Jim Lee

Hamiltons Gallery

Can fashion photography ever be truly radical, or can it only be radical chic? The answer may seem self-evident, but only under the assumption that politics sits in judgment: Placing desire in the service of consumption, the fashion photo necessarily betrays desire’s radical potential. Shot for an ad for Jaeger, British photographer Jim Lee’s Baader Meinhof, 1969, in which the model’s elegant coat only just steals the scene from her haughtily upheld machine gun, illustrates the attendant problem clearly enough: The image would have been equally offensive to a conservative, appalled at the romanticization of terrorist violence, and to a leftist militant, aghast at the reduction of political rage to a style accessory. The image is censurable from either point of view.

Another image on view here, Fashion Magazine/Kenya, 1970, reveals a different sort of ambiguity: A blond model sprawls fully clothed on a beach as a half-naked black youth clambers over her legs. The evocation of inter-racial desire probably seemed pretty liberated back then, but today one thinks instead of the seaminess of sex tourism. Yet for all one’s reservations, Kenya remains an almost shockingly erotic image, and all the more so for having been blown up to gallery scale. The top of the boy’s head is cut off by the upper edge of the frame as the tips of his fingers are at the bottom, as if he were invading the viewer’s space, while the girl, perpendicular to him, pushes with her elbows against the sand to raise her shoulders and head to lock gazes with him: A brilliantly simple composition, it knows desire and power are intertwined, showing a moment when it’s really not clear who’s in charge or what will happen next. Here, as rarely in a fashion image, ethical indifference carries its own truth content. The shock of the moment escapes both politics and consumption—even if one imagines that the moment has no consequence and nothing will happen between these two, which is just as likely as anything else.

The twelve black-and-white photographs shown here, shot by Lee between 1968 and 1971, are full of such little shocks, quite deliberately ambiguous for all their graphic punch. In fact, the ambiguity is at the heart of the shock. Maybe none of the images quite reaches the intensity of a Lee photograph that wasn’t included, a color shot from 1969 called Ossie Clark/Vietnam, in which a uniformed and helmeted GI has grabbed hold of a girl modeling a brilliantly dappled Clark outfit and looking like a Baroque saint in ecstasy. At the height of the war—and of protests against it—what could have cut against the grain of desire more effectively than this? But death is part of the atmosphere: In Ossie Clark/Rocker, 1969, the model is stretched out across a Hells Angel lying facedown on his chopper; maybe they’ve just had a head-on collision. Repulsion becomes a measure of desire, and at a more intimate level, so does pain. The girl in the foreground of Bikini/Beachy Head, 1969, averts her face, a look of something like anguish just legible on it. Behind her, a man in a dark coat looks downcast. Presumably they’ve just had a quarrel, maybe a breakup. Her left hand is thrust down the crotch of her swimsuit. One’s first thought might be that, in distress, she’s giving herself an elementary form of comfort; but it’s just as likely that grief has turned her on.

Barry Schwabsky