As the spring 2006 runway season begins, the Internet site Firstview.com celebrates its 10th anniversary with an exhibition of about 60 images at the Staley-Wise Gallery in SoHo. Firstview was a pioneer in putting runway images online for mass consumption. In doing so, it angered an elitist fashion industry that worried about brand dilution, gave luxury consumers a new tool in hunting down an elusive designer gewgaw and helped push high-end fashion further into the mainstream of popular culture. Firstview curated a decade's worth of fashion trends, fads, indiscretions, showstoppers and unfathomably bad ideas.
Now with runway images from seven photographers hanging in a gallery that has also exhibited works by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Edward Steichen and Herb Ritts, Firstview asks whether runway photography can be, if not art, then at least artful.
Over the past decade, Firstview has created an enormous digital archive -- a clearinghouse for runway photography, backstage photojournalism, product shots and candid images of front-row celebrities. Subscribers pay for access to the most recent runway shows, but the curious can browse past seasons free of charge. The site was founded by two runway photographers, Marcio Madeira and Don Ashby. Madeira, who is based in France, had been shooting the collections since 1978; Ashby, who lives in New York, began in 1984.
Back then, Madeira says, runway photographers were shown little respect, ranking even lower than the paparazzi who swarmed around celebrities. But over the years, their stock has risen and runway photography has expanded from sketchy seasonal work centered in Europe and New York into a full-time global business dominated by small corporations rather than individuals. Now Firstview covers shows in places such as Brazil, Malaysia and India. It maintains a digital archive of 2 million images, Madeira says. About 400 publications in the United States use Firstview images, and the Web site receives more than a million hits daily from editors, designers and shoppers.
Not so long ago, on the fourth floor of Barneys New York, a sales associate was engaged in a detailed telephone conversation with a customer in San Francisco. The customer was studying images from the Dries Van Noten fashion show on the Vogue/W site Style.com. The runway photographs are supplied by Firstview.
The shopper was giving the sales rep a detailed description of a specific dress that had caught her eye. Did Barneys have it? The clerk found the sparkly frock on the sales floor and promised to have it sent out immediately. Not quite online shopping and more exacting than ripping a page out of a fashion magazine, Firstview has helped to transform the Internet into an important retail tool. The clerk and the customer maintain a long-distance relationship facilitated by Firstview.
It is no small surprise that the Web site has survived and prospered. From the outset the fashion industry was leery of the Internet and anything associated with it. Designers assumed no good could come from allowing the masses such easy access to their highfalutin work. Discounters would be able to produce cheap knockoffs more easily. The brand image would be damaged with the erosion of exclusivity -- as measured by who buys the clothes, where they are sold and where they are pictured. Firstview dragged the fashion industry into the 21st century against its will.
The most vocal -- and litigious -- protests continue to be heard in France, where Madeira and Ashby were arrested, jailed and prosecuted for copyright violations after photographing a 2003 Chanel show. French law gives designers, not the photographers, ownership of pictures, and French fashion's governing body had not given the photographers permission to put the photographs on their Web site.
When the case went to court this June, the photographers brought in a portfolio of their work and their lawyer argued that they contribute to the designer's runway spectacle by creating a distinct work that can be viewed as art. As a result, the lawyer argued, the photographers should have ownership rights to those pictures. In July, the court ruled in favor of the photographers. The decision is being appealed.
Both Ashby and Madeira are quick to admit that injecting creativity and point of view into runway photography is difficult. A mob of photographers at the end of a catwalk all shooting the same image with a long lens is not the ideal situation for inventiveness. They have no control over lighting. And they must answer to their clients, publications that prefer simple, full-length pictures that show the clothes clearly. An ideal photograph has certain distinct characteristics, Madeira says. The model's feet are on the ground; the viewer doesn't see the bottom of her shoes. She's looking toward the camera, eyes open, and her movements are graceful. "There a second when you must shoot," says Madeira, who was born in Brazil. "To do it once is possible, but time after time?" In a single season, traveling to New York, London, Milan and Paris, a photographer can easily take 60,000 pictures.
"I think for the most part the designers don't consider runway photography art or artful because we're recording a spectacle," Ashby says. "But every photographer sees things in their own way. Even though we're clumped together at the end of a runway, you're seeing different things." (One could also debate whether the clothes themselves are art, artful or pure commodity.)
Some photographs in the exhibition are more reportage than anything approaching art. Their value is in having recorded a decisive moment in a clear, technically astute manner. Ashby snapped the back view of a torn skirt from Francisco Costa's debut collection for Calvin Klein. The photograph encapsulates an entire chapter in the story of an assistant's rocky rise to the top and the evolution of a brand. It reveals -- in addition to much of the model's naked derriere -- the shaky foundation on which the fashion business is built.
Maria Valentino, whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, captures the regal atmosphere of a Dries Van Noten show, realizing that the magic of the garments comes from the romantic setting rather than a particular silhouette or bit of beading. The photograph documents an event but with an eye for the emotions it stirs up.
And Madeira photographed a Junya Watanabe model wearing a Brobdingnagian ruff. During the show, the models were crisscrossing madly around an open stage. Madeira captured the model's profile -- an expression of calm on her face, the collar jutting forward. He was one photographer in a crowd. But he chose his angle, his perspective, his moment. One can debate whether his picture is art, but its simple beauty is certain.