As art, fashion photography is thinner than a supermodel. Call it anorexia aesthetica.
Fashion photographs can certainly be attractive. That’s their job – to attract consumers, as either advertising or editorial advice. The attraction can be performed in a variety of ways, employing sumptuousness, drama, surprise, eroticism and other deft compositional techniques to catapult their subject matter to an audience.
Evidence of these techniques is all over an exhibition of 161 images by 89 photographers at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911-2011” is an odd show, articulate in tracing the history of a relatively recent and minor art but leaving a viewer as undernourished as the skinny female models who dominate the featherweight genre.
The earliest works date from 1911. That was the year photographer and, later, museum curator Edward Steichen began to inject soft-focus emotionalism into commercial pictures of languorous women and their equally relaxed clothing. The evolving tenets of Pictorialism were meant to dress up camera works with the look of paintings.
Garments by Paul Poiret, working from his atelier around the corner from the Paris Opera, promoted an uncorseted feminine silhouette. The velvety, diffused light of Steichen’s soft-focus style, set in opulent rooms, complemented Poiret’s loose, comfortable drape of rich fabrics. The relaxed look reversed four centuries of mostly stiffened, close-fitting European fashion.
The show’s most recent pictures date from 2011 — sharp-focused images displaying languorous women at a Venice Beach skateboard rink and a scruffy tattoo parlor. The casual or down-market locations favored by such photographers as Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Glen Luchford aren’t new, even though they accomplish a 180-degree flip from Steichen’s luxe interiors. Similar settings have been exploited at least since the Great Depression.
In 1937, Surrealist Man Ray sent provocatively mixed messages by posing a svelte blond draped in lamé evening wear in a farmer’s wooden wheelbarrow, its rough-hewn interior upholstered in tufted satin. The world was then mired in economic despair, trembling on the brink of a catastrophic war against dictatorial fascism, yet the listless woman is notably indifferent to her jumbled situation.
The indolent lassitude of almost every fashion model photographed since the beginning is the show’s through-line. Being a style icon means being carefree. The condition assumes innumerable forms in seemingly endless contexts.
The dynamism of Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi’s work is embodied in the image of a Parisian woman wearing a beautifully tailored daytime suit. She’s caught during a rain shower in cheerful mid-jump over a sidewalk puddle, as if to say, “What, me worry?”
But even buff Olympic pole-vaulter Tom Hintnaus, one of the show’s rare male models, succumbs to a more general lethargy. He leans back against a sun-blasted, phallus-shaped white wall, shot from below and clad only in white Calvin Klein briefs. His eyes are closed to the soft-porn sexiness of Bruce Weber’s teasingly silly composition.
The staged indifference of these and other models is fashion photography’s defining modern motif, start to finish. It italicizes how First Lady Melania Trump caused a storm of outrage this summer – before and after a Texas trip to witness the cruel immigrant crisis her husband generated at the border – by wearing an inexpensive Zara jacket with the phrase “I really don’t care, do u?” scrawled across the back. The former model’s calculated pose encapsulated the motif in a century of fashion photography.
Paul Martineau, associate curator in the Getty Museum’s department of photography, has done an excellent job tracing the genre’s history. (The accompanying book is elaborate.) The galleries are laid out by decade, with each surveyed in one or two dozen photographs.
Familiar talents are assembled – Baron Adolf de Meyer, Horst P. Horst, Cecil Beaton, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Irving Penn and more. Lesser-knowns are represented – notably Latvian Lusha Nelson, who died at 30 in 1938 and has lately been enjoying a revival of interest. A few omissions are surprising (where’s the classic 1970 image of a Rudi Gernreich unisex design by model-turned-photographer Patricia Faure?). Helpful context comes in the form of adjunct material — magazine covers; video clips; eight dresses on mannequins, including Madame Grès, Halston, Issey Miyake and Alexander McQueen, each corresponding to the decade’s photographs.
The first three rooms focus on advertising techniques, camera styles and the relationship between subject and social context. By the fourth gallery, when Paris staggers amid the ruin of two world wars, the focus shifts to New York’s fashion industry. The 1950s represent a golden age, given the city’s postwar confluence of mass media and American financial power.
After that, things wobble. The decades devolve into virtual ad campaigns. Camerawork is led less by photographers than social trends – ’60s youth culture, ’70s rebelliousness, ’80s power plays and such.
What’s excluded from the pictures is almost as revealing as what is encompassed.
Models are overwhelmingly white, no doubt reflecting the presumed clientele. Only a handful focus on men, largely emerging in the 1980s, their exaggerated muscularity a hedge against a homophobic society’s conventional association of fashion with femininity. Very little is in color, black-and-white lending a veneer of seriousness to this most frivolous art.
Apparently, to bowdlerize Coco Chanel, elegance really has been refusal.
The Getty exhibition begins to peter out long before it’s over. Again, the first lady’s fashion-conscious veneer in the “I really don’t care” scandal might help explain why. Today, who doesn’t have a camera in their pocket? Photos by the billions are published daily.
Far and away the most famous and memorable fashion photograph, the “wow!” that lingers in the memory long after you’ve left the gallery, was shot more than 60 years ago. The mass-media age was just then exploding.
Richard Avedon’s 1955 “Dovima With Elephants” stands out from the show’s accomplished but often easily forgettable roster. The lovely, slender model dressed in Yves Saint Laurent evening wear designed for Dior is a sinuous, vertical, black-and-white line rising like ephemeral smoke between two stomping pachyderms. Her graceful arms spread wide, like a philharmonic conductor’s.
The model’s light, lithe elegance effortlessly orchestrates heavy, elephantine bulk. Dovima performs a couture riff on the cliché of beauty and the beast. Measured, meticulous culture keeps potentially marauding nature at bay.
Avedon once told me that his photographs “don’t go below the surface. They don’t go below anything. I have great faith in surfaces.”
I was taken aback – not by the depth and originality of the idea, but by its thoroughly unremarkable familiarity. Those words repeated a common mantra for much contemporary painting and sculpture, and they exposed his yearning to be considered an artist.
Two decades after Munkacsi, another Avedon photograph consciously repeated the Hungarian’s blithe, playfully untroubled puddle jump on a Paris street. The aim this time was not merely to sell his model’s Pierre Cardin coat, but to assert Avedon’s own status as an artist by showing an awareness that the young genre in which he worked finally had a history.
“Fashion work doesn’t really interest me,” the photographer also told me, “but I have to do it to make a living.” He knew that vast differences separated editorial advertising and more important art, and while he was great at one, he was not so good at the other. Perhaps the problem was his doubt about the artistic legitimacy of fashion photography itself.
Those doubts are not uncommon. Fashion writers have been cheering the exhibition, rightfully pleased with its abundant historical documentation. But many are also stuck on the nonsense question, “Is it art?” One described the worry as reflecting a desire to “free [the photographs] from subconscious associations most of us have with the idea of fashion magazines and ad campaigns.” Those ideas are in fact integral to the photographs; they don’t need to be outrun.
Escape is already this art’s highest function: “I really don’t care; do u?”
Even the Getty seems a bit unsure. The museum’s website asks, “Why do some fashion photographs transcend their commercial character to function as works of art, while others do not?”
The answer is: They don’t. Commerce is not “transcended,” it’s embedded, and all the photographs function as art – of a distinctly minor sort.
The better question is: Why are some fashion photographs superlative, while most are not? On that subject, “Icons of Style” has a convincing lineup of some of the genre’s best.
Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, (310) 440-7300, through Oct. 21. Closed Mondays. www.getty.edu