Fashion photographs reflect a view of life

June 15, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

PHILOSOPHER Francis Bacon held that there is no beauty that has not some imperfection to it. But during the golden age of fashion photography from 1920 to 1950, magazine editors and art directors banished all that was imperfect from their realm.

A comparison between the fashion photographs of that era and those of today suggests that a momentous revolution has occurred.

If the 1950s enthusiastically embraced the artifice of fashion without being gulled by the camera's illusion of truthfulness, the 1990s have rejected artifice while naively surrendering to the camera's claim of veracity.

Fashion has never been merely about clothes, of course. It is also about identity, ideas and attitudes, about styles of thinking and ways of being -- in short, about life as well as art.

So the stark contrast between two important books published last year, one celebrating the studied elegance of fashion's golden age, the other proclaiming the anti-aesthetic of the present, should come as no surprise. Fashion, after all, is about change, too.

In "Fashion: Photography in the Nineties," editors Camilla Nickerson and Neville Wakefield have compiled an angry, almost desperate protest against the surreal cult of perfection that still dominates today's fashion magazines.

Mixing images from style journals with their wilder, darker counterparts from contemporary documentary and art photography, the editors survey the unsentimental, brutally frank fashion images of the '90s.

In one series of photographs by Juergen Teller, the model Kristen McMenamy is pictured naked and pale as she crawls on all fours in a setting that suggests a fashion show's backstage.

Nan Goldin's disillusioned eye meticulously explores the sexual and emotional nether world of her friends -- prostitutes, heroin addicts, teen-age runaways and hustlers. The "look" of Goldin's photos is indistinguishable from that of Teller's pictures of McMenamy.

"In these photographs, the body and its gestures report on the defining characteristics of a decade," the editors report.

"Postures of anxiety, insecurity and sexual uncertainty co-exist with fashion's more traditional celebrations. The ambiguity of gender and beauty lays bare our secret desires, dissolving the boundaries between what is worn and the way we wear it."

Nothing could be further from these dark visions than the photographs in David Seidner's fond retrospective of Lisa Fonssagrives, the most sought-after model of photography's golden age.

"Lisa Fonssagrives: Three Decades of Classic Fashion Photography," recalls the formal elegance and wit of the classic fashion image as developed by photographers like Man Ray, Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, Erwin Blumenfeld, Louise Dahl-Wolf, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.

Fonssagrives, who appeared on countless magazine covers during those years, worked with them all (she married Penn in 1950). As muse and inspiration to every important photographer of her day, she helped transform the fashion-magazine photo into an art form.

Many of the pictures in which she collaborated have become classics. Penn's magical shot of Fonssagrives in a Paris evening gown from 1950 epitomized a whole genre of photographs celebrating the "little black dress."

In another picture, Fonssagrives stands on one elegantly slippered foot atop a steel beam of the Eiffel Tower 300 feet off the ground. One leg extends outward like a ballerina's over the houses and buildings below to show off the billowing fabric of a Lucien Lelong dress.

Reader's of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in the 1950s were charmed by such whimsy, but they were hardly taken in by the camera's claim to truth-telling. To a generation for whom the ugly realities of war and Depression were still sharply etched in memory, the civilizing artifice of fashion represented a therapeutic return to normalcy.

Not so for today's young people. During their lifetimes they have witnessed not the return of normalcy but its disintegration.

Having grown up in a world increasingly preoccupied with crime, racial strife, AIDS, homelessness, the precipitous decline of civility and the elevation of all forms of vulgarity and mendaciousness, they are coming of age just as the postwar promises of the '50s turn to ashes.

No wonder they regard the impossible perfection of fashion's golden age with jaded eyes. It does not jibe with their experience. Like the resigned mother in Langston Hughes' famous poem, they have learned that life "ain't no crystal stair."

If ugly and imperfect are "in" today it is because that is how many young people see their world. The beautiful delusions of the previous generation's fashion seem oppressive to them. They have learned to read its coded messages of class and racial privilege, and to recoil from its materialism and indifference to social injustice.

Whether the gritty realism of fashion's new wave will prove an antidote to their discontents remains open to question, however.

Civilization, after all, is built upon artifice. By rejecting its humanizing role in favor of the illusory verisimilitude of heroin chic and trailer-park glamour, today's young people perhaps are inadvertently contributing to the moral exhaustion they blame for their problems.

Pub Date: 6/15/97

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