October 29, 2006

Beginnings: Fashion Photography and Art

(Another essay of mine...)

Fashion Photography: Between Art and Commerce

Visual culture, which Nicholas Mirzoeff calls “the interface between all the disciplines dealing with the visuality of contemporary culture,”[1] is inherently about the way that human beings look at the world, and make sense of what we see. According to W.T.J. Mitchell, there is a great difference between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ or ‘reading’, because the latter is contingent on “what our eyes have been socialised to see, and our minds to interpret.”[2] In short, our understanding of the visual is a socially constructed process.

Fashion photographs are images, painstakingly constructed or captured on the spur of the moment, that are intended to showcase fashion products, abstract notions of style, and “the relationships between clothes, wearers and contexts.”[3] These images can be simple and pragmatic, as is the case with catalog or stock photography, or highly symbolic and deliberately “fabricated to produce and evoke synesthetic sensations.”[4]

A number of gallery exhibitions and theorists in the last decade have attempted to consider and debate the relationship between contemporary fashion photography and art. From the Museum of Modern Art’s “Fashioning Fiction in Photography since 1990” to the New York Institute of Contemporary Art’s “Chic Clicks: Commerce and Creativity in Comtemporary Fashion Photography,” it seems de rigour to contemplate the relevance of cultural and institutional barriers between these two undeniably related fields.

As bold-named commercial photographers gain greater artistic liberties with their editorial work and exhibit regularly in museums and galleries, and art photographers turn their eye to fashion, and create commissioned works for magazines such as Dutch and Nylon, this is a barrier which has become increasingly blurred.

In ‘reading’ and understanding fashion photography, one may refer to traditional art history terminology and criteria, such as ‘lighting’ and ‘composition.’ But, more often, fashion photographs are popularly discussed in commercial terms, referencing the mannequins and frocks in photos rather than angles or horizons. Within visual culture studies and art history, much has been written and theorized about photography as an art form.

Yet, perhaps as part of the larger divide between art and commerce, there is a cultural distinction between the art photograph which features fashion and even editorial fashion photography. There are distinctive differences between a ‘reading’ of the fashionable image from an artistic perspective and from a trade standpoint.

How does one examine and understand Juergen Teller’s fashion photographs of high society ladies for W magazine? Is the process any different than it would be for his art photos of the old Nazi parade grounds at Nuremberg? As Olivier Zahm remarks in his essay on changes in contemporary fashion photography, how should “a fashion photographer be evaluated? On the basis of what criteria?”[5]

[1] Margarita Dikovitskaya, Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual After the Cultural Turn (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005) 58.
[2] Tony Schirato, Understanding the Visual, ed. Jen Webb (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE, 2004) 58.
[3] Jennifer Craik, “Soft Focus: Techniques of Fashion Photography,” The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion (New York: Routledge, 1994) 93.
[4] Katya Mandoki, “Point and Line Over the Body: Social Imaginaries Underlying the Logic of Fashion,” Journal of Popular Culture 36.3 (2003): 601.
[5] Olivier Zahm, “On the Marked Change in Fashion Photography,” Chic Clicks: Commerce and Creativity in Contemporary Fashion Photography, ed. Gilles Lipovetsky, Ulrich Lehmann, and Fotomuseum Winterthur (New York: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2002) T30.

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