Modern Style: Dressing Down; Abigail Solomon-Godeau

By Solomon-Godeau, Abigail; Halley, Peter | Artforum International, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Modern Style: Dressing Down; Abigail Solomon-Godeau


Solomon-Godeau, Abigail, Halley, Peter, Artforum International


Fashion photography has been on the museum circuit for years, but the phenomenon moved center stage last month when the Museum of Modern Art premiered "Fashioning Fiction," its first take on the subject. In advance of the exhibition's opening, Artforum invited veteran observers of fashion and photography Abigail Solomon-Godeau and Peter Halley to reflect on the issues raised by the show.

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It will not come as breaking news to Artforum readers that commercial fashion and art photography have long existed in close proximity, with photographers regularly crossing between the two domains. Artforum, after all, has itself contributed to this development, however modestly, by featuring fashion as a subject relevant to contemporary art and serving as a site for upscale fashion advertising. Be that as it may, throughout the twentieth century artists and photographers have often moved from one camp to the other, among them, Man Ray, Frederick Kiesler, Herbert List, Salvador Dali, Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, and Andy Warhol, who perhaps represents the ne plus ultra of crossover careers. While greater cultural capital attaches to the practice of photographic art, in most cases greater economic capital accrues to professional fashion photography, especially at its highest levels.

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Over the past twenty years, commercial photographers with artistic aspirations have been relieved of the need to produce work that implicitly repudiates their professional practice, as was earlier the case. Here I am thinking of the example of Penn. Hugely successful throughout the '50s and '60s as a fashion photographer for Vogue, when he turned to the rigors of art, his chosen motifs were either fat women, skulls, or decomposing cigarette butts. Needless to say, the contrast between such subjects and those of his fashion pictures operated as the very warranty of aesthetic ambition. However, for the artistically inclined fashion photographer today, or the art photographer attracted to the world of style, such overdetermined oppositions are no longer necessary. On the contrary, fashion photographers may now flirt with physical imperfection (to a point), employ nonprofessional models, fabricate mise-en-scenes of exciting squalor or implied depravity, and appropriate any and all styles from the history of photography, while art photography has long been freed from the burden of beauty. Furthermore, the increasing formal "autonomy" of sophisticated fashion photography has made it a more appealing, flexible, and presumably lucrative option for artists and art photographers. Often divorced from the task of representing the commodity as such, this type of experimental or unconventional fashion photography is a growing presence in style and pop-culture magazines such as The Face, i-D, Blitz, Tank, and Dutch, as well as in so-called editorial spreads in print media from W to Sunday-newspaper magazine supplements.

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Given these broader options and the long-in-the-making collapse of boundaries between elite and mass culture (or, if one prefers, art and commerce), it is only to be expected that museums would recognize the popular appeal of fashion photography of all types. Thus the Museum of Modern Art's initial sortie into the brave new world of fin de siecle fashion photography--"Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990"--is by no means the first museum exhibition of its kind and will surely not be the last. Organized by department of photography curator Susan Kismaric and assistant curator Eva Respini, "Fashioning Fiction" is a relatively late participant in the museological celebration of contemporary fashion photography. Over the past seven years alone, London's National Portrait Gallery has exhibited the photographs of Bruce Weber and Mario Testino, Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie inaugurated its new building with a Helmut Newton retrospective, the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted "Imperfect Beauty: The Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs," and Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art weighed in with "Chic Clicks: Creativity and Commerce in Contemporary Fashion Photography. …

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