in Frieze | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

A Pose is a Pose is a Pose

Fashion and Art and Fashion

in Frieze | 04 MAR 97

It was no accident that the male lead in the 1978 Faye Dunaway film, The Eyes of Laura Mars, had bad skin. Mars was a Helmut Newton-style photographer, retooled by Rebecca Blake, and the lunar surface of Tommy Lee Jones' face broke the masquerade of beauty illuminated by her flash photography. Today, when fashion photography isn't borrowing from the 70s, it is trying to achieve the same effect as Tommy Lee's pock-mocked face: reality in the face of glamour. Bad skin does not exist in fashion, but the taste for the appearance of real life (as in the MTV show Real Life) has produced a flurry of pictures that look for edgy, gravely, trashed-out, junked-up, hypochondriac sleepwalkers. The model, previously used to convey an unattainable beauty, has become the picture of insecurity and ambiguity, participating in a theatre whose primary illusion is that of documentation.

In one sense, the new fashion subject has been domesticated. In much the same way that Chantal Akkerman made a compelling drama of a housewife's daily routine in her brilliant Jeanne Dielman, 3 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), so photographers have relocated glamour in a simulated, off-camera disarray. In capturing the texture of rotten furniture, semi-conscious looking models, uneven make-up and unstable heels, these new images of fashion conjure up a set of anxieties normally glossed over by balanced lighting and upscale styling and scenarios. In a Glen Luchford picture, a model is frozen while her thumb appears to be pulling at the waistband of her pants. The disjointed relationship between eyes that look nowhere and and arm that finds an itch characterises a desire on the part of fashion photography to collapse the theatrical and the statuesque. Even in the pristine sets of Craig McDean it is an odd action, something like a slip between the clicks of the camera, that becomes the driving force behind the photograph. Amber Valletta turns on both ankles, about to trip although we believe she will never fall. Corinne Day photographs Tania Court in a crappy motel room, preparing to pose. These new additions to the fashion canon appear unified in their desire to replicate melancholia and longing, those emotional states which most easily prompt transference and projection.

In these new images, often shot in private interiors, we may be made to feel that the model is revealing herself. This is almost always a fallacy, but the closer the model looks to be reliving some past experience, the closer the photo gets to possessing a substantive meaning beyond surface, beauty and commerce. This serves the designer as well. When the clothing becomes encapsulated in such a colloquial script, there is a greater chance that the consumer will catch sight of herself. 1 This criss-crossing of identification casts the photographer as analyst, reflecting the intentions and experience of the designer, who lends his garments like a patient retelling an anxious moment. In a case of counter-transference gone askew, the photographer's language is thrown back as one fantasy warps another. If the art making process is a an uninterrupted circuit from object to maker, the relationship between designer and photographer - further complicated by the directed body of the model - renders the fashion photograph a far more layered document, rife with episodes of paranoia, hysteria and envy.

In the catalogue for last year's Florence Biennale, 'Looking At Fashion', Ingrid Sischy, Germano Celant and Luigi Settembrini suggested that artists and fashion designers share many of the same dilemmas - decisions that revolve around 'craft, materials, cut, colour'. 'Like art,' they proposed, 'fashion can be looked at anthropologically, sociologically, and even philosophically'. In terms of analysis, these claims are more than modest. The study of a Rudi Gengrich bathing suit would evidence rather more about the society in which it was designed than a similar excavation of a Carl Andre bricks piece. As much as art is seen as a reflection of its time, it is neither always concerned with nor generous in mirroring the mores of greater society. But when comparing fashion and art in terms of objects made in their names, the story is rather different. A dress placed in a gallery at some point resists becoming sculpture. Even couture, which attempts to stand alone, still must approach wearability, and it is in this that clothing is forever hampered, tempered by how it must perform. The fashion photograph, however, can more easily be slipped into a book or a gallery: it has a unique ability to flit from one meaning to another, to change sensibility depending on its context.

Perhaps this is why the fashion photograph has been inching closer and closer to the art world. In the Appropriation 80s, fashion was lifted and inserted into art to critique representation, looking and desire. Whether purportedly feminist in tack (Sylvia Kolbowski, Barbara Kruger) or about image politics in general (Richard Prince) the image of the beautiful woman - enhanced by fashion photography - lent those artworks another dimension of appeal. 2 The 90s, however, saw the eclipse of both glossily-groomed magazine spreads and slick art works that appropriated commercial photography. While these shifts were unsurprising given the changes in the economic climate, it seems that art and fashion reacted in the same way, both desperate to remain relevant.

The acceptance and courtship of the fashion image by the art world is made all the easier by the demise of the dogmatic side of politically correctness. It is far easier to discuss the work of Alexander McQueen if one doesn't have to hammer out the usual problems involved in the representation of women. Suddenly bodies are again detachable from rhetoric; indeed, now that we know, there is a sense that such loaded images don't have the power that they once did. Visual mutilation, the appearance of battery and the objectification of women is taken in stride - some obviously feel that the end of the PC decade has in fact brought a certain freedom to expression. Never mind that many of these expressions are the same old ones; there is something charged about looking when you know that it's bad.

The meeting of fashion and art photography is fostered by Vogue stylist Camilla Nickerson and art critic Neville Wakefield in their curated book, Fashion Photography in the Nineties (1996). Here, in the work of 28 image-makers, motivation, continuity, politic and desire are confused, and anonymity - brought about by separating the credits and initiating clever juxtapositions - effects a bottomless pit of nuance and impulse. Reading more like the project of an appropriation artist, the who's who guessing game constantly interrupts the image watershed. Ironically, the book simultaneously clarifies the division between what is made to be shown in frames and what is made to be idolised, imitated and then thrown away after a few weeks.

Many of the pictures in Fashion are out-takes from magazine spreads - 'wilder, darker counterparts' according to the only explanatory text, a blurb on the book's jacket. Certainly the 'wild' images, a relative term, come from the fashion photographers. In effect, they are making art, something whose boundaries are ostensibly controlled by the maker. They can do this here and not where they work and this is the distinction that it is crucial to make. If art is beholden to the whims of its market, it is also able to act more discreetly.

The book's blurring of the two forms seems to confirm our idea of art as valuable and inspiring and fashion as altogether more attractive and entertaining, but somehow less fulfilling. As a visual text, Fashion clarifies, if there ever was a doubt, that fashion (just behind music) is quicker than art to characterise youth culture, albeit in a decidedly fantastical and co-opted way. Fashion and music move in the cultural bloodstream, while art hangs back or above, reflecting from afar, more concerned with history and inheritance, less apt to rebel. Art, in a sense, suffers from being grown-up. This may be one reason why so many artists - Elizabeth Peyton for one - consistently court images outside the intellectual pursuits of Art. But it may be the works and mythology of Nan Goldin that most completely embody art's new infatuation with fashion. At a time when models are being presented as figures on the edge of potential devastation, it is no surprise to see Goldin extend her intimate signature style from her 'family' to models. The appearance of this overly touted intimacy lends fashion an escape route from pure commercialism.

While fashion - Matsuda in Goldin's case - gets imbued with the richness of years of enthusiastic art criticism, Goldin's art begins to tip away from those very raves, revealing again how photographs lie. 3 To butt art up against fashion is a way of lending credence to the always doubted fashion image. This is all fine for fashion, because one of the clearest things about that art form is its symbiotic link to the lie. Fashion photography is supposed to lie - from the clothes and breasts that are taped together to the rapturous eye monologues, the perfected blank stares. As much as we count on fashion to lie, perhaps we have begun to rely rather too heavily on art to be sincere.

Just what is criticism's buoyant investment in the myth of the 'Family of Nan'? Were we drawn to Goldin's artwork because of the intimacy, or was that intimacy a construct that best explained the style and felt good after the cool years of appropriation and conceptualism? Do we anyway accept art photography, from Tina Barney to Sally Mann to Jack Pierson, as any more real than fashion photography? A young artist named Jennifer Bornstein photographed herself in a playground next to a series of children. Something is off in these photos, because they are presenting a lie - that both subjects are kids, when in fact one is an impostor. Is this different from a Terry Richardson photo for Arena, where two women, who aren't, seem to be on intimate terms with one another? Should photographs have disclaimers? In Goldin's case, her intimacy with the subject alleviated the anxiety of peering into an image that seemed gratuitous. 'Why should we care if it's real?', fashion asks, and rightly so. Fashion hits the mark when it offers a Juergen Teller image of Kristin McMenamy being helped into a bodice. Here, McMenamy, whose arm and shoulder look remarkably like those of Goldin's friend Jimmy Paul, momentarily slips out of the showcase and into the drag show.

It may be the transience of Goldin's style or the simple reverb of her subject matter that in turn has drawn many in the American art community to the photographs of Richard Billingham. In cheesy snapshots that give white trash a bad name, it is the extreme blurry grain of his images - part bad photography, part bad equipment - far beyond that associated with the Boston School, that establishes Billingham's worth. As criticality sanctions these pictures as artefacts rather than stylised fictions, the problem of voyeurship recedes into the distance; Billingham is seen not as a Larry Fink, subjectively strobing out the dull patina of poverty in documentary assignments, but as Nan Goldin's less savvy understudy. Consequently he is serenaded by that hackneyed anthem 'They are pictures of his family' by those that crave an artist to portray a diaristic and authentic working-class experience, as long as it remains safely on the wall.

Art is used in Fashion to suggest that fashion photography can be seen as an offshoot to art: a meter of what the culture, rather than just the market will bear. In selecting 'real' artworks (anything that hasn't been made for a style or fashion magazine) that blend into the fashion photographs, the authors introduce an artificial cross-fertilisation that ignores the subtleties of intent. If art can look like fashion, then it follows that fashion can be like art. Here, the softening of the fabric's edge, the momentary escape from the fashion editor's demands is, in effect, the artistic instinct - art is misrepresented as wild abandon and inarticulate gesture. Charles Ray's snaps of Tatjana Patitz, for example, are pretty but hardly represent Ray's wider, more complex project. The choice of those images (actually part of an edition of a set of portraits of the model for Parkett) rather than a mannequin piece only props up a loaded deck - the insistence that art and fashion photography look the same. The images culled from artists are accompanied by no notations to make them art and no fashion to make them anything but odd punctuation. Flipping through the pages of this volume, one might be tempted to ask why a vacant Mario Sorrenti picture of Rachel Williams with an S&M ball-gag in her mouth was included. Is this the wild side? And if so, why not one of Nobuyoshi Araki's infamous (and morally bankrupt) photos of a Japanese woman tied up in ropes, bleeding what looks like carefully orchestrated ketchup, rather than a cute teenager? Seeing a Richard Prince biker girl, outfitted by a hot-looking metal brace of pins stuck into her calves, one notices the lack of the most radical, sensational, contradictory and beautiful image of the last couple of years - Helmut Newton's remarkable high heels/ accident spread in Vogue featuring a cosmetically crippled Nadja Auermann.

Perhaps the radicality in these images is less the narrative content they suggest than the absence of advertising: the clearest way for a fashion photograph to cease to be, is to strip it of its commercial context. With the exception of the pictures that are actual advertisements, many of the fashion photographs in Fashion float in an undeveloped in-between. Stripped of credits - a skeletal index only mentions a few designers (which again reminds of who holds the copyright to this art) we are reminded that fashion is at its most exhilarating when it is informative.

It was Warhol's Interview that truly understood how important credits were for stirring up a fantasy. In its pictorials and profiles it included the names of everything from the shoes on a shoot where only the torso was pictured to the kind of camera the photographer used. Fashion is exciting when you know what you're looking at, what it costs, what it's made out of. Of all the texts that fill fashion periodicals, it is the blurbs - poetry made up of eyeliner colours, fabric blends and butter-soft leathers - that provoke investment. What Fashion seeks to do is excise 7th Ave, get rid of the sale, of the merchandiser from Bloomingdales, cutting everything away so that the pure art of fashion photography shines through. The thing with good fashion photography is that it's really hard for it to fail. Exquisite pictures of James King are breathtaking and we as viewers don't require anything more, such as that offered by McDean, the rare exception. The fashion photograph may carry any number of significant cultural messages, but it needn't necessarily say anything and if it does, it doesn't have to make sense. It never needs an elaborate discourse to prove its worth, because it never asked to hang on a wall, to be encapsulated in a frame or to be written about. All it needs is a winsome tilt of a handsome head. It doesn't even need that. Perhaps that's the reason why art is so tempted by the medium.

1. I refer to the model as 'she' because women's fashion still proposes an impossible fantasy that men's clothing never approaches. While designers such as John Bartlett offer proactive pieces in their lines, they are never as problematic or unwearable as the wares of their female counterparts.

2. Prince was well aware of his images' dual appeal. With less at stake than his female counterparts, he was post-PC at the very birth of the movement.

3. Many will criticise Goldin for making fashion images in the style of her more personal artworks and those that do fall victim to their own sentimentality.