Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now

Mark Alice Durant In Conversation With Carol Squiers & Vince Aletti

Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, "Into The Woods." W Magazine, August 2007
Solve Sunsbo, "Batty Boy." Arena Homme Plus, February 2007
Nick Knight, "Boned." Another Man, Fall/Winter 2007
Juegen Teller, "William Eggleston." Purple Fashion, Issue 7
Hedi Slimane, "Fetish." Vogue Homme International, Spring/Summer 2008

Magazine spread photographs by Kimberlee Venable / Magazines courtesy of the Vince Aletti Collection

2009 is the “Year of Fashion” at the International Center for Photography Museum.

While exhibitions of fashion imagery make occasional appearances at museums, it is rare, if not entirely unprecedented, for such an august institution to devote an entire year to the presentation a photographic practice that many artists and critics consider frivolous at best. But as becomes abundantly clear with each successive exhibition at ICP, fashion has played a prominent role in the careers of many extraordinary photographers throughout the history of the medium and fashion’s influence is seen not just in the pages of Vogue or W but also in the edgy imagery of contemporary artists. From January through May, ICP offered four simultaneous exhibitions, Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Conde Nast Years, 1923-1937, Munkacsi’s Lost Archive, This is not a Fashion Photograph and Weird Beauty. The summer exhibitions are Avedon Fashion, 1944-2000 and David Seidner, Paris Fashion, 1945. “The Year of Fashion” will wrap up with ICP’s Third Triennial of Photography and Video, which will offer a series of projects that will critically examine fashion and its relation of larger cultural forces.


MD– Could you talk about the genesis of the show, how you came to collaborate and your personal interests in fashion photography?

VA– Brian Wallis suggested it to us because we had already set up the Avedon show and the Steichen show and we had talked about me doing “This Is Not a Fashion Photograph” and Brian thought we should have a contemporary component, so we found a space for it. Both of us have been interested in fashion photography for a long time and the first time I was aware of carol’s work was with fashion related material she put together at PS1.

CS– Many, many years ago (laughter).

MD– Carol, you are well known for your work as writer, critic, editor and curator—but I was not aware of your interest in fashion.

CS– It started in the late 70s—it was one of those serendipitous things; an editor asked me if I would be interested in writing about fashion photography. I think it was for that old Camera Arts magazine, which was a high quality photography magazine that didn’t make any money and went out of business. But I started researching fashion photography and I thought, “This is amazing.” I stayed interested and included fashion in a couple of shows I curated at PS1. But when we started thinking about this contemporary show for ICP, I think both of us knew, right away, that we should use tear sheets, because that’s what I used at PS1 and because of Vince’s world renowned collection of magazines—it was a natural. I don’t think you can have a contemporary fashion photography exhibition without using tear sheets—unless you raise a lot of money to have the imagery printed because most of these photographers are not making prints—they just have digital files.

VA– Right, the prints that are in the show are made for the show specifically. But it seemed natural to work with the images as they appear in magazines allowing us to show the whole sequence of images in context.

MD– In addition to freeing you from the expense of printing and framing—using the magazine pages allows you to be more playful in the presentation—creating these asymmetrical grids that fill the walls.

CS– Once we had picked out the stories we wanted to use we began to lay out the pictures in order to see which stories worked well with one another so that we wouldn’t have visual chaos. We wanted to separate the stories visually yet have them still play off one another in some way, thematically or through form or color. Then we gave all of that to the exhibition designers who created that grid-like system.

MD– The show has been up for a couple of months now and I was wondering if your ideas about what it is and what it means have changed. Have people’s reactions or even the economic crisis changed your ideas of how your show functions or what it means?

CS– The show had already been organized by the time the economy really dropped—it takes a long time to plan an exhibition. So it became simultaneously a show of contemporary fashion photography and a historical document of a moment that has now passed. Because it really records a certain moment that is exemplified by the Miles Aldridge picture of the red lips and teeth clenching the canary-colored diamond ring, a time of incredible excess.

MD– If you curated that show now and used that image it might almost be nostalgic.

CS– It’s nostalgic already (laughter).

VA– I just picked up the latest issue of a magazine and one of the things that struck me was six or eight pages of the biggest, most ostentatious jewelry that was vulgar and gaudy and it seems like it doesn’t go away.

CS– It’s one thing to look at the show, where we gathered images we thought were interesting from the last two years—but to actually open magazines and to still see that kind of ostentatiousness on display really seems wrong.

MD– But aren’t the fantasies of wealth more appealing in rough economic times?

CS– Well it seems like it—we had to do a lot of explaining of why this show should go up once the economy tanked, some thought it would be in bad taste. My rationalization was it’s like what happened during the depression in the 1930s—screwball comedies about rich people doing crazy things were very popular because it really distracted people. Fashion and fashion photography can function as a kind of escapism—I don’t know if that’s how the exhibition is functioning but we have been having very large crowds.

VA– the show has gotten really good word of mouth and interesting reactions in the fashion world.

CS– During fashion week there were so many people packed into the galleries there would be occasional roars from the crowds—which is not usually the case.

VA – But I also think for the regular ICP audience, whatever that may be, that this is a kind of a revelation of work that they may have never seen. In the end its really interesting, lively and exciting photography.

MD– Fashion photography is an underappreciated area of creativity – There is a lot of attitude about it from “fine art” photographers, academics and critics. And I think it’s a shame since the field is so rich with inventive imagery. By presenting these images in the revered halls of ICP, “Weird Beauty” encourages us to reconsider our dismissal.

VA– That’s what we really wanted to do—we wanted to show the images in the context of the page layout but also in the context of having Steichen downstairs so it can been seen as a continuation of historic work. There have been so many important people who have worked in fashion over the years and a lot of them have been shown at ICP including Avedon, Horst, William Klein, Hoyningen-Huene, Helmut Newton... you can’t say that there haven’t been people who have made historic work out of fashion and I think a lot of the people we are showing now have that potential.

CS– I’m still getting emails from “serious art people” with questions like “Don’t you think fashion photography is pretty superficial?” and I don’t really know how to answer that. Do I think that art photography is deeper than fashion photography somehow? I think it’s a question that is beside the point; there are only so many people in any field who are “deep.” I think the notion that fashion photography is superficial is kind of absurd given the sheer range of issues that fashion photographers seem to engage in their work—plastic surgery, commerce, obsession, bad love affairs, violence. These are issues that art, and certainly literature, has engaged.

MD– I guess depth is in the heart of the beholder.

CS– For me fashion photography is not a great novel, it’s true. You are not brought through a narrative of moral dilemmas and come out with a philosophical resolution in the end. But there is such creative energy that is funneled into fashion photography that some of the imagery compels us in some fundamental way.

MD– And its sheer ubiquity, my students are as likely to know particular fashion images, as they are canonical images from the history of photography. It’s a matter of influence, the imagery is there, its almost impossible to avoid, people are absorbing it, they may not be cued to have deep thoughts but that doesn’t mean its not influential.

VA– And it doesn’t mean those thoughts aren’t possible. There is a lot of bad fashion photography as there is in any field, that’s why it was important to us to isolate stories and focus on imagery that we thought was exciting.

MD– “Weird Beauty” and “This Is Not a Fashion Photograph” occupy the first floor galleries of ICP – the Steichen exhibition in the basement galleries literally and figuratively functions as the foundation for your shows on the first floor. Were there any revelations for you with that proximity?

CS– While doing walk-throughs of the two shows I started realizing that Steichen was a revolutionary in his time. He had a revolutionary effect on fashion photography and the depiction of women. What’s interesting is that the things that were revolutionary in 1923 seem so small next to what we see as important or noteworthy today—so its relative to the time in which the imagery is made. Steichen was working in a much more constricted social circumstance.

MD– So the simplest shift in gesture could have a kind of resonance

CS– Exactly, I mean when he was photographing Marian Morehouse and she was wearing a sassy, confrontational look, and her eyes were twinkling as she smiled—that was enormous. That was not the way fashionable women were portrayed, it was slightly vulgar. It was a huge change to portray women with hints of an animated inner life. Steichen makes those incremental but important changes throughout his career as a fashion photographer. And then you go upstairs at ICP to “Weird Beauty” and you see the effect that Photoshop, the sexual revolution, and the gay revolution have had, those are enormous changes, but it started with little changes that were nevertheless very difficult to make.

MD– Clearly “Weird Beauty” embraces fashion photography, but I wonder if at any time in the process you had to put aside any skepticism or even suspicion of the glamour and consumption your show celebrates? Do you put these issues aside for the sake of the show?

VA– I think Carol and I have different viewpoints on this—I have no critical issues with glamour and consumption (laughter). I just accept it for what it is. Yes, it’s superficial—hooray! Because it is a form of escapism it is unrealistic, it is all about artifice. Of course there can be critical attitudes toward that but you’re kind of obscuring what it’s all about, so either go with it or walk away, is my feeling.

CS– I think glamour and consumption is great within its own realm, I am into glamour as the next person. I remember once I was going someplace with Laurie Simmons and I had to wait for her in midtown so she asked me where I wanted to wait and I said I would be in Cartier’s (laughter) and she asked, “What are you going to do in there?” I said I was going to look at all the diamonds. And I don’t think she really believed me, but I love diamonds. I hate poverty, I hate injustice, but I love diamonds. We are walking contradictions.

VA–I always get the sense that the photographers ignore all of those concerns we might have about excess and how much things cost and go and do what they do. Half the time they are dragging something through the surf, mistreating the clothing in some way because it is not a precious object; it’s just a detail in the visual narrative. There is a sense of crazy freedom that these photographers seem to have, that they appear to have little restriction in how far they can go with their ideas. These are photographers who work month after month—whose works are published on a regular basis. They have to invent a new way to present clothes every time out. Carol and I have been thinking about Avedon a lot because we are working on the show that opens in May. He is someone who was not just working on one story a month but working on several that might feature 15 to 30 pages of images per issue, and each time it feels fresh and sharp. There’s the sense that he was always searching for a new approach that was rigorous, relentless and inventive. I am so fascinated by the process of the working photographer who has to produce month after month.

MD– Photographers such as Nan Goldin, Collier Schorr and Philip-Lorca diCorcia have made forays into fashion and are represented in “Weird Beauty.” Is there something that a fine art photographer brings to fashion that a conventional fashion photographer might not?

CS– I think in some cases a critical edge, although you get that edge with some fashion photographers as well. But somebody like Cindy Sherman is taking a certain view of how women in Western societies stylize themselves and what kind of positions they find themselves in—that is in her work and she brings it to her fashion photography too. I think artists bring a lot of different things but maybe what they bring is more specific than what a working fashion photographer brings, who has greater latitude in moving from one style to another. An artist is usually working on a specific set of ideas that they want to communicate, whereas fashion photographers have a different job to do.

VA– Well, there is a greater flexibility, it’s built into the job in a way. They have to be flexible; they cannot solely hone a vision; they have to be able to approach the material in a variety of ways. Goldin, Schorr and diCorcia, each of them are bringing their way of seeing to the work and you can see how it fits into their work as a whole. But they are not as wildly experimental or various as most fashion photographers have got to be.

CS– And that kind of experimentation is not valued in the art world right now. There are different values and issues at play.

MD– Did you consider the actual fashion that is pictured in the photographs when you were making your selections?

VA- This is another thing where Carol and I differ somewhat; I know there are cases where Carol rejected images because she didn’t like the clothes (laughter).

CS– Only ugly over-priced crap. There is one Avedon picture that I like, except that I really don’t like the hat in it. It’s an important picture of his so I use it; it’s in the book; it’s in the show, but every time I see that hat it drives me crazy.

VA– I was not interested in the clothes to begin with and it didn’t really bother me if they were unattractive (laughter). I can ignore the clothes. People have asked us why we don’t identify the clothing in the wall labels, but that was really secondary; it’s about the image, it’s not about the clothes.

MD– What about the influence of a whole range of narrative or tableaux style photographers from the 60s through the 90s, people like Duane Michals, Eileen Cowin, Gregory Crewdson—do you see that manifesting in fashion imagery?

VA– I think sometimes art photographers took more from fashion and advertising than fashion and advertising took from art. Duane Michals did work in fashion so there was a real exchange there. The photographers that I pulled into “This Is Not a Fashion Photograph” are the people that a lot of fashion photographers are looking at a little deeper and a little further back in history.

CS– There has been a lot of exchange between fashion photography and artists. Because of the nature of the fashion business, where you always have to be on the cutting edge, everything has to be new and it changes so quickly, fashion people are always looking around for whatever is happening in the culture and taking in a variety of influences. You can see it in the images and the clothes; fashion is like a gigantic collage. When photography became more prominent in the art world a lot of fashion people looked to contemporary photography for compelling imagery. But I also think that fashion photographers have jetted into directions that the art world wouldn’t even think of going. Fashion can evolve in any crazy tangent; take any leap in any way. If an artist or a photographer made such seemingly capricious decisions it would be seen as superficial, because that’s not the way art is thought to evolve. The fact that fashion photographers do that is amazing to me.

MD– Maybe fashion photographers do not feel as burdened by the theoretical or critical positions and expectations that artists are reined in by.

CS– It seems like they are freed by a certain group of magazines and editors, many of which are featured in the show, that give them space, both literally and figuratively, to do whatever crazy narrative they want to do.

VA– Especially in the last 20 years or so when the clothing is not the primary focus of the image. It is really the mood and the atmosphere that are important, rather than specifically showing every detail of the garment.

MD– The title “Weird Beauty” reminds me of Andre Breton’s term “Convulsive Beauty,” a beauty so terrible that it could destroy, any connections there for you?

CS / VA – Sounds good, but no (laughter)!

CS– Through the selection process we ended up with this group of photographs and we said “Wow, these are weird!” (laughter)

VA– It’s true, as we refined the group it got stranger and stranger, we dropped a lot of things that were more conventional and we ended up with a lot of very odd stories, so the title came naturally.

MD– What interests me is the power that fashion imagery can have for young people, kids can see possibilities in fashion images that they may not see in other realms of their life at school, the kids they hang out with, their church, within the family or what is on TV. I think fashion offers fantasy, yes, but also options like, “Oh, I can be edgy, or I can play with androgyny and not worry so much about the thugs down the street.” I mean there is power in those images in terms of the possibilities they offer to kids living in constrained circumstances to have the courage to be an eccentric person.

CS– That’s one of the things I really love about it—it’s very freeing in a certain way—anything goes.

VA– There is a kind of eccentricity that is encouraged by the stylist, the photographer, the editor, in the sense of putting things together that don’t initially seem to belong together but can produce a kind of frisson, be a little shocking and surprising.

CS– Many of the images also have a dream-like quality, even when the subject might have a nitty-gritty subject like Laurie Bartley’s series of the strange blond model with a cast on her arm—you really don’t know what it is she is up to on that beach with that cast.

VA– I love the layers of references that a fashion spread can contain, that might seem superficial but is evidence of the complexity of influences that the photographer draws upon. There is a sense of voraciousness, that the photographers need something to feed on. A sense of real hunger for something new to draw upon.

MD– The ICA in Boston did a fashion and photography show a few years back and Olivier Zahm wrote in one of the catalog essays that, “Fashion photography is a vampirism of representation.... It ruthlessly hijacks recycles and absorbs.” He goes on to observe that fashion photography is situated between advertising and pornography in that it “incites desire and fetishizes objects and bodies.” That sentiment is a sharp contrast to your own more-forgiving curator’s statement that describes fashion photography as “equal parts glamour and grunge, high art and underground culture” and that you are compelled by “fantasies that are outlandish, hilarious, sexy and sweet.”

VA– I don’t think we would disagree with Olivier Zahm’s point.

CS– No, not at all.

VA– But as you said, we are more forgiving. He has a point, I like the idea of vampirism of representation but there is a level of excitement and stimulation that balances or counters that critical position. Actually, Zahm is on the wall downstairs, he is a model in one of the spreads.

MD– Well, let’s go downstairs and look.