Fashion History in Unexpected Places

Spectrum Art Gallery is a small, non-profit photography gallery located in Fresno, California. Fresno is perhaps most famous as the home town of William Saroyan, and as the town to which Brad Pitt’s character is trying to hitchhike in Thelma and Louise, but not as a very big art and culture destination. Yet Spectrum Gallery has been successfully bringing photographic art to the area for over thirty years even in an economy where major art galleries and museums continue to struggle. Members of the gallery mount shows of their own work, and once a year invite a guest exhibit which could be either a single artist or another gallery’s collection. Past guests have included Christopher Burkett, Margaretta K. Mitchell, and Rondal Partridge.

This year, Spectrum invited Brooke Gabrielson to display 38 images from the Willem Photographic Gallery in Monterey, California.

The Willem Gallery’s main focus is fashion and women’s photography, so the images to be seen in the show at Spectrum range from the Edward Steichen photograph for the 1 November 1924 issue of Vogue at the beginning of this post, to Arthur Elgort’s controversial photograph of Keira Knightley with the Masai from Vogue 2007, to Irving Penn’s photograph of Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Horst P. Horst’s Mainbocher Corset image and an unexpected portrait by him of Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton’s photo of Lee Radziwell and Jacqueline Bouvier at their cotillion, Lillian Bassman, and Helmut Newton are all featured. Mr Gabrielson explained at the opening night lecture that it is his own love of fashion photography — he is a longtime subscriber to American Vogue and has been subscribing to Vogue Italia, France, and UK for the last four years — which inspires his purchases. He has long had friends who worked in fashion photography, so he has seen not only the finished product, but has a deep respect and understanding of the creative process. His appreciation for the imagery he saw in the magazines he has collected naturally led to a desire to acquire the photographs themselves.

A lawyer by day, Mr Gabrielson refers to the gallery as his passion. He began collecting photographic equipment twenty years ago, and photographs in about 2000, so that the gallery now boasts a collection of over 1000 pieces all of which can be seen on their website. Willem Gallery was founded due to Gabrielson’s own desire to see his favourite pieces properly displayed and to share them with others. But he soon had more and more people asking him whether the images were for sale. Seeing the sale of one photograph as the opportunity to acquire another one that he will love as much or more, the images from The Willem Photographic Gallery are now available for purchase.

This fact is what makes this show unique among previous Spectrum Gallery guest exhibits: instead of information plaques next to each photograph, there are small numbered pegs which correspond to a price list that can be picked up at the door, enabling you to view the image and compare it with others surrounding it before knowing whose work you were looking at. This also made for an unplanned but delightful “guessing game” with patrons trying to get their friends to guess who certain portraits were of, such as the Horst P. Horst portrait of Irving Penn mentioned previously, or Richard Avedon’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe whom no one recognized in her red wig.

Less a lecture, Gabrielson’s talk was a recounting of the stories behind each and every image, discussing either how he acquired it, or the importance of a particular photographer within fashion history, or even the backstories for a particular photo, such as the unconventional portrait of Monroe by Avedon. Gabrielson explained that this photograph was part of a collaborative series by Avedon and Monroe for Life magazine where Monroe dressed up as various other famous people. This image is their interpretation of Clara Bow.

One of the most fascinating stories was behind Gordon Parks’s image of society women taken in 1949. Parks was one of the few African American fashion photographers at the time. The image was taken in Paris and whether that is because it was the fashion capital of the world at the time or due to prejudice against a black man working as a photographer in the States is uncertain, but the success of his career does at least show the boundaries that can be crossed by art.

Gabrielson has done his homework, and the volunteers at Spectrum Gallery did a wonderful job of hanging the show. A single wall might place images from the beginning of fashion photography next to Mario Testino’s photograph of Sienna Miller for the September 2007 issue of Vogue, famous portraits next to unknown models, black and white next to colour. And yet it flows perfectly. In fact the contrast in time periods, photographic processes and colour schemes keeps the exhibit interesting and creates an intriguing aesthetic dialogue which demonstrates the artistic range and validity to be found in fashion photography.

As Mr Gabrielson himself explained when he was discussing the 1924 image by Steichen, when they first began photographing fashion it didn’t occur to anyone to preserve or collect the images being created. This show proves that fashion photography has become a unique art in its own right worth collecting and preserving. As Cecil Beaton said: Fashion is ephemeral, and fashion is enduring. The exhibit is certainly appealing to the general public, since the opening night reception was so well-attended that Gabrielson’s talk ended up being standing-room only. Quite an accomplishment on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday.

The other thing this exhibit proves is that you can find treasure in unexpected places. The last place I had ever expected to see a Cecil Beaton portrait of Marlene Dietrich, or Patrick Demarchelier’s photo of Nadja Auermann, or any of the photographs I saw on Saturday evening was in Fresno. As Monica Murgia has pointed out, though, local museums and galleries can be wonderful resources if you give them a chance. They don’t make the news, but perhaps in some ways the work they do is far more important because they work with such limited resources to bring culture and new perspectives to such small locations.

The exhibit runs from 5 April through 29 April, and is completely free to the public. All the images are for sale, and Spectrum Gallery does accept donations of any denomination. There is a Costume Society of America Western Region meet up scheduled for Sunday, 22 April at 1:00 pm for anyone who would like to see the exhibit and see a demonstration of various photographic equipment and techniques.

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