The Problem(s) with Fashion Photography

“I hate fashion photography because the clothes don’t belong to the people who are wearing them. When the clothes do belong to the person wearing them, they take on a person’s flaws and characteristics, and are wonderful.”—Diane Arbus

When the New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman reviewed the Getty Center’s new exhibition Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography 1911-2011 (here) in June, the editors afforded her the front page in the Sunday West Coast print edition, extending the piece inside across two pages and illustrating it with more than ten photographs.

That’s a lot of prime real estate for a review of a fashion photography show. It ran below a 1932 Anton Bruehl photo for Bonwit Teller of a woman in a clingy body stocking and, in additional vote of confidence, Friedman’s 1,815 words were bannered with a headline unlike any I can recall seeing before in a newspaper I have read most of my life:

“It was an Ad? So What. It’s Still Art.”

If the context for this question and answer was puzzling—I felt berated for saying something I hadn’t even thought—the tone of the headline was unambiguous. The editorial language and punctuation were blunt and accusatory, couched in terms that would brook no contradiction. It was the equivalent of the Gray Lady saying to its readers: “Ads are Art. Don’t Think So? Fuck You.”

Although Friedman did not seem thoroughly informed about the many examples of fashion photography in museums—she called it “the bastard stepchild of the art world,” which unlike most clichés isn’t remotely true—she knew enough to solicit quotes from knowledgeable curators who spoke about the history of the genre and its collectability within the art world. She herself had not equated art and advertising. That was the newspaper talking and its curt, angry words seemed to betray a nervousness regarding its financial structure.

Ever since websites such as Craigslist began to siphon off its once-lucrative classifieds income in the 1990s, a depletion accelerated since the millennium by the hegemony of Facebook and Google in every realm of journalism, the New York Times has scrambled to shore up its once solid and now crumbling ad-based foundation. Ken Auletta’s new book Frenemies: the Epic Destruction of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) reports that 62% of the New York Times’ advertising profits come from the print edition and that, despite a substantial increase in online subscribers in 2016, profits and revenue declined.

One of the few bright spots in this dreary climate are fashion ads. Over the last two decades, the New York Times’ publishing executives have looked to Gucci, Calvin Klein, Prada, Dior, Chanel, Ralph Lauren and other luxury brands to keep the newspaper in the black. First, there was the Style section, founded in 1992, initially as a Sunday section, and now published on Thursday as well. Then, in 2003, came T: The New York Times Style Magazine, an affluent lifestyle supplement, that was until recently published 13 times a year.

Fashion is about the only ad category in the print edition that looks healthy. Visual arts reviews used to be surrounded by notices paid for by art galleries. Now that Friday section is lucky to have a small promo from one of the auction houses. Other sections of the newspaper are even more ad-deprived. Sports and Metropolitan commonly have none. The New York Times Sunday Magazine, once fattened with messages from General Motors and Coca-Cola, is an editorial skeleton without commercial muscle. Only the perfect-bound T has flesh on its bones.

The New York Times is not alone surviving on a diet of fashion and deluxe lifestyle ads. They are just as crucial for the stability of other major newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, which once could turn away businesses that weren’t suitable for their stolid image.

The art world isn’t ignorant either that fashion people and products pay the bills. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, the Costume Institute is the only curatorial department that has to provide for itself. It “does so with ease,” reports Forbes, earning some $13.5 million from the annual gala overseen by Anna Wintour. Fashion exhibitions usually mean big box office. The retrospective for designer Alexander McQueen set an audience record at the museum during its run in 2011.

There is a financial incentive, therefore, for the New York Times editors to be bullish on fashion ads. If they’re art, then its reporters in South America, Africa, and China should not only be glad that Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton have allowed them to keep their jobs, they can also take pride that full-page spreads for items in T may serve a higher purpose than as messages pitched at an economic elite.

Icons of Style, it should be said in its defense, does not aggressively endorse the idea put forth by the New York Times headline. Paul Martineau, the Getty’s associate curator who organized Icons of Style and wrote two essays in the catalog, is careful not to declare that all fashion photographs (or ads) are art, only that a select group may be—presumably all of the nearly 200 prints, magazine covers and ad campaigns he has chosen.

His introduction opens with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde: “Fashion rests upon folly. Art rests upon law. Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal. A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months!” The witticism is cagey and hardly a ringing endorsement of what Martineau is aiming to do. A peerless jester in the court of Victorian society, Wilde is not the most reliable attorney to summon in defense against those who would prosecute fashion photographs for frivolity. He had stringent aesthetic standards, and the quote implies that he believed the values and purpose of fashion and art differ fundamentally, perhaps irreconcilably.

In researching the genre, Martineau has tried to identify examples that “transcend their original commercial character and function as works of art.” He argues that many of the best fashion photographs reflect “two or more worlds: the perfect place within the frame—the place where beauty, youth, and luxury reign supreme—and the harsh realities of the world outside it.”

The historical framework he has built is solid, if conventional, and he has enlisted smart essayists (Anne McCauley, Susanna Brown, Michal Raz-Russo, Ivan Shaw) to trace how the genre has shaped and been shaped by social forces, such as feminism and gay rights.  No museum has done a comprehensive survey of the genre since Nancy Hall Duncan’s traveling exhibition The History of Fashion Photography, which opened at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in 1977.

Nonetheless, despite its bewitching selection of photographs depicting thin women and men, creatively wrapped in an array of modernist outfits and attitudes and posed in exotic locales and fraught situations around the world, Icons of Style does not escape being escapist entertainment rather than an intellectually stimulating examination of the topic.

No attempt is made to separate fashion editorial from advertising, celebrity portraiture from atmospheric lifestyle. Martineau never defines exactly what fashion photography is, and he seems reluctant to probe deeply a central and intriguing question: Why has the genre been impugned for so long by so many—derision dates back to the 1880s—and why have some of its harshest critics been fashion photographers themselves?

(To be clear: I am using only the catalog (here, a few spreads below) as the basis for this discussion, not the installation, which I have not seen except online.)


The problems are apparent early on. Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, should know better than to claim, as he does in the first sentence of the catalog, that fashion photography has been “long neglected by museums and collectors because of its commercial purposes.”

This preposterous statement would be true only in an art world where Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Horst P. Horst, Helmut Newton, William Klein, and Herb Ritts had never existed.

All of these men (and one woman) have been honored with lavish museum retrospectives since the 1970s, some of them multiple times. Auction prices for their prints commonly have reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Avedon’s Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris has even cracked the $1 million barrier, as Martineau acknowledges.

Although the final numbers for the Getty show won’t be in until October, Potts can’t pretend that fashion photography won’t be a draw during the peak tourist summer/fall months. The blockbuster treatment given to Ritts by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1996—a retrospective numbering 320 prints—was among the 10 most visited exhibitions in the museum’s history. The MFAB followed this up with another smaller exhibition in 2006, and in 2007 named its first ever dedicated photography gallery in honor of Ritts. Hundreds of photographers from other fields would love to be so “neglected.”

Potts must have been told by Martineau, who solicited special funds to begin a substantial collection of fashion photographs at the Getty, that when the Ritts retrospective traveled here in 1997, it set a mark for attendance not topped until the Mapplethorpe retrospective in 2016. Fashion photographers may be tainted in the minds of some because their work is created for “commercial purposes,” but a number of art museums have magnanimously overlooked these sins.

The genre has carried an institutional seal of approval since 1937, when MoMA featured glamour portraits by Beaton, Steichen, Man Ray, Erwin Blumenfeld, Dahl-Wolfe, George Platt Lynes, Madame Yevonde, and others in Beaumont Newhall’s landmark history of photography at MoMA. Since then, dozens of books and exhibitions have been devoted to the subject. The selective bibliography at the back of the Getty catalog lists more than 50 general surveys (tomes and pamphlets) along with more than 60 monographs on eminences such as Horst, Penn, and Newton as well as Guy Bourdin, Sarah Moon, Deborah Turbeville, and Juergen Teller.

It’s true that the MoMA exhibition did not include a section on “Fashion Photography,” as it did on “Press Photography,” “Aerial Photography,” “Astronomical Photography,” and “Stereoscopic Photography.” But that may be because Newhall wasn’t sure how to separate fashion photographs from swanky celebrity portraits of the well-dressed.

I’m not sure either. Are they by definition only photographs conceived to sell particular items of clothing or a brand? Should there always be elements of concupiscent fantasy and glamour, models of unattainable perfection or scenes of louche decadence? Is the demeanor of the wearer or wearers important? Or does the success or failure of a picture depend more on the novel display of the fashion materials, and should those be straight-from-the-runway in their newsworthiness? If not, doesn’t any photograph of someone dressed (or undressed) belong within the genre?

If it can be separated as a vehicle designed to market clothing, most histories date its beginnings to the 1880s in Paris. Most of these photographers have remained anonymous journeymen. Steichen liked to boast that a 1911 series he did promoting dresses by Paul Poiret were the first fashion photographs. Indeed, pair of these prints open the Getty show. They’re exquisite in their soft patterns of gray and black, in keeping with the muted stylings of the Photo-Secession.

Icons of Style tries to avoid dwelling on the obvious fact that fashion photography, as generally understood, has throughout much of its history been a sales tool for a business catering to society’s upper crust–images of the two-percent and tailored for the two-percent. Photographers are only one cog in a more powerful promotional machine. McCauley’s essay notes that in the late 19th century couturiers often enlisted famous stage actresses to promote their dresses by making frequent costume changes. In another strategy, models were hired by dress makers to pose languorously at racetracks, a specialty of the photographers Séeberger Frères, which “produced thousands of such pictures from 1909 to 1939.”

Fashion remains for many synonymous with moneyed ease. In the scenarios of Baron Adolf de Meyer, appointed in 1914 as the first fashion photographer at Condé Nast, high style required a high income. “The new elégante” was styled with “the latest bobbed hair” and photographed in “$1,000 shoes ordered from Yantorny when the average American woman’s budget for clothing was $58.15,” writes McCauley.

The story of how fashion shed its corsets during the 1920s and ‘30s, left the studio and took to the streets and beaches, is a familiar one, and Icons of Style chronicles this period well in photographs by Martin Munkásci and Dahl-Wolfe who emphasized outdoor athleticism. At the same time, Man Ray was sharpening his incomparable eye for the uncanny and the absurd, casting Lee Miller and other beautiful women as goddesses to be worshipped and perhaps feared, a view that prevails in fashion photography to this day.

But the heart of the show is the period after World War II. Martin Harrison’s 1991 history, Appearances: Fashion Photography since 1945, summarized the period this way: “Where previously formal values, or less readily defined qualities such as elegance and glamour had been paramount, the shifts in fashion photography after 1945 are due principally to an increased awareness of its psychological dimension.”

Martineau and his essayists identify not only the usual suspects in this transformation (Avedon, Penn, Klein, Hiro), reiterating many on the list in Harrison’s book (Melvin Sokolsky, Saul Leiter, Arthur Elgort, Sarah Moon, Deborah Turbeville, Newton, Guy Bourdin, Paolo Roversi, Bruce Weber) while also adding others who became prominent during the ‘90s and after (Steven Meisel, Nick Knight, Terry Richardson, Teller, Mario Testino, Tim Walker, Corinne Day.) It’s valuable to have the roster of innovative photographers reshuffled and replenished with newer names.

What goes unsaid in these pages, though, is that even if their pictures no longer traffic in upper-class fantasies, the photographers themselves participate in this highly rarefied and richly compensated world. Many of its stars (Steichen, Beaton, Penn, Avedon, Newton) became celebrities on a par with anyone they photographed. They were shrewd businessmen who earned millions from magazines and advertisers, and their successors (Meisel, Weber, Patrick Demarchelier) have been no less well-rewarded.

Budgets for high-end fashion shoots can exceed those for any other kind of photography. Logistics are similar to those for a Hollywood movie. Susanna Brown’s essay in the catalog includes Neal Barry’s group portrait of the 28 people who helped him over the two-weeks as he was photographing the Paris collections in 1968. Perhaps no fine-art photographer except Gregory Crewdson needs staff support on this scale to do his or her work.

Icons of Style perpetuates a view of fashion that does not correspond to its grim reality or its broader significance. The industry is not glamorous behind the scenes, as everyone knows who has walked down Seventh Avenue or visited the backstreets of any large Asian city. (I searched in vain for the words “sweatshop” in the essays.) Most models are not rail-thin. The majority earn their living posing in ready-to-wear clothing for catalogs. Much of the work photographing these ensembles is routine drudgery.

Most women (and men) in the U.S. during much of the 20th century were exposed to the latest styles not at the newsstand through Vogue, Uomo, Details, GQ, and Paper but through their mailboxes, in catalogs from Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and J. Crew, or at the local mall.

No one wants to see scores of routine photographs in an art exhibition, of course. But shouldn’t it at least present evidence—visually—that most of the photographs made in the name of fashion are not at all like these examples?

Gestures toward a less celebrity-photographer view of fashion photography are presented, in Jamel Shabazz’s snapshots of African-American teens on NYC streets during the early ‘80s, and in blogger Scott Schuman’s informal portraits at urban gatherings of the international fashion industry in the 2000s, both found in the last section of the show.

And yet there are only a few citations and no examples of work on the walls by Bill Cunningham, the most populist—and revered—of all fashion mavens, a photographer who recorded what actual pedestrians were wearing around New York City and saw them as his guide to trends in contemporary style, publishing his findings in a pair of columns in the New York Times, “On the Street” and “Evening Hours,” that ran for decades.

It’s slightly insulting to his memory that Friedman’s long review fails to protest his absence. (Nor does she mention, by the way, that several photographers who were included—Testino, Demarchelier, Richardson, and Weber—were first accused of sexual harassment or predation in the pages of her newspaper.) Then again, to construct a history of fashion photography around a century of snapshots of people and their clothes would require an inversion of what the genre has traditionally meant. And that’s not the sort of topsy-turvy radical rethinking associated with the Getty.

Curiously, some of the staunchest skeptics that fashion photography should be exalted have been fashion photographers themselves. In his introduction, Martineau writes that Dahl-Wolfe did not believe that what she did for a living could be considered art. But he doesn’t press the issue or even explain why she thought this. He is content to let the matter go, perhaps because poking at it too hard would risk sinking his ship.

Avedon was anxious to downplay his fashion photographs when organizing his retrospective. It’s unlikely he felt too modest about his contributions to this field or unable to defend them within the “art world” (whatever or whoever that might be) had he wanted to. Isn’t it more probable that he harbored secret or anguished memories of the compromises he had made to satisfy a client or an editor? Susanna Brown’s essay quotes Colin Westerbeck quoting Penn’s despairing late-in-life assessment that “the page was a ‘dead end’ whose ‘heartbreak’ could be assuaged only by the print.”

This timidity is, I’m afraid, typical of the show: instead of a spirited debate about why fashion photography is or is not an art—what it is or could be—we are given another fairly standard progression of names with relevant social history. The unspoken assumption is that anyone who doesn’t regard fashion photographs as art is mistaken in some unspecified way.

The naysayers are muzzled. Even the art establishment’s favorite punching bag, Hilton Kramer, pops up only once in order to have his views quickly knocked down. William Klein has savagely mocked the fashion world, in both his photographs and in films such as Qui Êtes-Vous Polly McGoo? But you’d never know it from this selection. In the 1950s, when Robert Frank and Louis Faurer were briefly hired as fashion photographers, they made fun of the profession, dismissing Avedon and others as “Sammys,” a reference to the money-hustling Sammy Glick in the Budd Schulberg novel. We never hear the scalding judgment of Diane Arbus who gave up fashion photography to gamble on a riskier, more personal, less contrived and rigged game.

The last chapter of Harrison’s history is devoted to the cross-over between fine-art and fashion photography. Martineau could have followed suit and included Mapplethorpe, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Tina Barney, Robert Polidori, Laurie Simmons, David Levinthal, Jim Goldberg, and Alex Prager in his survey.

Instead, he has graciously allowed those less established—who self-identify as fashion photographers, want to expand its boundaries, and don’t have a firm footing yet in museums or galleries—to have exposure in a setting like the Getty.

His admirable gallantry has consequences for telling a history story. Trying to mount a history of post-‘60s fashion and art without Andy Warhol near the center is a fool’s errand. There are 16 covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the catalog, not one of Interview. Did Martineau decide to leave out Goldin, Leibovitz, and David LaChapelle (hugely influential in the 1990s) because they are familiar from museums and galleries? If so, it’s a questionable decision in describing  the contours of the field.

The photographers that Martineau highlights instead—Mert & Marcus, Tim Walker, Viviane Sassen—are certainly prominent now and deserving of more recognition. Nonetheless, I’m not sure their impact on the rebel planets of the fashion world exceeds that of Wolfgang Tillmans and Ryan McGinley, neither of whom is even footnoted in the catalog.

The swirling pleasures of the pictures chosen by Martineau can’t be denied. There isn’t one that isn’t delectable. Bold blocks of color, skeins of translucent fabric, action-packed frames, disrupted narratives, and references to Surrealism (however shopworn) are designed by put us in a swoon.

Of course, none of them present knotty difficulties of interpretation for the viewer either because everything here needs to be easily consumed by magazine readers or automobile drivers. Even the scenes of mayhem are meticulously staged for the camera. Guy Bourdin’s faux-murder and S&M images for Charles Jourdan and Bloomindale’s, which caused a brief scandal in the ’80s, haven’t aged well. After the initial shock of their voyeuristic kinkiness has worn off, we’re left with a lot of lazily framed compositions.

One of Martineau’s favorite new names is Melanie Pullen, whose Half-Prada depicts the bottom half of a woman’s torso, clad in a Prada skirt and shoes and hanging off the floor. She’s supposed to be a well-dressed office worker who has committed suicide. Martineau likes that the image “reverses the aspirational nature of most fashion photographs…it flies in the face of the industry’s claim: buy our products and your life will improve.”

Isn’t it also in heartless bad taste, though, to joke about young women killing themselves, or to dress up models in the rags of the homeless or to bloody them up in a fake car crash or to put needles in their arms pretending they were heroin or coke addicts? All of these scenarios could be found in fashion magazines during the 1990s. Even if the campaigns  complicated the idea that buying stuff could lead to happiness, they were still selling the idea of being thin, privileged, adrift, fashion-conscious, white, American or European, and young as a superior state.

The commercial origins of fashion photography aren’t the only reasons for of its marginalization. The problem is also that it’s a gossamer world of artifice and dreams in which nothing real or consequential seems to be at stake.

The stylistic and social conservatism of fashion photography is striking as one reviews this parade of gorgeous bodies. Vogue did not put an African-American face on its covers until 1974, and women of darker skin colors are still a rarity unless you happen to be Beyoncé. The ideal of the etiolated female frame is a convention that has persisted since the 1890s, despite constant warnings from nutritionists, while  “perfection” in a model seems still to call for an expressionless face unmarked by conscious thought. Models continue to be treated as empty vessels and only rarely as human beings with tempers and personalities. (Avedon violated this tradition often, and McGinley has gleefully stomped on it.)

The ritualistic poormouthing by collectors of fashion photography has been reinforced by Icons of Style, in the opening remarks in the catalog by Potts and by some reviewers. It’s not enough that the incomes and acclaim given its superstars exceed, by a wide margin, those afforded photographers in any professional field. We’re also now expected to feel sorry for them, too, because they don’t get enough respect?

Other genres have suffered neglect by the art world for much longer. When was the last major survey of photojournalism? Both sports and wildlife photography have histories that reach back to the 19th century and both resonate deeply across various strata of countries around the world. And yet neither has a New York gallery dedicated to its promotion, as fashion photography has with Staley-Wise. Nor do the latest prints by Walter Ioos, Jr., Michael Aw, and Karen Lunney appear in publications with the art world status of Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, or W.

If fashion photography is still regarded by many serious people as a wondrous confection but ultimately superficial, it may be because of shows like Icons of Style, which sustains the message that all of us deserve to be surrounded by impossibly beautiful people and have money to burn on $20,000 dresses and $10,000 handbags. It’s a show full of delights and up-to-date historical research, but it doesn’t have a deeply self analytic thought in its pretty head.

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