Anyone who looks at a fashion photograph and thinks it has only to do with clothes has missed the point. Indeed, fashion photography starts with a garment, a face or some other fashionable focus, but by the time the other elements are in place--the photographer, the posture and pose of the model, the lighting or angle of the shot, the background, the cropping of the picture--the final work reveals far more than the garment the model wears.
Three of the strongest fashion-related books released in the last year or so are largely collections of photographs, put together for very different reasons. Norman Parkinson's Fifty Years of Style and Fashion is a collection of his wide range of superb photos, but it is also a fascinating study of changing glamour over five decades. In The Genius of Charles James, several great photographers of the 1930s to 1950s, including Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst and Richard Avedon, record the 11,7.3,11,7.6,11,7.6,11,7.6,11,7.3>unique James designs. And Francesco Scavullo, in his third book, Scavullo Women shows us what a lot of skilled photography and even more makeup can do for an ordinary face.
The camera doesn't lie. In skilled hands, the camera tells more than the eye sees. The photographer choreographs each picture so that we see what he wants us to see. It's his point of view, and the subject is only one contributing element. Fashion may have provided the idea for the picture. Often it gets lost in the exercise.
In some photographs we see too much of the photographer whose point of view is so strong, so aggressive that it overwhelms his subject instead of revealing it. Yet it is possible to see the photographer's signature without being dominated by it. Parkinson, a sensitive Englishman, characterizes his fashion photographs and portraits, with both grace and humor. "I like to take the unrepeatable, intimate picture, the kind you can get if you catch a woman before she knows she is being watched," Parkinson once told The Times of London, expressing well the joy of his work.
Parkinson's pictures are gentle; Francesco Scavullo's photos are bold, aggressive. As in his earlier books, in Scavullo Women, Scavullo seems to go for the jugular-- admittedly a beautiful jugular, to create a single, gripping picture of each of the 46 women he photographed for this book. Each photo is pushed to its ultimate, glamoroso, sexy finish. The wet lips, the eyes darkly outlined and a hairstyle a bit askew has a lot to do with the final affect. There are "before and after" photos of many of Scavullo's famous faces, but not all. For a few, like Farrah Fawcett and actress Ruth Ford, the comparisons are made with photos taken several years ago. But for Elizabeth Taylor, for example, no eyelash is photographed out of place, for Zandra Rhodes, a single painted eyebrow wiggles across her forehead and she is never shown without it.
Most people know of the late Charles James' designs only from photographs of very rich and fancy ladies wearing them. Many of those photographs were by James' friend Cecil Beaton. In The Genius of Charles James, the hardcover version of the catalogue for the exceptional James retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, there are photographs of James clothes not only by Beaton, but by Avedon, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Irving Penn and Horst. They reveal the rare inventiveness of the designer Balenciaga once called "not only the greatest American couturier, but the world's best and only dressmaker who has raised it from an applied art form to a pure art form." The passionate, crazed temperament of Charles James is revealed in the fascinating text by Elizabeth Ann Coleman, curator of costumes and textiles at the Brooklyn Museum, and by James' friend, New York photographer Bill Cunningham.
For those who feel fashion books must provide some "how to" information, since that is what most fashion books do these days, one could stretch a point and say these books do that. Not that Scavullo, or the others, ever tells us how to take these pictures. But Scavullo's women do talk about how they look, their health and beauty regimens, and often the make-up techniques they use themselves or the methods used on them by makeup artist Way Bandy, hairstylist Harry King and others. In the Charles James book it is the sketches by the designer that are shown alongside photographs of the same garments, that provide a fascinating study of the ingenious designs of this architect of fashion.
And Parkinson provides the highly informative, usually amusing background for many of the 60 color and 170 black-and-white photographs with an autobiographical text. His tales may take some of the glamour out of fashion photography and even the fashion business generally, but never the fun or the challenge.
He has been credited as the first fashion photographer to take outside pictures, and splendid locations they sometimes were. He photographed a pink mohair coat near the City Palace in Jaipur India, the bearers in pink jackets and the elephant sporting a bit of pink as well. For his photograph of Pilar Crespi wearing a red Krizia bathing suit, he put her on an ornately carved settee placed on the coral sands of Sri Lanka, a fisherman in red trunks in the background.
He can laugh about photographs that never worked, like the assignment for Diana Vreeland of Vogue in Tahiti. He had been sent with 200 pounds of Dynel synthetic fabric to photograph with a white stallion, that turned out not to be white; besides, the horse rejected both the model and the Dynel. And the kites he took to Tahiti as backdrops couldn't be used because they were obscene. He critizes his own photograph of the exquisite black model, Iman Abdul Majid, the first photograph taken of her after she arrived from Africa. Majid had at first refused to wear the white jersey swimsuit she was to model because she felt her mother would realize how revealing it was from a side view. Eventually she consented to model it, but Parkinson did not dare suggest she wasn't wearing the suit quite right.
Parkinson is never pretentious. Neither are his pictures, even when the British royal family is his subject. Parkinson is clearly their choice for photographs as formal as a portrait for a postage stamp as well as for family weddings. When asked to do the portrait of the queen mother for her 80th birthday, Parkinson suggested the photo include her two daughters, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. They were delighted to wear the blue satin capes he had made to achieve the timeless fashion-free photo he wanted.
Wrote Parkinson, in describing some of the early pictures he took of his wife, a former model, "Girls change, clothes change, but beauty itself, in whatever form it is viewed, is sealed there forever--it is frozen, it is permanent and it does not age."