; Mario Sorrenti’s pictures from Another Magazine traffic with the same nostalgie de la boue as do those of Richard Billingham or, for that matter, Nan Goldin. And some of the photographs made by those whom the curators take care to designate as “art photographers,” such as Tina Barney, enjoy the dubious distinction of manifesting no perceptible difference between their artistic and commercial function.

It must be said that while fashion photographers have something to gain in terms of artistic legitimation via their museological elevation, it is less clear what artists gain—remuneration and exposure notwithstanding—by their embrace of the commercial sphere. In a letter to the editor published in the January 2004 Artforum, Wolfgang Tillmans begins, “I would like to correct the recurring misperception that I was a fashion photographer before becoming an artist.” He goes on to explain that prior to his first exhibitions in the late ’80s he did not make fashion photographs and that his magazine work of the early ’90s was predominantly portraiture and documentary, “along with the occasional staged utopian scenario that had fashion credits so it could get printed.” He continues, “I moved my art practice partially into magazines in order to make and disseminate my work.” Lest we misunderstand his initial caveat, Tillmans concludes, “To me, both [art and fashion] are fields of great excellence, and few good results have come from the act of ‘crossing over’ for its own sake.” Although Tillmans is one whose fashion and artistic work is hard to differentiate, despite himself, he reveals the anxiety of the parvenu, conscious of lingering caste distinctions. Prestige, as his corrective attests, remains unequal, and interestingly, he stresses intention over instrumentality.

To my mind, however, some of the exemplary acts of “ ‘crossing over’ for its own sake” are Cindy Sherman’s commissions for Harper’s Bazaar, 1993, Dorothée Bis, 1984, and Comme des Garçons, 1994, which effectively overturn the populist applecart that is “Fashioning Fiction.” In this respect, while Glen Luchford may produce imagery suggestive of film noir’s sexual violence and misogyny, and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia may contrive artfully creepy tableaux of a phantasmic Cuba, Sherman’s truly horrific and thoroughly nightmarish versions of the fashion photograph reveal these other practices for the stylistic virtuosities they fundamentally are. Thus, while Juergen Teller’s devastating portraits of haute couture customers, which are the closest any of the exhibition’s photographs come to documentary photography (as opposed to documentary style), deliver a certain punch, it is Sherman whose uncompromisingly ferocious and truly aggressive pictures provide the real shock, indicting at one and the same time all notions of fashion, style, beauty, femininity, and manufactured desire.

To deplore the definitive collapse of distinctions between art and commercial culture exemplified by exhibitions such as “Fashioning Fiction” is altogether beside the point. Such lamentations are now considered tendentious and, worse, deeply boring. As Victor Burgin wrote in 1978 in “The End of Art Theory,” “The market is ‘behind’ nothing; it is in everything.” Nowadays, the intertwined and interdependent relations of fashion (high and low), mass media, the entertainment industries, youth culture, celebrity culture, and whatever passes for elite culture—all patched together with the glue of marketing and public relations—makes any attempt at discrimination between genres or practices, to say nothing of critical judgment, extremely difficult. Moreover, if once upon a time the circuits of influence between elite and mass visual cultures were two-directional (high to low or low to high), they have since morphed into a seamless loop. For historians of modernism such as Thomas Crow, the issue had to do with the cannibalization of elite culture by what used to be called the culture industry, as he wrote in “Modernism and Mass Culture”: “Functionally then, the avant-garde serves as a kind of research and development arm of the culture industry: it searches out areas of social practice not yet completely available to efficient manipulation and makes them discrete and visible.”

But postmodernist photographic practice, or at least that fraction of it characterized by Hal Foster in 1982 as “oppositional postmodernism,” operated differently: It cannibalized mass culture for ostensibly critical ends, only to find itself recannibalized from the other direction. The vicissitudes of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” of 1977–80 are a case in point. Having mordantly demonstrated the masquerade of femininity as quite literally mediated through the lens of film, her pictures are now reprised by the fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth for a 1995 Alberta Ferretti advertising campaign. Meanwhile, Robert Longo’s well-known drawings of figures caught in poses available only to the camera’s freeze-frame have recently been resurrected, billboard size, in photographic form for a Gap promotion. DiCorcia’s noirish pictures in “Cuba Libre,” among other references, pastiche Burgin’s photographs from his series “Office at Night,” 1985–86, which themselves make reference to paintings by Edward Hopper. Thus, as Douglas Crimp cautioned so presciently in his 1982 essay “Appropriating Appropriation,” “If all aspects of the culture use this new operation [appropriation], then the operation itself cannot indicate a specific reflection upon the culture.”

And yet, as I have suggested, regardless of the individual intentions of artists and photographers themselves, there is a difference between art and fashion, documentary and advertising, however fragile or provisional. Consider, for example, Fashion: Photography of the Nineties, a 1996 book edited by Camilla Nickerson and Neville Wakefield, which is structured much like a museum exhibition. That is to say, it consists simply of full-page, full-bleed reproductions in no apparent order. No essay, no text, no captions, no commentary; the names of the photographer, the date, and sometimes a title appear at the end of the book. Here one finds most of the photographers to be seen in “Fashioning Fiction” but accompanied by many others who might well have been included in MoMA’s show (for example, Corinne Day, Inez van Lamsweerde, and Nick Knight). But turning the pages, one also finds photographs by Catherine Opie, by the Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson (“Girl gangs in San Antonio”), and in several places pictures from series by Richard Prince (“Girlfriends,” “Cowboys,” “Parties”). These images—Prince’s in particular—disrupt and disturb all the others, producing, one might say, a discordant unpleasure. Prince’s pictures are, of course, rephotographs; the cruddiness of the original reproduction magnified by their re-reproduction. The image world they purvey is, from the perspective of style writers or the curators of “Fashioning Fiction,” the demotic, populist, “antiestablishment” stratum that has “democratized” and invigorated both fashion and style. But in their very sleaziness, in their decidedly uneuphoric insistence on the visibility of class, its injuries, and its violence, they give the lie to the fashionable fictions that MoMA and other art institutions are now so eager to promote.

Abigail Solomon-Godeau is professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.