‘Face of Fashion’
National Portrait Gallery
15 February - 28 May 2007

by Aaron Schuman

Originally published in Hotshoe International, Feb./March 2007

    Along with its ever-growing popularity, technology and considerable sophistication, photography has also acquired certain pretensions in recent years.  ‘Photography is becoming more and more like fine art, with a canon,’ explains curator, Susan Bright, ‘And to me, that’s something that just doesn’t suit photography. One of the things I love about photography is its flexibility.  Rodchenko’s pictures were produced for a magazine, and now they’re preserved in archives; imagery that was meant for the gallery is published in magazines. I love all that changing of hierarchy.’  Fully intended as a celebration of outstanding contemporary portraiture rather than a rebellious coup, Bright’s latest exhibition, ‘Face of Fashion’ nevertheless poses a number of challenges to the more erudite members of the photographic community, who may prefer to interpret the medium within a more defined lineage and conventional, artistic heritage. Five of the world’s most ambitious and successful fashion photographers have contributed images culled from magazine covers, editorial portfolios and advertising campaigns; they have been printed to exhibition standard, carefully arranged, and hung on the walls of a museum.  And for many, the question is, should they really be there?

      The most common allegation aimed at fashion photography is that it has been artistically compromised – by the commissioning process, by compulsory collaboration and, most damning of all, by aggressive consumerism – and therefore whatever creative merit it may possess, its glossy sheen hides both a diluted and fiercely corrupted core.  Bright gracefully navigates around such criticism by emphasising the fact that the National Portrait Gallery isn’t actually dedicated to art in principle, but is a museum devoted first and foremost to traditions of portraiture: ‘I would have chosen very different images for an art museum.’  That said, it is interesting to note that the art world was recently driven into an ecstatic frenzy at the National Gallery just next door, by ‘Velázquez’, one of the most canonised artists of all time, but also a court portraitist, whose development, prodigious output, extended career and enduring fame derived entirely from the commissioning, collaborative and consumerist spirit of his patrons.  ‘Fashion is simply the patronage behind this show,’ explains Bright, ‘Fashion allows these pictures to exist. But really, this exhibition is about portraiture, not art or fashion.’ 

     The photographers included certainly do employ a diverse range of strategies in the portrayal of their subjects.  Paulo Roversi plays upon the preconceptions of nineteen and early-twentieth century studio portraiture, often using a large-format camera, bare backgrounds, shallow focus, and an antiquated look to both emphasise the sitter’s aesthetic appeal and bestow an element of importance upon them, thus elevating them from mere individuals to distinguished icons.  Corinne Day turns Roversi’s approach on its head, appropriating a casual, ‘snapshot’ style from contemporary vernacular photography, and setting her images within spare bedsits and crap flats, to which we all seem to be able to relate.  In a sense, she pulls ‘the beautiful people’ down a notch, bringing potential icons within our reach, and turns them into seemingly tangible, attainable and therefore ever more appealing individuals.  Stephen Klein also subverts contemporary notions of glamour, fame and beauty, but does so not by introducing notions of realism and the everyday, but by adopting and then distorting his subjects’ familiar celebrity personae within highly stylized and often cinematic narratives.  Similarly, the creative partnership, Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, also allude to Hollywood glamour and utilize filmic narrative, but also use digital post-production technology to such exaggerated, synthetic effect that any sense of reality is extracted, and only an explicitly artificial and eerily hyper-real fantasy of the sitter remains.  Finally, Mario Sorrenti evades a singular style altogether, instead experimenting with a wide range of cameras, concepts and strategies – including studio work, documentary, and the cinematic narrative – this exploring image-making itself, and intentionally exposing the inherent constructs within all types of contemporary photographic portraiture.

     Ultimately, what this collection of photographers reveals is that portraiture is an incredibly malleable genre, which reveals very little about its subjects.  ‘The biggest myth in photography is that a picture can tell you something about a person,’ Bright comments, ‘For me, all that picture can tell you is about a role that a person was playing at a particular moment in time.  And therefore, the best portraiture plays with persona, especially in terms of the famous.’  This has always been a difficult pill for photography to swallow, but evidence of the medium coming to terms with its own inaccuracies may be found in events such as the Schweppes Portrait Prize – held annually, at the National Portrait Gallery as well – in which it is predominantly ‘unknowns’ who, stiff and still, stare blankly at the camera.  In a sense, this deadpan approach entirely concedes to the ambiguity of photographic portraiture; if a photograph cannot say everything about its subject, then perhaps its best if it says nothing at all.  By contrast, ‘Face of Fashion’ is strewn with portraits that take advantage of explicitly staged but nevertheless evocative gestures, expressions, movements and poses.  Perhaps it is expressly because many of the sitters have very public personae that celebrity portraiture can get away with such theatricality and still retain a sense of honesty and integrity, maybe not in terms of the sitters’ own, ‘true’ personality, but in relation to the roles that they play, and the functions that these personae serve for society as a whole.

     Generally, in terms of substance, photographs age very well.  As Bright points out in her introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue, a 1960s fashion spread featuring Twiggy may have held little importance at the time, apart from launching the latest trends of a particular season.  But in retrospect, such imagery now speaks to a vast range of significant issues; shifting notions of beauty, the birth of youth culture, gender roles, sexual politics, female emancipation, social history and so on.  Without much historical perspective, it is difficult to predict what the images included in ‘Face of Fashion’ will reveal about the era in which we live.  Some of them will inevitably disappear into the ether, but others have already stood the test of time within their short lifespan, clearly reflecting significant shifts in contemporary culture and politics.  Despite the intentions of the artists, both Corinne Day and Mario Sorrenti’s photographs of Kate Moss have already become poster images for ‘heroin chic’, representing the raging controversies surrounding body image, drug abuse and HIV/AIDS during the 1990s.  And Stephen Klein’s portrait of Justin Timberlake – the singer battered and bloody, with a burnt American flag superimposed over the image – was published but then, for obvious reasons, quickly pulled from the cover or Arena Homme Plus in response to September 11th and its immediate aftermath.  Inevitably, other photographs on display will also gain similar resonances over time, and in a sense, by being in this exhibition, they already have; stripped of branding, mastheads, credits and so on, the images have been cleansed of their original context, and perfectly distilled for the gallery wall.  Ultimately, ‘Face of Fashion’ allows us the space to contemplate ourselves through one of our most popular forms of representation, and although this collective mirror may seem absurdly warped and distorted to our eyes today, it will most certainly reflect our contemporary experience with more frankness, honesty and integrity than we
can ever imagine. 



Aaron Schuman Photography
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