There are days when it seems as if you’ve been subscribing to all the wrong fashion magazines. A little bit of your world crumbles, or maybe a lot.
A visit to the International Center of Photography may cause such a day. The center is inaugurating a year of fashion photography exhibitions called “2009 Year of Fashion” with four synergistic exhibitions. They culminate in an engrossing survey of pictures from Edward Steichen’s years at Condé Nast (1923-37), when that pioneer photographer more or less invented fashion photography and celebrity portraiture.
But the leadoff of the foursome — and the whole year — is a blast from the present: a snapping, crackling survey of fashion photography from the last two years. With a few exceptions (usually from W magazine) the most impressive spreads are from magazines that are European, obscure or both. At least none of them have ever graced my mailbox.
“Weird Beauty” provides an instant update on fashion photography as a fast-moving collective expression. It is as esoteric as abstract art, and as startling as a sleek, hissing serpent in the drab garden of everyday reality. The alpha and the omega of the collaboration are the clothing designer and the photographer; in between lies the crucial participation of magazine editors and graphic designers, hair and make-up artists, sets (or setting), models and especially stylists. (The stylists’ names are featured prominently on the exhibition labels, just below the photographers’.)
The ceiling-to-floor, push-pull installation alternates between art and commerce in all ways. Tear sheets mounted on board dominate, but selected images repeat as large framed prints for further delectation. There are regular appearances from the field’s leading lights, especially Steven Klein, but also Solve Sundsbo, Miles Aldridge and the team Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, along with one-time visits from some artists, including Cindy Sherman (doing her own styling), Collier Schorr and Sara VanDerBeek; the versatile Terence Koh does a turn as a stylist. Also here are photographers who move easily between art gallery and fashion magazine, like Juergen Teller and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.
In these images, mouths are smeared with lipstick; hats are displayed on skull-like busts of burned plastic foam. The narratives veer from frothy fantasy to surprisingly hard-bitten Americana, as in the unstyled backyard images by Lise Sarfati, who began her career as a photojournalist. And the sexual innuendos and stereotypes never stop: Betty Boop, baby doll, man-eater, slut, saint, S&M toy. Nor do the shifting shades of gender. In several spreads women’s garments — and undergarments — are modeled by beautiful young men.
Clothes for the average woman or man have little place here. Fashion photography is, as others have noted, a cousin of performance art. The choreography is delicate, and the risk of flameout considerable, as even this show attests. The intent is to mesmerize and intimidate with as much fabulousness as can be wedged onto a small tract of glossy paper. This entails exploiting the latest cultural trends with parasitical finesse.
The spreads here make allusions to Matthew Barney and appropriation art; to movie and television hits like “Desperate Housewives,” “Blonde Ambition” and “Crash”; to early experimental photography and to the giants of fashion photography. For example, in “Forty Something” (W magazine), Michael Thompson pays tribute to the icy elegance of Irving Penn with Minimalist evocations of 1950s décor and a swanlike woman who resembles Mr. Penn’s favorite model, his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn.
Most of these images refine and distill an unease with the body that pervades real life. Using metallic leggings, David Sims and the stylist Joe McKenna turn an ultrathin model into an anorexic robot. Mr. diCorcia all but pushes his models out of the pictures. Ever the formalist, Mr. Sundsbo projects black-and-white Op-Art stripes and dots on his. In the spread “A Magic World” (Vogue Italia), Tim Walker, working with the stylist Jacob K , swings both ways: some models are veritable X-rays; others are puffballs of tulle. It’s Hieronymus Bosch meets the Sugarplum Fairy.
Mr. Klein, working with the stylist Katie Grand, takes an anti-anorexic position in the feature “Size Hero” (from Pop magazine). It stars a voluptuous model who resembles Divine, of John Waters fame, in circumstances that bring to mind William Eggleston and Diane Arbus. One of the most sumptuous spreads is “Prints and the Revolution” (V magazine), in which Mr. Klein and the stylist Panos Yiapanis fill the frame with printed garments, layered onto or piled around the models. With their blond blankness and chinoiserie motifs painted on their faces, these creatures bring to mind the Daryl Hannah of “Blade Runner” relegated to Matisse’s textile storage.
It probably doesn’t reflect well on me that I wanted this show to go on forever. It was organized by one of the center’s curators, Carol Squiers, and an adjunct curator, Vince Aletti, who whittled several hundred spreads down to the 61 featured in “Weird Beauty.” They should expand the show outward again, into a book.
In “This Is Not a Fashion Photograph,” a small second show nearby, Mr. Aletti has provided the perfect antidote to the extreme artifice of “Weird Beauty.” Working primarily with the center’s collection, he has selected and arranged cheek-by-jowl about 70 photographs of real life. They range from Jacob Riis’s “Police Station Lodgers — East 22 St.,” taken around 1892, to a recent image by Ingar Krauss.
The intervening images are by Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model, Michael Disfarmer, Danny Lyon, Carrie Mae Weems, Malick Sidibé and Yasumasa Morimura. The show substantiates the influence of nonfashion photography on the fashion kind, but also perhaps their inseparability. Faces, bodies and garments are among the most telling elements in most of the photographs; pose, style and even fashion are not far behind.
“Edward Steichen: In High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937” fills most of the available gallery space downstairs. After “Weird Beauty” it is a trifle dull, even though the two shows enhance each other markedly. “Steichen” reminds us that fashion photography has its own short but definite history. “Weird Beauty” reflects its tremendous forward momentum.
Steichen (1879-1973) began as a painter who took up photography and joined Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo Secessionists in the fight to win the medium acceptance as a fine art. But during World War I, Steichen took aerial photographs for the Allies and became increasingly drawn to what he called “useful,” or commercial, photography. In 1923 he returned to New York from Paris, broke and divorced, with child-support obligations. The job of chief photographer at Condé Nast was a godsend, even though Stieglitz and company deemed him a traitor to the cause.
In images taken primarily for Vanity Fair and Vogue, Steichen established the conventions of fashion and portrait photography. He took models out of the studio; intimated narratives; used unexpected devices like masks; alluded to art. He even seems to have a nurtured a protosupermodel, most notably the imposing actress Marion Morehouse, a tall young woman with a face and head out of Brancusi.
Today Steichen’s photographs seem musty, about as far from contemporary fashion photography as silent films are from the latest movies. His models tended to fade into the drapery or to occupy the center of his prints, surrounded by empty space, as in traditional paintings.
The celebrity portraits are a different story. Steichen drew nearer to his subjects. They dominate the frame in a wise, expressive portrait of the young actress Sylvia Sidney, or his picture of Paul Robeson as the Emperor Jones. But Steichen was probably interested in famous people, since he had always seen himself as something of a star. The show includes a short, fawning film from 1937 that suggests as much. It shows him working in his studio, head jauntily cocked, cigar in mouth, wearing his box camera’s dark cloth like a cape and graciously directing models. He’s ever gallant, except for a noticeable fit of temper when an assistant leaves some electrical cords underfoot. Maybe he was just hamming it up for the camera the whole time, but it seems unlikely.
In photography Steichen was something of a serial innovator in the areas of color and aerial photography, as well as fashion and portraiture. You can’t blame him if he didn’t venture much beyond the conventions he helped establish. But you can name other photographers from the period whose images, whether they are fashion or accidental fashion, seem newer. August Sander is one. Martin Munkacsi, the subject of the fourth exhibition here, is another.
Working in Germany in the early 1930s, the Hungarian-born Munkacsi was a street and sports photographer who, turning to fashion, is generally credited with getting models to move. He arrived in New York in 1934, just as Steichen was winding down at Condé Nast, and went to work at Harper’s Bazaar, where he ushered in its best years.
“Munkacsi’s Lost Archive” is less an exhibition than a prelude to one. It celebrates the center’s acquisition of Munkacsi’s recently discovered archive of around 4,000 glass negatives, which is indicated by scores of small, yellowed boxes displayed in a wall vitrine. The images on view include several shots of a model sitting in the jump seat of a moving automobile. Seeing them after the airless perfection of so many of Steichen’s images is like starting to breathe again.
A year of fashion photography exhibitions can sound like overkill, but the center is varying its menu. These shows will be followed by a retrospective of Richard Avedon in May. And next fall the museum’s triennial will tackle the relationship between fashion photography and contemporary art.
“Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now,” “Edward Steichen: In High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937,” “This Is Not a Fashion Photograph” and “Munkacsi’s Lost Archive” run through May 3 at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at 43rd Street, Manhattan; (212) 857-0000, icp.org.