Wide Angle

In 'Weird Beauty,' Fashion Puts a Familiar Face Forward

New York's International Center of Photography puts the strange art of fashion photography on display.
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009

NEW YORK -- "Fearless" seems a likely word for the photographers, stylists and designers who put together today's fashion spreads: They're not afraid to stuff a buff young man into a strappy girdle, stick football pads on tutu-wearing wraiths or get underclad young women to play a nurse and her paraplegic patient. Judging from "Weird Beauty," an important fashion-photo survey now at the International Center of Photography in New York, there's only one thing those fashionistas are afraid of: reality.

They almost never focus on the garments themselves and how they're actually worn. It seems that coming to terms with the real world of clothes would be too weird and radical for almost any fashion magazine; such realities, in all their stunning complexity, have instead become the subject of advanced contemporary art.

It's not that I imagine that the leading edge of fashion, or of fashion photography, needs to have some tie to the practical, the flattering or the all-around normal. As an art critic, my dial's permanently tuned to "strange." That's why I left this exhibition puzzled. I'd had hopes of being startled, or at least impressed, by a whole new range of fashion shots. (Way back in the early 1980s, I trained as a fashion photographer, but I've barely kept up with the field.) Instead, I found a weirdness that's about the same as weirdnesses from years ago.

One photographer in "Weird Beauty," which runs through May 3, puts a nightmarish mask onto his attractive model. That's the kind of surrealist move that's been in play at least since the 1920s. You could already see its cousin in a 1926 fashion shoot by Edward Steichen, the great American photographer who is featured in another of the quartet of fashion-themed shows now filling the ICP. (The museum has declared 2009 its "Year of Fashion," with Richard Avedon up next in May, followed in the fall by a clothing-centered photo triennial.) Given the dream state of so many pictures in "Weird Beauty," it looks as though 80-year-old surrealism has managed to become the default for today's fashion photography.

Another of the show's artists shoots women under striped and spotted beams of light, so the models are turned into abstract art. That's another device that has its roots in the 1920s, this time in Bauhaus modernism. Steichen mined that movement, too.

As for the shots in "Weird Beauty" that show elegant bodies taffy-pulled until they look like Henry Moores or Giacomettis, those tricks were being played by classic art photographers such as Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham -- not to mention fashion pioneers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn -- from the 1930s at least through the '60s.

Some of the stylings in "Weird Beauty" are self-consciously retro. That doesn't make them any less derivative.

Even this show's scenes of casual debauchery and stagy, flash-lit violence are only slightly less vintage. Such "crime-scene" fashion shoots took off in the 1970s, in the landmark work of Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton.

I think I see what's going on here. Fashion is an art, equal to any other form of creativity. Fashion photography wants to signal that fact -- and declare itself an art form, too -- so it does its very best to look arty. And that's the problem: Anything that looks evidently arty cannot also be substantial art, because artiness is all about cliches of what art should be and how it should look. Artiness is built around surrealist cliches, or modernist ones, or, in the case of "Weird Beauty," even stagy ones born right inside the art of older fashion shoots.

What's the way out of this bind? Make images that absolutely don't look like fancy art -- that look, for instance, more like unfancy reality, or at least that derive directly from it. Cindy Sherman, one of the most important fine artists of the past 30 years, does just that in her commissioned fashion images included in "Weird Beauty." In several of her trademark "self-portraits," done for a recent spread in the Paris edition of Vogue, Sherman dresses herself up to look like different iterations of the worst of fashion's victims -- runway doyennes hidden behind Chanel glasses and a MAC store's worth of makeup, or wine-bar babes with more money than sense. Sherman, as an art star, is almost the only photographer in this whole show who's really allowed to pick at fashion's scabs.

Some of the show's other photographers also play at crossbreeding fashion and the real. They take pictures of fancy models but show them inside crummy frame houses. Or they shoot well-dressed celebrities but portray them surrounded by the mess and dysfunctions of their "real" lives. (This hybridizing is a major trend that's underrepresented in this show.) The results, however, almost always feel more like a knowing, token nod toward reality than like a real embrace of its particularities. In fact, they take us back into the past again, to the 1930s images of Martin Munkacsi -- another great fashion photographer who's now got a show at the ICP, sampled from its new archive of his negatives.

Munkacsi was the man who brought fashion photography out of the studio, where trained models had stood stiff as mannequins, and into a world of actual people, outdoors and in action. One of Munkacsi's classic photos shows a little airplane on the tarmac, with Katharine Hepburn climbing up to launch herself into the air in it. We never doubt this is a staged fashion shot -- the original caption told readers to admire Hepburn's "gray gabardine trousers, gray flannel coat, white wool scarf" -- but it still lets us watch as a star's beauty comes in contact with our daily world. That's about as close to reality as even the more "realistic" photos in "Weird Beauty" come.

The last and best, if smallest, of the ICP's four shows, the wonderful "This Is Not a Fashion Photograph," suggests that they could have come closer. It features shots by famous documentarians such as Walker Evans, Weegee and Lisette Model as well as their more recent colleagues such as Tina Barney. Their photos simply show real people in their clothes, and touch on all the complex meanings that arise when humans dress. This is the kind of direct encounter with reality that fine art seems to value most these days: Malick Sidibé, a photographer from Mali whose document of local dancers is in "Not a Fashion Photograph," won a lifetime achievement award -- as a fine artist -- at the most recent Venice Biennale. The same impulse is on view right now at the D.C. Arts Center, where Richmond-born artist David Hartwell is examining his youth through deliberately flat-footed snapshots of his birthplace as it looks now, installed with the junk that he picked up as he was taking them. As another local artist put it to me: "The real world is just a lot more interesting than anyone's imagination."

It might even make an interesting subject for a fashion spread.

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