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January 13, 2004

Dumping on Fashion Photography

Slate the other day featured a slide show with images titled "The Decline of Fashion Photography", with the subhead "An Argument in Pictures" by Karen Lehrman. Lehrman's main point is that fashion photography has been in decline for the last 30 years, and she provides numerous examples of what she considers "good" and "bad" fashion photography to support her broad and pointed assertions, as well as offering some reasons for what makes current fashion images so dreary.

This is the second slide show essay/polemic I've seen from Ms. Lehrman...she did a similar piece called "Interior Anti-Design" for Slate last year. I found that presentation on design somewhat more enjoyable than her current one, possibly because I know a lot less about interior design. But in both her critiques on modern design and fashion photography, she takes to task current practitioners for their overt aspirations/pretensions to creating "art", and ignoring the fundamental attributes of their respective disciplines.

Let me start with what I found worthwhile about Lehrman's latest piece. First off, I enjoy seeing fashion photography treated as a subject worthy of serious discussion and aesthetic appreciation...it's given short shrift too often in serious dicussions of photography. Secondly, I give Lehrman brownie points for the current photographers she *does* like -- Sarah Moon is one of my absolute favorites (as the name of this blog makes clear), and I certainly enjoy Paulo Roversi as well. And I do credit her as well for her taste in art directors...can't do much better than Alexey Brodovitch and Alexander Liberman. In general, I like the images Lehrman has chosen as "good" images...they're excellent examples of the craft.

But when it comes to taking aim at her targets (all those bad, glory-seeking, poorly qualified, pretentious modern fashion photographers)...well, Lehrman's about as graceful as a blindfolded three year old swinging at a pinata. To be fair, there's not a lot of room for nuance in the format she's chosen to make her arguments...28 short pithy statements with accompanying photographs is basically a pamphlet. But even taking this into account, she's aims too broadly and wildly, and the lack of depth in her arguments and peculiar choice of images in some cases weaken her polemic.

Some examples:

"Beauty has not been highly valued in the art world in general for the past few decades, and even in much of the fashion world"

This is a broad statement that speaks more to neoconservative aesthetics than it does to any realistic or meaningful description of current fashion or art. If Lehrman were a little clearer or more nuanced regarding what she considers "beauty", she might be able to carry her argument, but the examples she provides only make her look reactionary. Relativistic ideas of beauty may have been carried out too far in some areas of art and fashion, but Lehrman doesn't exactly earn our trust as an absolute judge of what is right and beautiful by drawing the line arbitrarily at 30 years ago. ("things were so much bett-ah in the old days, dahling")

"Fashion photography isn’t obligated to take readers into an elegant fantasyland, though that certainly was nice. But it should be different from photojournalism, and especially photojournalism concentrating on society’s dark side."

Uh, OK. Small problem, though...the way fashion photography is coded, it inherently raises questions about the realities it presents to the viewer. Yes, sometimes a pretty picture of a woman in fabulous clothes is just that, but whether it's an overt fantasy layout in someone's mansion or a street scene with young people, the fashion photography I'm familiar with and see in today's magazines still looks miles away from photojournalism. The fact that a fashion image is more overtly photojournalistic in style still makes it very different from photojournalism, and can still make it very compelling.

If anything, what's compelling about the best fashion images are the way they distort reality as they ostensibly reflect it back, whether that reality is beautiful or "ugly". And what is it about the "dark side" that Lehrman finds so distasteful, anyway? The images she uses as examples certainly don't provide the answer.

"While fashion photographers of the past—from Edward Steichen to Lillian Bassman below—were steeped in art …many fashion photographers today aren’t even photographers first. Immediately prior to achieving his status of celebrity photographer, Mario Testino was a waiter"

Cheap shot. So Lerhman says that today's photographers "unjustly see themselves" as artists but are really slumming poseurs fresh from busing tables, whereas their "Golden Age predecessors"..."were steeped in art". I'll let other readers make up their own mind about the term "Golden Age predecessors".

"Today, 30 years into feminism, we have models who look not just weak and unsophisticated, but also dumb and victimized. Academic feminists haven’t complained because the models are supposedly playing a subversive role and subversion is inherently politically correct. Moreover, many of the young photographers are female. But now we’ve moved into “fashion vérité” and the models still look stupid. Is this how women in fashion see themselves?"

*Sigh* I guess I must be clueless, as I don't see all these stupid looking women championed by "academic feminists" dominating fashion layouts. Presumably, fashion layouts in the "Golden Age" were dominated by hyper-intelligent divas like Lisa Fonssagrives, Irving Penn's wife, which is of course, ridiculously untrue. It's the old fallacy about any notstalgia for a Golden Age...we choose to remember the best parts of the past and forget all the dross that accompanied it.

But now we get to the heart of the matter, which is Lehrman's background as a "post-ideological feminist" (her term). In all honesty, I wanted to like Lehrman and at least a few of her arguments...I think it's potentially very worthwhile for a woman to move past some of the media-generated polarities around feminist debate and engage fashion and its messages with some seriousness. And there are certainly quite a few modern fashion photographers that need their balloon punctured.

But a look back at Lehrman's track record as a feminist and polemicist, no matter what your political persuasion, shows her to be someone with some interesting points that's undone by consistently weak and contradictory arguments. If you'd rather not take my word for it, of course, you can pick up her book for $1.49 at Amazon, a testament to the timelessness of her ideas.

Just as Lehrman claims at the start of her essay, though, that $3000 for a modern LaChapelle fashion photograph feels like a worse deal than $28K for a classic Irving Penn, I'd say that your buck-99 for Lehrman's book is money much less well spent than investing in a book of good fashion photography, classic, contemporary, or otherwise. Let me skip the labels, in fact, and recommend two timeless volumes I've encountered recently: John Rawling's 30 Years in Vogue (more classical), and Guy Bourdin's latest collection (which is edgier and even more poetic). Fashion Photography Now is also a worthwhile survey of recent trends, and you can then make up your own mind about the glories and sins of current fashion.

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02:32 PM | Permalink

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