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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Fashion Photography: An Art Form?

There are fashion photographers who are artists yet use style bibles and advertising campaigns for luxury houses as their gallery opposed to artists working in fashion photography such as Ryan McGinley, Nan Goldin and Roe Ethridge amongst others.  Yet there are those working exclusively in fashion and fashion photography as their main medium. Names like Frederick Heyman, Tim Walker, Daniel Sannwald, Jason Evans & Damien Blotteire, come to mind In the case of Sannwald, the image is usually constructed in his mind before it is shot, and is manipulated in post-production to add elements to it, rather than simply to perfect the model’s face or make the subject thinner. Blottière similarly uses post-production add artistic elements to his work, whilst Jason Evans starts out with an abnormal set-up for his shoots from the get go, through the poses, lighting or subjects.

But you only have to look at how these photographers are being embraced by the industry in comparison with their more commercial contemporaries to realise that fashion imagery has become too safe. It seems its forefathers, such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, paved the way for pushing boundaries and creating provocative, thoughtful and genius imagery, only for the landscape now to be dominated by pictures that are fundamentally quite simple and predictable in many aspects.

Mainstream publications seem to shy away from allowing artists to create truly arresting imagery. Editor of Husk magazine, Trey Taylor, believes that commercial considerations are the reason for this: ‘Fashion only survives because not everybody has it, but everybody wants it. However, these relationships between photographer and editor border on incest, with these ‘elite’ photographers recreating predictable, jaded stories that the editors can depend on for filler, save for ad pages.’

The closest British Vogue comes to embracing creative imagery is through the likes of Tim Walker. American Vogue could claim that of Annie Leibovitz, who at times is able to create arresting imagery, yet predominantly remains extremely safe. Taylor feels this causes the publications to stagnate: ‘Vogue, among others, has drawn from the same well of talent since time immemorial. The editors and ad execs who choose these photographers are scared of a fresh perspective. They have fallen into cyclic patterns of trying to recreate past successes. Without risk, we see repetition; fashion photography is insipid because the well has run dry.’

Vogue has its star names in photographers like Steven Meisel and Steven Klein. Meisel’s work for Italian Vogue is often very much of the times, such as his homage to Twitter and his celebrities in rehab, as well as his work tackling harder-hitting topics like the Iraq war, racial discrimination, and the BP oil spill. He comments on contemporary society while still being able to create pictures that are relevant in the fashion industry.

Rasharn Agyemang, Fashion Director of RE-BEL, feels the play-safe attitude is also present in other areas of the industry: ‘It feels like it’s not just photography that has become safe, but fashion in general: there are few individuals still willing to take risks and make people dream. When I was growing up, there were the supermodels and Versace, further on down the line Galliano, McQueen and Chalayan, and later on Gareth Pugh. I don’t know any young designer that’s creating on these levels, yet thankfully we have stylists like Nicola Formichetti, who inject fashion with a flair, difference, creative energy, and who take the time to find new talent in design and imagery.’

Both Meisel and Klein are considered highly creative, yet you could question whether they are ever really allowed to show their true creativity on the pages of the magazines that feature their work. A typical example is the ‘Dogging’ story created by Meisel for Italian Vogue that was deemed to risqué, and found its way onto the pages of V magazine, one that embraces artistic imagery. The simple fact is that creative directors for the big brands look to photographers featured in larger publications for their future campaigns. These are the clients who have the budgets that are now needed to produce, retouch, and cast for the level of quality that is required. The smaller publications have modest budgets in comparison to the might of a Condé Nast magazine – and yet they seem to be the only environment in which a photographer is truly allowed to create.

Smaller, independent publications allowed newer talent to flourish in the late 80s and early 90s: Nick Knight, Wolfgang Tillmans, Juergen Teller, David Lachapelle and Steven Klein all cut their teeth in magazines like i-D and The Face. But many of those independent magazines have either closed or lost the spirit that once defined them and made them unique. Many have caved into the commercial demands and have compromised on artistic expression in a desperate fight to please advertisers and keep themselves afloat. This means that few magazines allow themselves the artistic freedom to risk working with younger names, and it remains difficult for the next wave of talent to have their work published and appreciated.

The new generation of artists combats this through the internet, using blogs and fashion websites such as Contributing Editor and Ponystep, in which their work can be seen outside of the printed page. Webzines and fashion magazine websites allow for more opportunities to young artists, which they won’t get from art directors and decision makers at places like Vogue and Harpers. Emerging talent also benefits from magazines that are created by young people for young people. Magazines like Hero and Husk show credibility and creativity, yet remain commercially viable. Trey Taylor of Husk says: ‘Husk tries to source its artists based on an aesthetic. Experience, to us, is irrelevant if the photographer invokes a feeling we feel worthy enough to share with our readers.’ And it is in magazines like these that artists who are studying now will be likely to first see their work printed.

Some larger publications do push for artistic imagery: Interview and Dazed & Confused are among the few doing so and have become known worldwide for it. Interview has nurtured and supported names such as Sharif Hamza, and Dazed has allowed other new talent to shoot its front pages until they are ready to shoot full editorials. Others who have been given this opportunity are Leon Mark, Matthew Mumford, Fabien Kruszelnicki, and Alex Sainsbury. Damien Blottière has also enjoyed exposure through Dazed, dissecting the human form with his montages, as have Pierre Debusschere, whose work resembles CCTV scans, and Ben Toms, with his muted tones and upfront fashion portraiture. 

However, some feel that contemporary fashion photography is created by a select few, with the landscape dominated by talent like Mert and Marcus, Mario Testino, Craig McDean, David Sims, and even Steven Meisel and Steven Klein. These big names repeatedly create editorials for the dominant glossy magazines, and in turn create the adverts that are also on the same pages. It can be said that fashion photography is informed by an elite few, and that a small group of photographers shape how fashion imagery is consumed, through fashion magazines and through mass-market advertising from a Times Square billboard down to a poster at a London bus stop. 

Every magazine has its favourite photographers that they turn to time and time again, comfortable with the fact that these image makers can create what is needed. Even RE-BEL has its own roster of trusted younger names (including Christian Oita, Ben Weller, Damien Blottière and Daniel Sannwald), yet we understand the importance of continuing to nurture newer talent such as Fabien Kruszelnicki, Cameron Alexander and Willem Jaspert. We must nonetheless maintain a commercial outlook, and be wary of becoming too abstract.

Opportunities for true creativity are largely given to art photographers rather than fashion photographers. These projects give a publication art kudos and a cover name to help sales, but can overlook the talents of pure fashion photographers, instead giving more exposure to art photographers, who may have the opportunity to generate income from other sources – a luxury that fashion photographers do not have.

The power to change always lies with the next generation. With stylists like Robbie Spencer, Katie Shillingford and Anna Trevelyan willing to take risks and produce pictures that encourage artistic freedom for the photographer, and with magazines like Husk, Dazed & Confused and Interview still willing to nurture and publish young and artistic names, there is hope that fashion photography will remain a respected art form.

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