Many a fashion photographer would appreciate having his or her work described by Tim Blanks as “savagely funny, wildly topical, and ridiculously glamorous,” (8) as he fawns on a 1962 Harper’s Bazaar photoshoot. In New Fashion Photography, “compiled” by Paul Sloman, Blanks finds new inspiration and artwork worthy of admiration, as he gives the book this resounding compliment in his introduction:
Susan Sontag was rhapsodizing that the greatest fashion photography is more than the photography of fashion. … [this point] is being made again in this book which, in its curation of fashion-based work from the past few years, most of it from an innovative new generation of photographers, underscores the peculiar maturity-in-diversity of the medium. No longer in search of–let alone in need of–legitimacy, fashion photography has become a reference for and an influence on the culture at large. (8)
This question of “legitimacy” has plagued the fashion industry–and, even more so, its academic study–for years. Beloved by many, taken seriously by a certain few, and Blanks should know: he is a writer often featured in Vogue and GQ as well as editor-at-large for Style.com, straddling the breach between so-called “old” and “new” media. He lauds both in his introduction, interestingly crediting the wealth of print magazines with giving young creators more opportunities than ever to show their work, while the digital revolution has less to do with distribution or exposure and more to do with manipulation and process.
The book’s front cover exemplifies Blanks’ suggestion that masking/obscuring identity is a thread linking new fashion photography. The photograph, taken by the LaRoache Brothers (2010), is a mix of “irreality”–who has that much hair?–and “veiling” of the model that makes these images mysterious and enticing. Bypassing the perfect and staged, through the personal nature of streetstyle and concomitant street shots, the digitally retouched, enhanced, and manipulated photography featured in this book is otherworldly. The back cover pokes the reader with this truth, spiky constructions–both obviously not of the model’s flesh and so finely integrated one second-guesses–obscuring the model’s ears (see end of post).
Where there is text, its two-column, short form reminds the reader of fashion photography’s greatest showcase: the fashion magazine. Matte and textured in the introduction, the paper changes to semi-glossy when photographs are involved, heightening one’s sense of photography as a physical medium despite its 2-D nature. Largely visual, as well it should be, what textual description and introduction highlight the visual onslaught are dotted with finely formatted endnotes and academic language (“If the consummation of any dialectic is the synthesis of hypothesis and antithesis, that ought to add up to a tidy union of elitism and egalitarianism in contemporary photography’s approach to fashion.” (9)), seeking to codify the legitimacy discussed earlier. Certainly an abundance of books have been published on the subject, some celebrating the medium uncritically, as well as those that appreciate the medium enough to pick it to pieces. The constant creation and forward motion of fashion, inherent to its nature, spurs on fashion photography, providing a wealth of material to discuss, dissect, deconstruct.
This book sets itself apart by focusing on the new; these photographs were published 2007-2012. I am only familiar with fashion photography as far as my Masters’ syllabi were long, and I haven’t even picked up a copy of Vogue or i-D in years. I only recognized perhaps one name (Nick Knight); other readers may be familiar with the names and even the photographs, most of which were originally printed in paper publications, from Acne Paper to Vogue Nippon. I found my lack of familiarity heightened my interest in the content, with the sensation of discovery that draws so many to fashion and its image in the first place. Although new, these photographs and photographers must be “old” enough to be compiled in a book, the static object so often slandered in Our Digital Age.
But no matter–this is new to me, and the amalgamation makes for an overwhelmingly pleasing experience. Organized by photographer, we are given a page of introduction to the artist/auteur/team on the left, and an invariably striking photograph on the right, followed by a few pages of the artists’ work. There is plenty of masking, as well as identifiable figures like Liya Kibede, Lana Del Rey, and Lily Cole; too-perfect suburban mothers; madonnas; transvestites (and/or plastic surgery enthusiasts?); the classical; the exotic; fat and thin manifestations of the female body. For these photographs center on the female (even where a male is included), a perhaps unintentional commentary on the traditional link of feminine to fashion’s two dimensional, superficial connotations.
Which negative attributes the photographs also dispel in their relative diversity; is this a function of this specific compilation, or reflective of fashion photography today? Does new fashion photography look past the perceived perfections of thin, long, and blonde, or at least past white skin and geometric beauty? Or is that wishful thinking and open-minded curation on Sloman’s part?
This is photography as art, as opposed to photography as commerce (although the intersection of the two in the fashion magazine has been condemned at length; Sloman calls it a “turbulent relationship” (12)). For the newcomer, the fine words expended by both Blanks and Sloman about the importance, complexity, and brilliance of the images that follow are convincing, drawing the photographs out of the insipidness of the typical fashion magazine with its image-for-image’s-sake attitude and obsession with bigger, weirder, more wasteful. Here, the images are deliberate, not staged, and experimental, not gratuitous. Sloman does acknowledge the “spectacle of fashion” in his choices, “in its highest gear–so high that it might seem to be hyperventilating.” (12) But the spectacle is perceived to be a knowing one, full of self-commentary.
The tone and intention of this book is best summed up by Blanks’ paraphrase of Sontag: fashion photography is more than the photography of fashion. This is readily evident in the lack of clothing on many models, or at least the lack of “fashionable” clothing, but also that the medium has become the focus rather than the fashions; there is a message, an intention behind the photographs that extends beyond selling clothing, or even showing clothing. So what makes it fashion photography, instead of art photography? Its inclusion in the appropriate magazines, a headline, an ethos? This book neither asks nor definitively answers this question. As surely as the photograph–or much of Art–is about its maker and its subject, its meaning is, at least in part, created its audience, and this book allows for a rich engagement of the reader in that role.
An excellent addition to the bookshelves of anyone who likes to contemplate photography and its fluid–albeit papery–existence, this book encourages the reader to think about the images instead of blindly consuming, without overwhelming with theory and explanation. Or you can skip the intros and just take it as a collection of beautiful, moving, disgusting, engaging, confusing photographs, another exhibition you walk through with your headphones on; it will still be worth the acquisition.
***You can win this book! The first person to correctly answer all four of the following questions correctly will win a copy of New Fashion Photography! Many thanks to interns Rachael and Jon for these queries, which will send you back through the WT archives:
1. What three recommendations does Monica M. give for starting a private teaching collection?
2. In her review of A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries: From Catwalk to Sidewalk, which two Constructivist designers did Arianna say are rarely included in twentieth century fashion history overviews?
3. Jenna wrote about her trip to a museum that featured a display of 800 shoes previously worn by Imelda Marcos. What is the name of this museum?
4. What is the name of the fashion line that was born from Issey Miyake’s work on William Forsythe’s ballet The Loss of Small Detail, as described in Hayley-Jane’s writings on ballet and fashion?
Email your answers to arianna @ wornthrough.com to win! The contest closes a week from today, and the winner will be announced on Friday, August 16. I hope you’ll take a minute to read the great posts in which these answers lie after sending in your entry, and mention Worn Through any time someone asks about that beautiful new fashion photography book lying enticingly on your coffee table–what an icebreaker!
Opening Photo Credit: Cover of New Fashion Photography, compiled by Paul Sloman. New York: Prestel, 2013.
Read more book reviews on Worn Through here!
Hall-Duncan, Nancy. The History of Fashion Photography. New York: Alpine Book Co., 1979.
Jobling, Paul. Fashion Spreads: Word and Image in Fashion Photography since 1980. Oxford: Berg, 1999.
Keaney, Magdelene. Fashion & Advertising. Hove: Rotovision, 2007.
Kismaric, Susan and Eva Respini. Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004.
Knight, Nick et.al. The Impossible Image: Fashion Photography in the Digital Age. London: Phaidon, 2000.
Williams, Val. “A Heady Relationship: Fashion Photography and the Museum, 1979 to the present” Fashion Theory 12, 2008: 197-218.
Shinkle, Eugenie. Fashion as Photograph: Viewing and Reviewing Images of Fashion. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2008.
Zahm, Oliver. “On the Marked Change in Fashion Photography” in The Fashion Reader, edited by Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun. Oxford: Berg, 2007.
Any fashion photography experts reading this post? Leave your suggestions for further reading in the comments section below!