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‘Beyond the simple recording of fabric and surface detail, the most memorable images fulfil or challenge the desires and aspirations of the viewer.’
WORDS - aside from those in single quotation marks which have been sourced from the exhibition notes - BY SIGRID (SIGGI) MCCARTHY.
The State Library of NSW’s current exhibition Selling Dreams features the works of many outstanding fashion photographers. The images on display have been drawn from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, and chronicle the evolution of fashion photography as an art form and as a form of advertising. As stated by the V&A, ‘these images reflect contemporary culture, world events and the dramatic shifts in women’s roles throughout the Twentieth-Century.’
It is clear that the exhibition endeavours to explore the relevance of fashion photography throughout history and indeed highlight that the role of a fashion photographer – as declared by Irving Penn - is not merely to sell clothes, but to sell dreams.
One can only really appreciate how far fashion publications have come if they stop to consider the pre-photography age, when magazines featured engraved illustrations of fashion designs and only had a limited readership. In 1911, renowned photographer Edward Steichen proclaimed his L’art de la Robe series of photographs – printed in Art et Décoration – the first serious fashion photographs ever made. These images were of women adorned in decadent headpieces and glamorous gowns by French designer Paul Poiret.
Each wall of the gallery space in the State Library is dedicated to a certain era of fashion photography. There are plaques that eloquently describe each image’s significance and how the photographer has employed certain techniques to achieve the perfect shot. We are forced to contemplate the brilliance behind these images and I found myself leaving the exhibition with a greater appreciation of these artists and their craft. Apparently Horst P. Horst - the German-American fashion photographer - was so precise that the lighting for a single image could take three days to perfect.
The contexts in which these photographs have been taken are also explored by the V&A and we are given a greater understanding of how fashion photography has engaged in cultural movements over time. One particular movement noted in the exhibition is Surrealism, which began in the early 1920s and influenced photographers to ‘use new techniques and unexpected juxtapositions to challenge perceptions of reality, to amuse and to disturb.’
Being artists, fashion photographers can at times struggle to achieve an image that satisfies both their artistic eye and the magazine’s demands. While Irving Penn was right to say that the role of a fashion photographer is to not only sell clothes, but also to sell dreams, one cannot deny that at the core of any fashion editorial is the drive to sell the designs on display. After all, fashion is big business and these photographers would have nothing to shoot if the fashion houses ceased to exist due to financial hardship. Striking this balance was particularly problematic for Lillian Bassman, who had a strong desire to produce images that evoked a certain mood. The V&A notes that this desire often ‘took precedence over depicting the details of the clothes’ and Lillian was told by the Editor of Harper’s Bazaar Carmel Snow that, “You are not here to make art, you are here to show the buttons and the bows.”
As the decades progressed, fashion photographers continued to look for new ways to reach their audience and to reflect or challenge society. The 1950s saw many fashion photographers adopt ‘a more spontaneous, photojournalistic approach’ - shooting models in bustling streets and public spaces and encouraging more candid imagery. The fashion photography of the 1960s then engaged with the feminist movement as the body was ‘liberated from constricting undergarments and corsetry’ and women began demanding more from the fashion industry and from the world as a whole. Renowned photographers such as David Bailey influenced the trend towards a more youthful look, by working closely with teenage models Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton.
An era of fashion photography that interests me greatly is that of the 1970s. The V&A notes that during this time, photographers ‘tested the limits of acceptable fashion imagery’ and many of the works emerging throughout this decade were ‘informed by the potentially controversial themes of religion and violence.’ The exhibition’s focus on the work of Deborah Turbeville and Sarah Moon was especially interesting, as our attention is drawn to the fact that these women’s ‘contemplative images provided female perspectives on the themes of beauty and sexual objectification.’ I am particularly flawed by Deborah Turbeville’s brave and often controversial portfolio, as there is a striking contrast between her images and those of conventional fashion photography. Her notorious Bath House Series - published in Vogue in 1975 – caused significant outrage from critics who believed the images ‘promoted lesbianism and trivialised the horrors of the Holocaust gas chambers.’ I was thrilled to find some of the images in this provocative series on display in the State Library.
Moving on to the fashion photography of today, the advance in technology is particularly stark. The images on display in the exhibition highlight just how dramatically the nature of fashion photography has evolved. We realise that the relationship between photograph and narrative has become stronger than ever; 'Today's most dazzling fashion images are rich with colourful and poetic narratives. Big budgets, set designers and multiple stylists are employed to create elaborate fantasies.' This notion is especially clear in the work of Tim Walker - some of which can be seen here.
Aside from celebrating the work of brilliant fashion photographers, Selling Dreams also makes a point of emphasising the need for great collaboration. We are reminded that, 'Every fashion image is a carefully staged collaboration between magazine, photographer and model, designed to tell a story or to sell a product.'
Great fashion photography is indeed that which seduces the viewer and draws them into another world - a world of fantasy and unquestionable beauty. The V&A transported me into this world through its gorgeous exhibition and I would highly recommend that you pop into the State Library before the exhibition ends on November 10th 2013.
The fashion photographers from Selling Dreams:
Baron Adolf de Meyer
Baron George Hoyningen-Huene
Gian Paolo Barbieri
Horst P. Horst
John Rankin Waddell
Peter Rose Pulham