Images of Fashion Tiptoe Into The Modern

by Roberta Smith, 2004


While elegant and momentarily diverting, "Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990″ at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens disappoints. It is too small, to superficial, too polite and in some ways misleading. With it, the Modern dips a toe into a very large body of water and dithers. It is the museum’s first exhibition devoted to fashion photography, a field roughly as old as the Modern, yet it can’t quite bring itself to use the term in the show’s title. Given the alacrity with which the museum dived into film, industrial design textiles and other realms of visual culture, you may wonder what took so long – especially since Edward Steichen, who was director of its photo department for 15 years, was something of an early fashion photographer himself. Steichen’s successor, John Szarkowski, concentrated on establishing photography as an autonomous art form and vehicle of truth; brushes with overt forms of commerce probably didn’t help the cause. That’s fair. But in recent decades such compartmentalization has disintegrated. You could say that photography of all kinds – art, commercial, editorial, documentary, portrait, cinematic – indulged in an enormous orgy, emerged wearing bits of one another’s clothing and in all likelihood will never get their outfits entirely sorted out. Beginning in the 1960′s and early 70′s fashion photographers, long inspired by street photography, looked increasingly to painting, documentary photography, pulp fiction and the movies. In the 1980′s, photo-based artists borrowed from fashion and commercial photography and the movies. Layers of fakeness and irony piled up; photography’s truths were left behind. Americans became full-time shoppers, while advertisers and editors became ever more daring, or desperate, for attention-grabbing images. >As Susan Kismaric and Eva Respini write in their catalogue essay, advertisements stopped selling clothes and started selling lifestyles with images in which the garments functioned as props. In the process, fashion photography’s ambitions expanded. It became a kind of sponge, and deciphering its references became a favorite art-world guilty pleasure. One tracked the influences of artists as diverse as Cindy Sherman, Tina Barnet and Gregory Crewsden, or watched Phillip-Lorca diCorcia ply both sides of the art-fashion fence. More generally, one traced the infiltrating styles of movies like «Blue Velvet» or «Far From Heaven» and kept an eye out for celebrity cameos by actors like Jeremy Irons. «Fashioning Fiction» rolls out a title that could conceivably encompass any number of contemporary artist-photographers, including Peter Lindbergh, Jeff Wall, Anna Gaskell, and Jessica Craig-Martin. Instead, it serves up a thinly sliced canapé that mixes images by 13 artists and fashion photographers; all were originally published in advertising or editorial pages of magazines. Hung against expanses of breathless hush and white walls, little of the work sustains the concentration we are invited to give it. It wants company. But no. In a time when dozens of new magazines – The Face, Dutch, ID and Index – have mingled coverage of fashion, art and music, this exhibition limits itself primarily to mainstream American fashion magazines, especially W and Harper’s Bazaar. It covers a time when sexual innuendo is turned to ever higher volumes but omits Bruce Weber. Purporting to cover work since 1990, the exhibition jumps back to the mid-1980′s to include Nan Goldin’s antifashion images taken in the Russian baths on East 10th Street and published in The Village Voice, while ignoring other precedents. Otherwise, nearly everything else dates from after 1997. >Mr. Lindbergh’s memorably cinematic image of a model in a cocktail dress walking along a dusty ranchland road, accompanied by a Martian, might have been a logical place to start; it was made in 1990. The show is best in its first gallery, which displays a selection of both familiar and little-known images by Ms. Sherman. Among the latter are some shot for Harper’s Bazaar in 1993, full of contrasting fabrics, colors and messages. In one, Ms. Sherman crouches on a gilt bureau beneath a proscenium swag of red silk, wearing clown makeup and a glittering harlequinesque gown by Dior, looking like a sumptuous puppet. In another, she wears a weird combination of powdered wig, lace shirt, sombrero and batik, her cultural and gender loyalties in flux. And in a third, she’s a dragon lady in gold lame, collapsed in a chair with a skinned knee and ripped stocking after a tussle that she may or may not have won. After this the show has few moments of traction. Society portraiture and fashion photography continue their nearly century-old dance in Ms. Barney’s large family portraits and Juergen Teller’s series «The Clients: Haute Couture.» The series has an image of a woman in white standing beside a baby elephant that brings to mind Richard Avedon’s famous juxtaposition of the smooth and the wrinkled, «Dovima With Elephants.» But Mr. Teller’s images of impossibly this, highly groomed women mainly resemble milder versions of the freakish characters Ms. Sherman is known for. At times the traffic between fashion photography and everything else seems largely on way. Ms. Sherman’s famous «Film Stills» (as well as David Lynch’s « Blue Velvet ») inform the nourish images by Glen Luchford for Prada. In one, a young woman in her underwear stands, tense and listening, in a dark house as if she had just heard a strange noise. Simon Leigh’s images of beauty products lost among the vast expanses of decaying bathrooms use the grunge still-life aesthetic that traces back through Wolfgang Tillmans to Ms. Goldin and William Eggleston. Craig McDean’s images of models shot in front of big Duratrans images of International Style architecture brings to mind the rear-screen projection backdrops employed by Ms. Sherman and also Laurie Simmons in the 1980′s. Mario Sorrentino’s odes to the Bohemian resemble chaotic versions of Mr. Wall’s elaborately staged scenes. The catalogue essay acknowledges the influence of the Sherman « Film Stills » no Ellen von Unwerth’s black-and-white images of models posing as 50′s style Hollywood starlets. It would have been more informative also to mention that both artists’ efforts are presaged in the work the Bob Richardson did for Nova in 1972. In one of the show’s strongest galleries, Mr. diCorcia’s desolate shots of fashion models set among or inside vast, decaying buildings in Havanna are contrasted with the overtly fake, almost demoniac cheerfulness of the 50′s-style family scenes that Steven Meisel took for Italian Vogue in 1997. Mr. diCorcia’s images are like enervated time capsules, most notably one of a pale model with a blond beehive working in an office unchanged since Fidel Castro arrived. Mr. Meisel’s images burnish the same time capsule with forced smiles, pressed clothing, perfect hair and events that include a family dinner, a sing-along and washing the family station wagon. In the next gallery, Larry Sultan’s recent advertising campaign for Kate Spade features a patrician Mid-western family visiting their daughter in New York; imagine Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward playing Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, only happier. These images embrace the myth of family wholesomeness more sincerely that Mr. Meisel’s, but with such taut perfection that Ms. Spade’s leather goods stand out sharply. (The felicitous use of red in both Mr. Meisel’s and Mr. Sultan’s series might be analyzed.) After Ms. Sherman, Ms. Goldin and Mr. diCorcia’s work, the most impressive characters are Cedric Buchet’s scenes of models in the latest Prada fashions, shot from above on an edgeless patch of sand. Compared to Fellini’s work by the curators, the images also exemplify the more formalist tradition of Mr. Avedon and Irving Penn, with a little Pina Bausch thrown in. The stiffly posed, impeccably attired models may sit under beach umbrellas or stroll on boardwalks, but they are still runway zombies. It is hard to know weather Mr. Buchet is turning back the clock or moving forward, but his images are among he more refreshing in this timid show.