Within the commerce of Condé Nast’s fashion photography, iconic art still emerges from the artifice
Coming Into Fashion: A Century
of Photo-graphy at Condé Nast
City Art Centre, Edinburgh
Star rating: * * *
Man Ray Portraits
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Star rating: * * * *
I’m not a high fashion type of person. Last time I checked, Harvey Nichols was a shop rather than a temple. I own three pairs of Birkenstocks and I’ve never worn a pair of killer heels. My daily wardrobe is Cos not Costume National.
I’m also a bit resentful when fashion creeps into the places once reserved for art. I’m concerned about the corporate creep of the fashion brands in museums worldwide. It’s therefore through gritted teeth that this week I’m going to recommend a visit to an exhibition of fashion photography. But the truth is, for all its flaws, I really liked Coming Into Fashion.
A trawl through a century of archives of the Condé Nast Empire, the exhibition runs from the New York society gals portrayed by Baron de Meyer for the pages of Vogue in the early years of the 20th century to the bubblegum pop of Sebastian Kim’s images for Teen Vogue in 2011.
From Man Ray to Diane Arbus, the most experimental of artists learned their trade or made a steady buck in the pages of the Nast Empire. Painters like William Klein and Arthur Elgort jumped ship into glossy print. Amongst the most fascinating fashion photographers in the show are the self-taught women who made the transition from modelling to working behind the camera: Deborah Turbeville in New York in the 1960s, Sarah Moon in France in the 1970s, Corinne Day in 1990s London.
All three seem to share an acknowledgement of what a weird hothouse world fashion is. It’s there in Moon’s soft focus yet strangely sinister group shoots, and Turbeville’s brooding, ambivalent portraits of designers like Jean Muir and Sonia Rykiel with their human mannequins. I can still recall the visceral shock of first seeing Corinne Day’s 1993 spread for Vogue of a 19-year-old Kate Moss in her flat, the shoot that gave rise to the debate about ‘heroin chic’. By the time of her 2000 exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery, Day was recognised as a documentary photographer and as a grim realist in the mode of the American artist Nan Goldin.
Think of a fashion moment and you’ll find it in this show: from Cecil Beaton’s arch, aristocratic images of early couture to supermodel Cindy Crawford. Some of this is absolutely gorgeous; some of it is a bit grim. There’s a thesis somewhere, I’m sure, on the way that mainstream fashion photography and underground pornography flowed into one another. In the early 20th century it’s diaphanous and “artistic”. In the 1970s it’s plucked and shiny or dead-eyed and enervated. In the 1980s it’s gym-bodied Baywatch voyeurism. I have always found the fetishistic footwear spreads of Guy Bourdin fascinating and there are some great examples here. Yet the neo-porn of the wretched Terry Richardson makes me retch.
Much of Coming into Fashion is about the way that the fashion world responds to the times. The extraordinary images of the Russian Constantin Joffé for example, who was in the French Foreign Legion and escaped imprisonment in the Second World War, pictured his models in front of aerial imagery of bombing raids.
Erwin Blumenfeld’s epoch-making image of a girl in evening dress, dancing atop the Eiffel Tower, can now be seen as flying a flag in May 1939. Blumenfeld, once a radical European artist, moved to the US to become a giant of mainstream imagery and the show makes much of the constant pendulum swings between Europe and America. The former is art, the latter commerce.
In the post-war era it was the story of Nast’s powerful Ukrainian art director Alex Liberman and his arch rival Alexey Brodovitch at competitor Harper’s Bazaar. In our own age it is the story of how fleet of foot European publications like Vogue Italia under Franca Sozzani fed the lumbering giant US Vogue.
Across at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, this transatlantic story is deftly and dramatically told in a single career: that of Man Ray. A towering giant of 20th century artistic mischief who also earned a daily crust as a jobbing portrait photographer for publications like Vu, Vogue and Vanity Fair, Man Ray was the right man at the right time, a painter and provocateur who first learned to take photographs in order to document his work.
From Marcel Duchamp to James Joyce, Coco Chanel to Catherine Deneuve his portraits have shaped if not defined how we see leading figures of the age. He played with type and with individual physiognomy, and his images are full of jokes and subversive twists. Informed by his intellectual involvement with Dada and Surrealism in New York and Paris, and a life of high bohemianism and high jinks, Man Ray’s photographs are stylish, defining, dark and oft-times erotic. There are the boys dressed as girls, the girls dressed as boys. The lovers like Lee Miller and the model Kiki de Montparnasse are often not dressed at all.
There is an amazing image of Man Ray himself from 1932, his face obscured with gunk as he sat for a life mask. He is the man who gave avant-garde artists, as well as the glossy worlds of high society and Hollywood, the faces they wanted to show in public. It doesn’t matter what his images obscured, their artifice has become a kind of truth in itself.
Both exhibitions are let down by gaps. It is too easy to come away from Man Ray Portraits with a partial picture of the man and his wider artistic life. Yet the detective work involved in obtaining the highest quality vintage prints means that the portraits provide a far richer texture of the 20th century than any of the well-known reproductions or tomes.
With Coming Into Fashion, neither the captions nor the beautiful catalogue credit models or designers routinely, so patterns of collaboration, interpretation and promotion are subsumed. It’s a show that doesn’t shy away from either beauty or controversy but it calls for matching scholarship.
Neither show is art in the strictest sense, but nor are they simply market economics. This summer I may need to revise my attitudes towards fashion and the fashionable.
• Coming Into Fashion runs until 8 September, Man Ray Portraits until 22 September.