by Sarah Simpson
I was recently invited to a friend’s art opening, the SVA MPS Graduate Fashion Photography Exhibition for the class of 2015. It was held at Milk Gallery from January 21st through the end of the month and Jimmy Moffat (the department co-chair) curated the photographs of select graduate students. Pulling from the cream of the crop of a highly competitive fine arts program, it was a truly impressive collection of fashion photographs. The graduates play off of familiar tropes of the grotesque juxtaposed with the beautiful; bright, primary colors; a uniting of the human element with objects, breaking down the boundary between the born and the man-made, the living and the inanimate; and engaging in the familiar object worship that is a large part of the fashion industry. But, don’t let that last sentence lead you to believe that I found the works hollow or cliché. On the contrary, I enjoyed the show and saw a surprising amount of art historical reference throughout the works. Many photographs reminded me of big names in both fashion and fine art photography’s history: Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Nan Goldin, to name a few. Beyond that, the use of color and unexpected objects reminded me of Pop Art, Street Art, and the brightly colored minimalism of Ellsworth Kelly, Ed Ruscha, and Mark Rothko. The history of art has not failed to affect modern day photography, a statement that should sound obvious since SVA is the School of Visual Arts and teaches fine art mediums alongside and separate from photography. However, what I couldn’t help thinking of, and the reason why I made such an obvious statement, is that many people do not consider fashion photography to be art and most museums and galleries neither show nor collect most fashion photography, unless it is specifically related to a fashion exhibition or the artist has created “fine art” photography alongside his/her fashion spreads (and is famous in his/her own right). At times it almost feels like the art world “authorities” (museum professionals, gallerists, specialists, and so-called connoisseurs [a questionable title for another time and another entry]) are shunning fashion photography and deny it entrance into the sacred halls of the art historical canon. A very vague but apparent line is drawn and denies access of the commercial, capitalist driven fashion world: a velvet rope, if you will, that separates fine art from fashion.
Why is this? As I already said, all of the photographs that I saw on display were gorgeous and created by talented individuals. They reference the history of high fashion photography as well as art history and its relevant movements. The exhibition was wonderfully curated, in a large, well-lit space, very much the white-cube aesthetic of modern-day art galleries. Each photographer’s work was distinct and showed both the common ties between the selections (fashion, objects, models, etc.) and the vast range of differences (focus, color, medium, angle, lighting, etc.). Movement within the space, a common concern of mine, flowed with ease despite the packed house. It looked like a gallery opening, felt like a gallery opening, had wine like a gallery opening, but it drew a very different crowd than the typical Thursday gallery night in Chelsea (where most of NYC’s contemporary art galleries are located).
So, I ask again, why was this a fashion photography show and not a fine art photography show, or simply a photography show? It would be easy enough to mount the cultural high horse of museums and art historians (not all, but many – think the stereotypical snooty gallery girl who makes you feel stupid for even looking at a piece of modern art) and say that fashion photography is not on the same cultural level as fine art photography. It is commissioned, it is made to sell, it focuses on things instead of ideas. It even reifies the models that are the passive, sexualized subjects (or should I say objects since the subject is often the fashion?) of most magazine spreads. Their blank eyes and uniformity of body type, alongside their use as tools to sell clothing, accessories, shoes, etc. make them into objects more so than people. It also must be said that many fashion spreads work off of technical and stylistic clichés, leading to their tendency to look the same.
Fashion photography, one might say, furthers the capitalistic process of reification that makes people into consumers and breeds want. Fine art photography, on the other hand, is supposed to elevate humanity; show the beauty in the everyday and in the grotesque, capture a moment in nature or our busy lives that reveals something deeper, something amorphous and intangible. But who’s to say that a talented and well thought out fashion photograph cannot do the same? Who lowers it to vulgar marketing and removes the art historical discourse that is apparent in so many photographs created by such great photographers as Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz? Further, fine art is just as driven by capitalism, commissions, and objects as fashion photography. Go to any auction or gallery and you will see collectors drop ridiculous sums of money on paintings, sculptures, drawings, etc. Museums may appear to be hallowed cultural institutions that conserve and oversee the great masterpieces in their collections and further the public’s education, but work in any museum office and you will quickly realize it is just as driven by money as any other corporation.
So, you could say (and maybe I am) that this velvet rope is meant to make the fine art world appear rarified. By denying fashion’s merging with fine art (only allowing it to attach itself – separate by equal? – and be included in museums, like with the annual Met Gala, but not actually termed “fine art”), art institutions perpetuate their culturally and thus morally superior reputation. By allowing something so clearly driven by consumerism to be part of art’s “us” category, they would be revealing their own very real link to consumerism and capitalism that cultural institutions try so hard to hide behind their pristine façades.
Interestingly enough, it took years for photography as a medium to be considered fine art. For about the first hundred or so years of photography’s invention and innovation, it was used scientifically and as entertainment. It became a favored medium of observation in science (with the scientist’s eternal hope of being objective), it was used for portraits, picture-books, travel images, in fairs and traveling shows….basically as either the height of scientific objectivity or the consummate spectacle of spectatorship in the industrial era. It wasn’t really until the mid-twentieth century that pictures by Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Ansel Adams, etc. were fought for and finally accepted as a fine art form. The conservative argument was that photography required no actual skill (obviously untrue); there was a widely held belief that you could just point and shoot (perpetuated today with instagram “photographers” and filters: #nofilter, right?). The talent to produce a truly well organized, lit, and developed picture that was also interesting and carried depth was not recognized for a long time. Then, once it was, color photographs were considered vulgar and only black and white pictures were “art.” The point I am trying to make is that the definition of what is and is not art is relative, changeable, and must adapt to ever-evolving technology and taste. Fashion photography is on that interesting cusp and the inclusion of fashion photographers like Ed Steichen, Richard Avedon, and Annie Leibovitz into museum collections shows that it is coming closer to joining the ranks of canonical fine art. This, in my opinion, is all to the good since I saw some interesting works at this exhibition and witnessed a group with creativity and drive to not only produce beautiful pictures of people and things, but also objects that reflect the humanity of those creating them as well as those viewing them and maybe even those consuming what they are commissioned to sell.
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