I’m always a little suspicious when it comes to exhibition’s highlighting contemporary companies, not that I neglect the idea that a current brand has its place within a cultural institution but I always found it hard to make the difference between marketing operation and artistic project. I’ve already explored such displays here: rememberer? Dior, Alaia, Roger Vivier…
When I first discovered the posters for Papier Glacé: Un Siècle de Photographie de Mode chez Condé Nast, I was truly sceptical and promised myself I wouldn’t visit an exhibition praising the glories of a publishing group: I know I can sometimes be a little narrow-minded! My professional conscience and my personal curiosity finally won and I therefore pushed the doors of the Palais Galliera staging this fashion photography display.
I think I may have said it before, I strongly appreciate this Parisian fashion museum, directed by Olivia Saillard, whom I consider to be one of the most talented fashion curators in Europe. I was thus very interested in discovering how they chose to deal with such a theme: an insight of Condé Nast fashion photography archives with 150 objects by 80 different artists.
First, I was really impressed by the scenography with walls painted in black and white evoking standing magazines, on which were placed the photographies: luminous and airy – great conditions to admire the photographies. The (small!) exhibition is organised following seven themes that are reminiscent of the different styles used by fashion photographers in the pages of the Condé Nast publications such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, W and Love: Décor, Fiction, Exterior – Street, The Figure, Still Life, In Praise of the Body and Portraits.
Within the ‘Décor’ display, we travel into early Vogue photographies that emphasize elegant and luxurious backgrounds that clearly echo the wealthy readers who could afford to lounge about reading a fashion magazine. Such photographers as Cecil Beaton, Baron de Meyer or Edward Steichen proposed glamorous ‘mise-en-scène’ within which high society figures and models mingled into a stylish atmosphere where chic made one between photography, fashion and design. With ‘Fiction’, the display highlights how photographers create narratives, dreamlike sceneries that feature groups of models who play theatrical roles. We clearly observe how simple a story can come to life with little tricks: showers, a wet floor and several women in bathing suits and light robes and Deborah Turbeville gives birth to an erotic atmosphere that evokes a harem where others would simply recognize a post-sports cleaning. Soon, photography went outside! At the end of the 1930s, with World War II, women engaged into more active existences and photographers installed their models in lively streets, often along cars to highlight movement…The ‘Exterior’ display identifies this aesthetic that tended to more naturalness.
Some photographers dare to erase ‘The Figure’, blurred by graphic and light effects. There is something quite ironic in shading the model and her garments for a fashion magazine whose goal is to sell clothes. In this case, fashion photography resembles art and the clothing disappear behind the concept. The exhibition also interestingly brings into light the problem of ‘Still Life’ that is so closely linked to the commercial aspect of a publication: that’s when you sell the handbags, the shoes, the cosmetics…However Papier Glacé reminds us that these still lives are also veritable artistic photographies where the object dominates the body: comes to mind and before our eyes, the image of Guy Bourdin and his sexy high heels and legs.
With the ‘In Praise of the Body’ section, the exposition deals with its most controversial theme. Fashion magazines dictate trends but also silhouettes with mostly surreal bodies! Beauty and health are at the centre of their thoughts and photographers beautifully stage perfect forms and features. I would have appreciated to see a little less sleek images (even though they were stunning) and more harsh photographies that would have also demonstrated how sometimes fashion photography has gone too far in its search of perfection or over-sexualisation. Finally, I loved the last section dedicated to ‘Portraits’. In this display, the model is enhanced not only as a coat-hanger but definitely appears as an inspiring muse and superstar herself alongside the photographer. We observe the complicities, the admiration and confidence diffused in powerful or soft portraits that deliver insight into these women’s intimacy.
I surely missed a little criticism (that’s where branded displays show their limits!): what about the impact of these images on women? Nothing about controversies and scandals and there have been several scandalous spreads in the pages of Vogue! Photographers fantasize the feminine body to make readers dream but they also impose an aesthetic that 99% women cannot assume…Surely that isn’t the exhibition’s goal but I assume you can pay tribute to the splendid work of artists and still give a little information about the dark sides.
What I highly enjoyed was the installation of several garments and videos between the different thematic displays to poetically recall the photographies: a sensible way to add a little sense of reality to this ‘fake” environment. I also fancied that large reading tables were installed at the beginning and the end of the room to enable visitors read several Condé Nast (of course!) publications because that’s what magazines are made for, no? Flipping frantically through glossy pages.
Selina’s Reading List
Nathalie Herschorfer. Coming into Fashion – A century of Photography at Condé Nast. New York, Thames& Hudson: 2012.