Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now @ICP

JTF (just the facts): The exhibition is divided into 14 numbered sections, each containing between 3 and 5 spreads, displayed floor to ceiling, interspersed with framed magazine covers and larger single images. There are a total of 57 spreads. Each spread is made up of tear sheets from magazines mounted to board (not framed), typically including several images from a single narrative or shoot. There are 42 photographers (or photographer pairs) represented in the show. (Unfortunately, there are no installation shots for this exhibit; ironically, no photography is allowed at the ICP. A few single images can be found on the ICP website below, but they don’t do justice to the density of the installation.)

Comments/Context: With a normal issue of Vogue measuring in at several inches thick, overstuffed with four color, full page ads and fashion articles, it is no surprise that the primary job of the fashion photographer is to get attention, to make pictures that are so visually arresting that they jar the reader from his/her mindless flipping and actually make them stop for a moment and take a second look. In our current world, with its non-stop cacophonous barrage of imagery, this task becomes even harder, and fashion photographers and stylists are challenged to push any and all boundaries to make their products stand out from the mind-numbingly large crowd. It is not surprising then that this summary show of current fashion imagery is an energetic and electric visual overload. The silent shouting coming from the walls is at points overwhelming.

The show is organized into groups of spreads, where individual stories and wild narratives are played out over a handful of related images. Nearly all of the spreads are in color, and most are eye catching in design. Likely as a reaction to the growing apathy of viewers, the photographers seem to be pulling out all the stops and the stories have evolved toward extremes: darker, wittier, edgier, and more disturbing than ever before. I particularly enjoyed the images by Steven Klein, Steven Meisel, and Solve Sundsbo, but the work in this exhibit is generally strong across the board.

At one level, this show can be seen as a pleasing collection of eye candy. But what I found surprising was to put this type of work into the larger context of contemporary photography, particularly the strain of work that involves elaborately staged tableaux, where the artist has preconceived a dramatic or powerful scene (often a fantasy) with carefully selected actors and props that are then “directed” and photographed (think Wall, Crewdson, et al). Both fashion spreads and these choreographed scenes share a similar underlying conceptual framework; perhaps the construct is being used for different ends by the two groups and perhaps different emotional states are being described or explored, but the work is undeniably related. And even the most inattentive of viewers will see the many appropriations from contemporary art buried in the fashion spreads, further intertwining the two lines of evolution.

This show thus made the genres blur for me more than they had in the past, and took the fashion photos out of the “fashion” context and made me consider them in the larger flow of contemporary photography. It is therefore both an undeniably fun exhibit, as well as a thought provoking one.

Collector’s POV: In the past few years, more and more fashion photographs have begun to show up in photography and contemporary art auctions. The work of both Steven Klein and Steven Meisel (as well as others of course) can now be found from time to time in the secondary markets. The recent sale of the Constantiner collection at Christie’s is clear proof that there are plenty of dedicated and experienced collectors building world-class collections of fashion photography of all kinds. While these works don’t fit into our collection plan, it’s clearly a growing area of interest for many collectors.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now
Through May 3

International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

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JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition, hung against white and black walls, in a series of three connected spaces (and their exterior walls) on the museum’s main floor. The ... Read on.

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