PRINT May 2016

Shea Spencer

Gianni Versace print advertisement, fall/winter 1994–95. From left: Nadja Auermann, Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, and Stephanie Seymour. Photo: Richard Avedon.

YOU ARE NEITHER PENALIZED NOR REWARDED for being an artist who does fashion photography. On either side of that art/fashion fence, the situation is compartmentalized and there are no free rides. You won’t attract more collectors or better reviews because you’ve made successful fashion images. By the same token, you won’t get any extra points for a fashion commission just because you had some great art shows—so what? It’s a competitive field, and companies are spending a lot of money on ad campaigns; they will give commissions to the photographer who makes the most compelling image for their purposes, full stop. It’s about the ability to create striking work in both fields.

There is, of course, a long tradition of artists in the commercial realm. In modernism alone, I love that Georgia O’Keeffe did work for the Dole pineapple juice campaign in 1939. Many dismiss these paintings (if they even know about them), but her time in Hawaii led to a series of important landscape and botanical works outside her commission. There’s also Man Ray and his friend Paul Outerbridge, one of the great experimenters in color photography (who also happened to have the largest advertising-photography studio of his time). And then there’s the master class of commercial work led by Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, who are now—finally—recognized as artists due to the undeniable quality of their images. Many photographers have brought their personal obsessions and particular views of the world into their commercial work. Think of Helmut Newton’s dramatic ads for Villeroy & Boch sinks and toilets, which featured Teutonic bondage models in poses that had little to do with the product itself (even when they were shown hoisting bathroom fixtures into a pickup truck in the driveway of a grand estate). Or Philip-Lorca diCorcia, whose “Hustlers” series, 1990–92, is such a touchstone for fine-art photography, and who also, in his collaborations with Dennis Freedman at W magazine in the 1990s, laid many tracks for moving between the gallery structure as we know it and high-level commercial work. All of these artists have signature styles that drew clients and creative directors to their work.

An artist’s relationship to their fashion work is like a sculptor who is also an architect: The demands and expectations are very different. The sculpture doesn’t need to serve any purpose other than to express the vision of the artist, whereas a building expresses the vision of the architect but also needs to serve the practical purpose of its commissioner. It needs to have bathrooms and fire exits. Fashion photography is unique in that it is the only applied photography that consistently allows for fantasy and personal imprint.

So why would an artist bother working in the fashion market at all? The money is good, of course, but every artist gets different things out of the process: access to fresh, sometimes large-scale creative tools, for example. By its nature, the subject of fashion is always transforming and changing, with new clothes, new faces, and new technology. But the most compelling factor for an artist might be what I find most interesting—the reach. Fashion campaigns are one of the last arenas for massive repetition: The images are distributed on a vast scale, dwarfing the reach of the art world, and that is a powerful incentive for an artist. The case that might best illustrate the potential of mass-cultural influence is Bruce Weber (who is clearly an artist, in my personal definition of the term). Weber’s nostalgic worldview, populated with dogs, smiles, and well-defined muscles, has been exponentially amplified by thirty years of delightfully relentless Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch images. This one man is largely responsible for exporting what the rest of the world thinks of as “America.” Yes, he has helped sell a lot of underwear in the process, but it’s difficult to imagine another scenario where that sort of impact on global visual culture would be possible.

My agency, Artist Commissions, privileges and nurtures the art side of the artist. In every sense, this has to come first. Artists have to have the time and support to create their strong points of view, to turn their cameras on the world. Photography is complicated enough as it is—it always involves collaboration between people, machines, and processes. Artist Commissions helps the artist navigate the apparatus of the fashion system and orchestrate the crews and technical teams needed to launch a multipart collaboration that is nevertheless funneled through the artist’s singular lens. If the artist possesses some unique way in which to see and stage the world and has the temperament and interest to work commercially, our firm tries to make it both possible and worthwhile to extrapolate that individual view to a global audience. And in the process, maybe even have some fun.

What is the value for a client that would make it worth commissioning an artist? As I see it, there are two paths a client can take. On the one hand (the most common route), a client commissions a journey-person, a photo-image artisan, who possesses technical expertise in creating a wide variety of pictorial qualities and synthesizes various source references for the occasion. On the other hand, the commissioning of an artist holds promise for the work to be outside groupthink and more innovative in its materials and ideas. But the real value is in the authenticity and consistency of the voice. In our Instagram world, where the viewer, the audience, and the consumer have unprecedented exposure to an extraordinarily diffuse spray of imagery, the value of a singular voice that can resonate in the noise and can touch the viewer with even a hint of authenticity can’t be overstated. It’s not appropriate for every case, and clearly I’m biased. But if clients want to create convincing imagery, they should draw directly from the creative well and collaborate with an artist who can deliver the real thing.

Shea Spencer is the founder of Artist Commissions, a management firm and agency based in New York.