Strike a Pose
Clifford Coffin, American Vogue, June 1949 © 1949 Condé Nast
The days of sniffing at fashion photography as a commercial offshoot of fine-art photography are long over, and “Coming into Fashion: A Century of Fashion Photography at Condé Nast,” the current exhibition at Paris’s Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode, provides ample evidence of the artistic quality of the best fashion images.
It’s true that great photographers have often turned to fashion photography as a way of making money. Examples from the early 20th century include Man Ray and Edward Steichen, both of whom are represented in the show, along with many other photographers better known for their personal work, among them Diane Arbus, who worked for Condé Nast for several years with her husband, Allan.
Other greats, however, like Irving Penn and Bruce Weber, got their start in the fashion world and went on to become known for other work. Who knows, without their exposure in fashion magazines, many big-name photographers may never have bathed in the bright light of celebrity.
Selected from the American, French and Italian archives of Vogue, Glamour and W magazines, the 150 images by 80 photographers span the last century and include many gems that strike the eye with their originality, humor or beauty. They are presented by theme – interior shots, storytelling images, on the street, on the beach, still lifes, etc. – with many amusing or visually interesting juxtapositions, such as the placement of Erwin Blumenfeld’s 1945 Vogue cover promoting a Red Cross blood-donation
Erwin Blumenfeld, American Vogue, March 1945 © 1945 Condé Nast
campaign next to Paolo Roversi’s 1985 image of a model in a Yohji Yamamoto coat and hat for British Vogue. Although made four decades apart, they have a similar blurry/sharp aesthetic.
Today, we have become used to fashion photos that show off the photographer’s talents more than the featured clothing, an approach that was encouraged by Alexander Liberman, art director of Vogue from 1943 to ’61, who commissioned many of the images on show and cultivated such photographers as Erwin Blumenfeld, Cecil Beaton, André Kertész, William Klein, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, David Bailey, and Annie Leibovitz. As he once said, “A fashion photograph is not a photograph of a dress; it is a photograph of a woman.” A few real designer dresses from different periods are nevertheless scattered around the exhibition to remind us of the raison d’être of the images on show.
One image that takes Liberman’s credo to an extreme is a 1987 picture by Herb Ritts showing not so much the assets of the bottom part of the string bikini featured as those of the otherwise naked model, seen from the back.
Liberman also noted that the fashion photographer works under many constraints – he or she must collaborate with editors, stylists, graphic designers, etc. and has little influence on the choice of subject, model and location – and marveled at the way some were still able to put a very personal imprint on their work. But that is often the case with great art, isn’t it?
Note: In conjunction with the opening of this exhibition, Vogue Paris announced the creation of the Vogue Paris Fashion Fund. The annual endowment of €100,000, supplemented by funds raised at an annual gala dinner during in Paris during the July fashion week, will be used by the Palais Galliera fashion museum to acquire new pieces for its collection.
Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. 10, av. Pierre Ier de Serbie, 75116 Paris. Métro: Iéna or Alma-Marceau. Tel.: 01 56 52 86 00. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm (Thursday until 9pm). Closed Monday and public holidays. Admission: €8. Through May 25. www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr
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