Girls on film: From grunge to simple luxe

BY RENEE KAPLAN

With Heidi Klum party-hopping between the Four Seasons and the Waldorf, Naomi Campbell appearing on a panel and young mogulettes reportedly wearing trendy halter tops at the Goldman Sachs Superbowl party, the World Economic Forum was probably more fashion than the new exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art on fashion photography. That is, if – by fashion – you mean brand-name supermodels and unironic glamour.

But fashion has evolved dramatically in the past decade. Gone is the kitsch and unembarrassed consumption of the ’80s. First, in the early ’90s, came grunge – fashion as unfashion – which gave way to a more stylish simplicity; then, towards the later ’90s and during the time of the IPO’s, came simplicity + luxe (don’t let them see that it’s Cartier, but make sure it is). And then came something of an implosion.

As the accompanying wall text on the exhibit, called “Chic Clicks,” aptly puts it, the latter half of the ’90s ushered in an “uneasy ‘fin-de-style,'” a sort of counter-rhetoric to the conventional vocabulary – pretty, pleasing, literal – of fashion. Fashion photographers in the late ’90s began to turn to rawness and realism. In Dmon Prunner’s 2001 editorial for the British magazine The Bible, the black-and-white image “Fanny, NYC” shows a model – 18 or so? – with mussy, long dark hair, wearing nothing but boyish black briefs and a heavy diamond necklace, and casually bending over against what looks like a backdrop of cheap hotel-room curtains. Dirty. Young. Bohemian. Sexy.

Another editorial by Alex Cayley, called “Last Resort” and commissioned by the magazine Dutch, takes a more ironic approach. The two images feature a clothed model – it’s still sort of about the clothes – covering her face, shot at night in front of a back entrance to an unidentified building. As the caption explains, in 1999 the BBC aired a now- notorious documentary about the modeling world behind-the-scenes. It showed a general blur of sexual exploitation and drug use. Only one model – the one in these pictures – was actually identified doing drugs. She was subsequently black-balled by the industry, until now. This photographer rehabilitated her for her first fashion spread since the debacle. It is an insider’s commentary on the back-stabbing of the world’s most insider industry. The ICA exhibit does an excellent job of documenting this still-evolving fashion zeitgeist of irony and realism.

Interestingly, that is not exactly what “Chic Clicks” purports to do. It claims to show the interaction between the two allegedly polar forces of photography: creativity and commerce. For that purpose, the show is divided into two sections of work by 40 different contemporary photographers, some fashion photographers and others more creators of fine art. The first floor displays images by the 40 that were commissioned by various fashion magazines or by major labels for their advertising campaigns. The second floor shows photos by those same photographers produced as independent works of art. Not surprisingly, the two floors blur almost indistinguishably.

But the exhibit’s division between commerce and creativity is not entirely honest. Nearly all of the editorials featured on the “Commerce” floor were commissioned by a new generation of avant-garde fashion magazines, mostly created in the 1990s: Spoon, Big, self-service, Purple, Dutch, Visionaire, Numéro, Citizen K. If you’ve never heard of them, and the Coop does not sell them, you know just how commercial they aren’t. They do not feature clothes that will take you straight from the office to after-work drinks or the top ten must-buys for spring. These magazines’ premise is to blend fashion and art, to reconceptualize the use of fashion as a medium. Many of them appear only quarterly or bi-annually, and most of them – unlike InStyle or Marie Claire – explicitly consider themselves arty books. Much of this fashion work has been commissioned as much as pseudo-art as fashion editorial.

But in 2002, bona fide commercial fashion photography is beginning to catch up with this more esoteric avant-garde, and the exhibit includes these new examples, too. Anders Edström’s 2001 ad campaign for Miu Miu shows a precocious teenager walking through London streets wearing baggy socks and high heels, grungy little dresses and messy hair, the kind of quirky, unpretty street chic characteristic of the avant-garde’s editorials. Many of the recent creative works now look just like the editorials – or the kind of editorials the magazines would publish if they were a little less fashion and a little more art. Corinne Day – who discovered Kate Moss in her cockney London suburb in 1990 – is among the pioneers of the “dirty realism” that has influenced so much of the current editorial. Her “Tara and Tim” images from 1999 feature a series of snapshots of a strung-out boyfriend and girlfriend partying together, their noses crusted in coke, their eyes turned up in the beatific raptures of some other high.

The “Creative” pictures tended more toward the conceptual and a little less toward the figurative. But not so much more. Many of these images illustrate most literally the exhibit’s point about the interaction of the creative and the commercial, actually evoking mainstream ad campaigns that – initially – probably took inspiration from these photographs. Collier Schorr’s giant close-ups of unsmiling teenage boys “Matti” and “Ralph,” one wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and the other a white tank-top and a dog-tag chain, capture the same adolescent anomie and street fashion of Calvin Klein’s CK ads.

On the whole, there is a lot of anomie and irony on both floors of the exhibit, which as a whole does justice to a very current moment in fashion, in which the commercial mainstream, the semi-commercial avant-garde and the veritably creative are in fact becoming increasingly indistinguishable. And if there is also a lot of sex and bare breasts, that’s probably because that always will be very “fashion.”

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