PRINT May 2016

Olu Odukoya

Olu Odukoya, cover art for Modern Matter, September 2015. Photo: Blommers & Schumm.

I VALUE A DEGREE OF HONESTY in all the images I make, whether it’s for a fashion editorial or an artwork. At the same time, there’s an element of artifice in both kinds of photography. You’re always constructing something, whether it’s meant to appear natural or heavily stylized. If reality, recorded in a straightforward way, doesn’t convey the message you’d like it to convey, there’s the opportunity to construct a reality that does. A case in point: the shot I included in an issue of Modern Matter where the model’s bra is stuffed with two oranges. It’s a visual joke that alludes to the function of the object itself. A bra is designed to support a particular bodily shape, even if it’s a shape that’s excluded from the traditional “reality” of high-fashion photography.

Fashion photography often makes an effort to be interpreted as art, whereas art photography proper can feel more effortless—it has, to some degree, nothing to prove. It expects to be taken at face value, on its own merits. But ultimately, both art and fashion photography are trying to convince the viewer of something, even if one kind of image is trying to persuade you of its intellectual value or artistic merit and the other is trying to persuade you to appreciate a garment or a particular style.

As an exercise, fashion photography offers a degree of freedom due to the fact that it’s meant to be ephemeral, to appear in an ad or a magazine. If you conceive of an idea and the execution isn’t quite perfect, there’s room for forgiveness. On the other hand, the obviously commercial aspect of fashion photography poses a challenge, because it’s not an open-ended process; you go into it knowing that there is this very pragmatic purpose. If you can figure out how to avoid being constrained by this entirely, you can transcend the boundaries of commercial work and make something more personal and with a different purpose—something stranger or wilder or more excessive.

A good example of this kind of fusion of impulses in my photography is the photograph from the cover of the same issue of Modern Matter I mentioned above, of a plastic bag that reads PLASTIC SURGERY. Cosmetic surgery is something you associate with artifice, the idea of being false or made up. In this way, it’s a fashion photograph, but without any of the classic elements of the genre: no model, no faces, no clothing, no trends. It’s made by dissecting everything we imagine a fashion shot to be, exposing an invented product at its core. You expect the image on a magazine cover to be about aesthetics first and foremost, but I was more concerned with blending concepts playfully. I was thinking in a similar way when I produced an extralarge Marlboro box, complete with a counterfeit logo, to house an issue of Kilimanjaro magazine. It’s a comment on the intrinsic artistry of brand identification and the way that elements of high design are incorporated into art, love, and everyday life. I’ve always found red seductive, whether it’s in the guise of a fashion image, an artwork, or product packaging, so that was a consideration here too.

In recent years, analog photography has been a growing trend in fashion. I’d say this demonstrates an interest in moving toward an art aesthetic in fashion photography. There’s a parallel with the way that black-and-white was once seen as the default for art photographs, with color being reserved for documentary. One need only think of William Eggleston making color photography legitimate to see that so-called “commercial” forms can be reclassified at any time.

Olu Odukoya is an artist, director of London design studio OMO Creates, and publisher of the magazines Kilimanjaro and Modern Matter.