Fashion offers a constantly shifting notion of an “ideal,” but the relationship of fashion photography to art remains unsettled. Many critics feel that the commercial constraints placed on commissioned photography limit the photographer’s creative integrity.
The need for this book, whose subtitle is “The Art of Fashion Photography,” springs from paradox. The magazines and editors who nurture and commission fashion photography cannot always be counted on to be friendly to the art of fashion. The job of the fashion editor is to “show” the clothes.
In January 1876, in what must be one of the earliest essays on the subject of fashion and photography, George Hooper railed against “the scanty, tight-fitting skirts, and want of taste displayed by ladies of the present day.” He asked his readers indignantly, “Are elongated waists graceful, are dog collars that cover up a lovely neck desirable, are the extra-high heels any advantage, except to weaken spines and bring on premature consumption?”
In fashion, there is perception and, beyond that, desire, the consumer desire for the garment, the autonomous longing for the apparel, and the sensuous relation between body and dress. Erwin Blumenfeld’s photographs of beauty and fashion perceive the figure and dress but achieve their mystery and mastery from the manipulations that distance us from the object of desire, enrich its aura of intangible yet material presence, and render it a world of palimpsest and mirror that haunts both viewer and viewed.
The beauty of dress comes alive in art. Ever since the breathtaking achievements of the ancient Greeks, dressed perfection has been embodied in images, visions of enhanced reality that teach the eye how to see clothes, and teach clothes how to look.
Fashion photography is pornography for connoisseurs. When the other boys were outside playing baseball, I was out there playing baseball. When the other boys were outside playing football, I was out there playing football. But when the other boys were inside panting over Playboy, I was inside panting over Vogue.
Voyeurism and exhibitionism are intrinsic to fashion photography, as they are to fashion itself. The entire relationship between body and clothes is fraught with eroticism — both perverse and playful. But although sex is an abiding theme in fashion photography, certain types of sartorial eroticism arouse more controversy than others.
As the designer for Chanel for the last eight years and the creator of his own label, KL, Karl Lagerfeld has played a major role in the design community for the last three decades. His designs have helped revive Paris haute couture, specifically, the House of Chanel, where Lagerfeld has expressed both a reverence for Coco Chanel's brilliance and an irreverence for her clichés.
Music video is visually omnivorous, its appetite unlimited. It prowls the savannas of high and low culture, devouring images from the movies, television, modern art, burlesque shows, religion, and fashion magazines—and everything it consumes becomes part of its own distinctive look.
For a photojournalist, fashion photographs often do not seem to be about much at all, other than summoning the muses. Beauty, sexuality, romance are conjured up. The clothing is given credit for the magic, when, as we know, it is the directing photographer who takes even a rag and elicits any minor deity desired.
WILLIAM EWING is an author and curator of fine photography whose most recent books include America Worked: The 1950s Photographs of Dan Weiner (Abrams, 1989) and The Photographic Art of Hoyningen-Huene (Abrams, 1986). His exhibitions have appeared at the Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
JOSEF ASTOR was born in Canton, Ohio, in 1959. He resides in New York City. His current photography work will involve a 19th-century porcelain mounting process for a Paris exhibition. RICHARD AVEDON was born in New York City in 1923. He has published four books of portraits and a retrospective, Avedon: Photographs 1947-1977.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are courtesy of, and copyright by, the artists. Front Cover: photograph by Javier Vallhonrat; p. 2 photograph by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, courtesy of Association des Amis de Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Mona Getner;