Fashion photography stinks: A retrospective
May 14, 2001 7:39 PM   Subscribe

Fashion photography stinks: A retrospective Yes, it's Slate. But this is fabulous, and an example of what the mag has been doing best of late; what makes it worth checking out, really. Social criticism in the guise of media/higher-end pop cultural criticism. Besides, fashion photography is insane.
posted by raysmj (25 comments total)
If photographers and editors really cared about the role of women in society, they would use models above the age of 20, who look like they could complete a sentence.

Does this just perpetuate the "young attractive people aren't intelligent" bias, because I really hate that one.
posted by dakotasmith at 7:57 PM on May 14, 2001

Speaking of fashion photography... (Warning: humorous diversion that contributes nothing to intelligent discourse, but which will brighten your day considerably)
posted by logovisual at 8:00 PM on May 14, 2001

Great piece. The photos are stunning (either stunningly good or stunningly bad). Some issues with the essay, though:

If photographers and editors really cared about the role of women in society, they would use models above the age of 20, who look like they could complete a sentence.

Where do I start with that?

a. who said photographers or editors care about the role of women in society?
b. at the risk of sounding sexist myself, this bit about models' ages and "look like they could complete a sentence"(?!) just sound...well....catty.
c. If Lehrman is looking for positive images of women, the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar aren't exactly the best place to look.
posted by jpoulos at 8:02 PM on May 14, 2001

c. If Lehrman is looking for positive images of women, the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar aren't exactly the best place to look.

Which is the irony.

Great link. A compelling piece.
posted by artlung at 8:06 PM on May 14, 2001

"Today, magazine layouts are jammed with gratuitous text..."
Damme, I hate that gratuitious text.
posted by Catch at 8:15 PM on May 14, 2001

As the son of a fashion photographer I can testify that there's a lot of truth to what he says.

Dad he worked in the 50s-70s, starting up a business with Helmut Newton in Australia. Fashion photography paid the rent... but I feel that it was also a very different ballgame then. Dad was in the papers as a "socialite", simply for being at a party somewhere, which is not what you'd see nowadays.

My father worked for a living. He had a very clear view on what he did as "Art" and what he did as "Fashion Photography". No URL yet, but in a couple of days I'm putting up about 20 of his photos online so you can see the difference.
posted by Neale at 8:51 PM on May 14, 2001

I found the entire Slate piece catty, but is that not to be expected? I mean what's the argument here? Fashion photography is insane. Well duh! Fashion photography is photography designed to advertise fashion, which is in itself insane. People selling clothes trying to convince people buying clothes that what they were convinced to buy six weeks ago is no longer in style and now they need to buy all this new crap. People convincing other people that they will only look this good if they buy this stuff, and although some people who buy into fashion do not always have an IQ equal to their bank account, others are actually intelligent so advertisers have to keep coming up with new ideas to keep up with not only the lowest common denominator, but also those psychologically doing more than just treading water.

Do I sound bitter? Well it's a given that I usually sound bitter. [sarcasm]It's part of my charm[/sarcasm], but my point is eventually all advertising will go to this. And I'm still trying to figure out if the fact that I actually liked it means I'm falling under the lowest common denominator. If I didn't love Saturns so much, and if BMWs weren't so damned expensive anyway, well suffice it to say I thought the movie about the little Buddha kid was adorable, and that just makes me feel like I'm getting stupid. Okay. A series of short subject films, featuring well respected directors (until now) which all just happen to feature the product sold by the sponsoring company. We're talking commercials here, but they're commercials with actual plots, excellent stunts, special effects and even satisfactory acting. It's a coupling of the sensible dialogue from those old Taster's Choice commercials about the british woman, and the fast-paced but ultimately hollow car commercials featuring Crocodile Dundee. Only the BMW works are actually well-done; even entertaining, but they're commercials.

Is this the direction of not only fashion photography, but all art? The voice of the artist is compromised by the voice of the money? Well actually this has happened off and on throughout history, only now it's becoming more common. In fact I'd say the lines between art and commerce are blurring. Thank God for America, huh? I think Andy Warhol said volumes more with his Campbell Soup Can than many credited.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:11 PM on May 14, 2001

I don't know diddly about fashion photography, but this shot by David LaChapelle automatically made him my favorite photographer... :)
posted by owillis at 9:53 PM on May 14, 2001

Oh, and Zach -- I think the lines between art/commerce blurred a long time ago (see Hollywood), and it's ok with me as long as it's entertaining and the artist doesn't have to overly compromise to the commercial aspect. For instance: the BMW films are really cool, and fun - what I respected most about it was that even though the cars were the star, the story was actually good and they weren't afraid to mash the cars up... What I'm saying is, if artists find a way to make corporations pay for the creation of more art, more power to 'em.
posted by owillis at 9:59 PM on May 14, 2001

ZachsMind: Actually, I think part of the argument here is that fashion photography has become even more insane by trying to be something it's not, which is art. It became a sort of art in spite of itself, in some circumstances, by not being so darned self-conscious. Paradoxically, it wasn't as commercial. Which is pretzel logic of a very high order. Like that. I only get into hard logic when absolutely necessary.

In any case, why do you have had in recent years TV car ads trying to imitate, say, the photography of Diane Arbus? Does this mean you'll be accosted by Arbus-like freaks when driving? That you'll turn into one? Or that you're just so well-educated, so darned upscale, that you'll get it and buy the car whose ad campaign people were smart enough to know who Diane Arbus is/was? Just shoot the *&#* car and give us a price tag and specs already. (Maybe that's partly why I drive a Saturn too.)
posted by raysmj at 10:09 PM on May 14, 2001

I drove a Saturn originally because the woman who was my wife at the time recommended it. It made sense financially at the time and I found the Saturn comfortable to drive. It's also a no-brainer when it comes to upkeep. I'm not much of a car fanatic. The reason why I drive Saturns now and probably will the rest of my life if given the choice is because I was in an accident caused by black ice on the road about a year and a half ago, and walked away from the accident with but one little scratch on my left hand. Had I been driving a car not as well designed for safety, I wouldn't be alive today. I didn't need an artsy advertising campaign to sell me on Saturns. They simply make a kickass product.

I guess my question is, does art belong in advertising? When an alleged artwork's primary message reads, "please buy this," should that not negate any aspirations for that work to be considered art? Or is the use of the word "art" as a noun truly without scruples? One looks at a painting. They may like the painting or they may not. At what point is it art? At what point is it not art? If someone just paints the canvas one shade of red, and puts a frame around it, are we looking at minimalistic art or are we just looking at red paint on a canvas?

Is a photograph of a woman in a bikini automatically art? Say a picture that some relative of yours made of another relative, is that art? Maybe you wouldn't think so but someone else might. Now say it's a model in a studio being a human coat hanger for some bathing suit. Should that automatically be art? Is it art for some people but not for others? When product placement occurs, is it still art? Can it be? Should it be?
posted by ZachsMind at 11:45 PM on May 14, 2001

hmm...the concept of someone simply "looking" like they can't complete a sentence seems to portray a certain degree of shallowness on the side of the viewer, not necessarily the model.

otherwise, a great piece, and i love the part about the fact that the photographs don't even show the clothes (although she totally contradicted that point with her slide on fashion illustration, but still).
posted by sara_k03 at 4:06 AM on May 15, 2001

Fabulous photos. An amazing job done with care and love.
posted by ordinaryworld at 4:08 AM on May 15, 2001

I kinda always felt that this was a problem on the user-end. People these days have closets, of thousands upon thousands of line feet of fabric, all pretty much do the same thing.

And why is it the photographers that are being put on the spot here? They're just doing their job, apparently there is a market for sexy 20 year olds. May or may not they complete a sentence.

Btw, why are women looking for *supposedly*white males to represent them?
posted by tiaka at 5:29 AM on May 15, 2001

Fashion is completely defensible; loving clothes and avidly embracing the cylcle of new ideas (and old ideas reimagined) in clothes along the same basic set of themes makes no less sense than seeing Hamlet performed 20 times in ones lifetime, or going to all three games of a Yankees-Orioles series just to see most of their rotations start.

I think that the Slate piece really gets at this: that fashion photographry, like great sports writing, is at its highest an expression of passion for its subject's potential for beauty, accomplishment, transcendence.

In a certain sense, neither fashion photographry (nor sports writing, for that matter) is a pure "art" because it necessarily should reject the impulse of pure art to reveal the shameful and unworthy and to call beauty, accomplishment, and transcendence into question. If it attempts to take on those attributes of pure art, it can no longer achieve its central expressive misssion -- but, still encumbered by its commercial mission, becomes a useless mixture of high and low.
posted by MattD at 5:42 AM on May 15, 2001

many fashion photographers today aren’t even photographers first. Immediately prior to achieving his status of celebrity photographer, Mario Testino was a waiter.

Well, now we know that ex-waiters can't really amount to much, thanks to this interesting piece of criticism. Actually Testino is not exactly a celebrity photographer: he's considered to be very good by many other photographers (just ask Lindbergh, one of the few to survive ms Lehrman's wrath).
Ms Lehrman of course has a very 1950's sensibility: that's why she attempts to display her old-fashioned, unimaginative eye for photography as "edgy", "catty", P-C criticism. She likes very few artists, and for all the wrong reasons -- Lindbergh because he uses black and white thus looking rétro, Roversi because she thinks he's "painterly" -- but hasn't got a clue about Goldin, for example.
She would have been one of those critics who, back in the Fifties, destroyed a genius like Robert Frank because his photographs looked "gritty", "ugly" and "un-American".
posted by matteo at 6:20 AM on May 15, 2001

Not disputing your main thrust, matteo, but… Lehrman doesn't dis Goldin, she only talks about the legions of Goldin and Sherman imitators. I think there's room for all kinds of opinions about Goldin--she was shocking at the time and I think that's prevented here from really being looked at carefully since--but surely appropriating her style without the context takes something essential out of the work. That seems to be a fair criticism to me.
posted by rodii at 8:29 AM on May 15, 2001

petite bourgeoisie attempting to propagate false consciousness amongst the masses. let us organize these exploited workers. comrades, we need more butt shots. (I protest the spell checker, it is as slow as a GM worker) see a protest can make things happen.
posted by clavdivs at 8:58 AM on May 15, 2001

dakotasmith: Does this just perpetuate the "young attractive people aren't intelligent" bias, because I really hate that one.

the point is the perpetuation of the "women above the age of twenty are not attractive" bias, one I've always hated.

the point is not even so much the objectification of women, but the objectification of only a tiny subset of women. lots of women are beautiful and sexy, and lots of them are older than twenty and heavier than 115 pounds and shorter than 5'9".

equal opportunity objectification!

posted by rebeccablood at 10:03 AM on May 15, 2001

I see a large barrel of fish and a rifle of exacting precision here. I'm a little leery of what amounts to a guided tour through carefully selected photographs all designed to fit the author's point. I would submit that fashion photography--what do we call it? Pop-art? mARTketing?--certainly has changed since the 50s, but not in any perversely strange or demented way. If that's not already a tautology.

(Can you believe that they dragged Grunge Chic out of its mausoleum again? As if Grunge wasn't clutching at the stake in its chest long before it hit the pages of Cosmo.)
posted by Skot at 10:41 AM on May 15, 2001

rebecca, I agree completely. I was just pointing out the dichotomy of her statement, which when I read came off as:

These people are attractive, they can't be intelligent. They should use someone who looks intelligent (and therefore, not attractive).

On a subjective level, you can tell people are attractive by looking at them. But seeing a photograph and deciding the subject's level of intelligence is unsubstantiated.

My goal was not to define what is attractive, we have The Learning Channel's The Science of Sex to do that for us. I see it as unfair when people are immediately taken to be less intelligent because they are attractive.
posted by dakotasmith at 11:04 AM on May 15, 2001

Smart is sexy.
posted by ZachsMind at 1:10 PM on May 15, 2001

dakotasmith: The page that sentence is on shows a woman looking extremely dim. If you asked a brilliant actress to show you "look like you can't finish a sentence", that's the look you'd get. It's a pretty good example of misogynistic fashion photography, and I don't think it sterotypes young or beautiful people as stupid.
posted by nicwolff at 1:21 PM on May 15, 2001

equal opportunity objectification!

Rebecca, don't you think the pendulum swings both ways? How many men in the real world have the physique of Brad Pitt, Schwarzenegger or Antonio Banderas?

Besides myself, of course. :)
posted by owillis at 1:22 PM on May 15, 2001

Actually, I'd say that the page that sentence is on shows a woman looking extremely ill. Someone get that woman some Nyquil and let her get a good night's rest.
posted by kindall at 1:23 PM on May 15, 2001

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