Fashionably Thin

MOMA exhibit falters on its weak premise: that lifestyles are a new consideration


April 25, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Just a few years ago, people were still wondering when, if ever, fashion photography -- that brash offspring of commerce and illustration -- would be recognized as one of the seminal art forms of the 20th century.

Now comes Fashioning Fiction, the first show devoted exclusively to fashion photography presented by New York's Museum of Modern Art, which, for all practical purposes, is the final arbiter on such matters. (In the 1970s, when MOMA decreed color photography was art, auction prices for that form jumped.)

Unfortunately, as the vehicle for making this momentous pronouncement, Fashioning Fiction promises far more than it delivers. The show, which focuses exclusively on photographs published during the 1990s, provides rather threadbare underpinnings for so ambitious and sweeping a revision of the photographic canon.

To be sure, Susan Kismaric and Eva Respini, the exhibition's curators, are quick to point out that MOMA has always collected fashion photographs, from classic images by such early 20th-century innovators as Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Baron Adolf de Meyer and Man Ray to midcentury masters like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.

But no works by these pioneering artists, which might have provided a larger context for the show, appear. Instead, the curators advance the curious thesis that, by focusing on lifestyles rather than clothes, the 1990s marked a sea change in fashion photography. They also note a dialogue between fashion and art photographers (and photographers and filmmakers), in which visual artists from across the spectrum experimented with pictorial narratives involving ordinary people rather than the traditional social elites.

All from the 1990s

So we have Cindy Sherman's familiar self-posed photographs, in which the artist appears swathed in various theatrical costumes; Tina Barney's pseudo-documentary vignettes of upper-middle-class affluence; Nan Goldin's gritty snapshots of women at the Russian Baths in New York; Juergen Teller's incredibly opulent portraits of Parisian society women; and Philip-Lorca diCorcia's cinema-inspired idylls of post-revolutionary Havana. (The show also includes works by Cedric Buchet, Ellen von Unwerth, Glen Luchford, Mario Sorrenti, Simon Leigh, Steven Meisel and Larry Sultan.)

All the photographs were published in fashion or editorial layouts during the '90s and, in truth, they probably were among the more adventurous images of that era. The MOMA exhibition presents many of them in enormous, mural-scale enlargements, which greatly magnifies their graphic qualities, but also perhaps inflates their importance.

The problem lies with the show's organizing principle, which is contradicted by two inescapable historical facts: First, fashion has always been about lifestyle rather than clothes. And second, fashion photographers have always carried on a lively dialogue with their art photographer (and film auteur) contemporaries. (Man Ray, for example, combined fashion and art photography quite successfully in the 1930s; so did Steichen a decade earlier.)

Full sampling needed

Granted, until recently fashion photography did shamelessly celebrate the rich and famous almost exclusively, so that today's demotic scenarios of punk and grunge may seem ever so slightly more democratic in spirit.

Still, not too many ordinary folks can blow $1,500 on a pair of sandals, and that's the point: the lifestyles celebrated by fashion photography always have been fantasy, desirable because of their unattainability. Fashion photography caters to the ocean of unfulfilled desire washed up by a consumer society; it's even more enticing when the objects of that desire are inaccessible or forbidden.

Had the show included a good sampling from throughout fashion photography history, the notion that the 1990s saw a sea change in fashion's relationship to lifestyle and art probably would have collapsed.

It probably also would have made those blowups of sleek sunbathers and bejeweled society mavens seem embarrassingly pretentious: It's not that these photos lack charm, but not one of them really compares to a stunner like Avedon's Dovima with Elephants or Helmut Newton's ladies in leather and full-body prostheses.

As far as fashioning fiction goes, no one did that better or more pointedly than Guy Bourdin, who (with Newton) in the 1960s was one of fashion's original bad boys. His fashion shots told such dark tales one could never quite tell whether one was looking at couture or a crime scene.

It's gratifying to see MOMA taking fashion photography seriously as a form, because it is a remarkably sensitive barometer of change in both society and art. But we need to see the whole history to truly take its measure, and on that score this show comes up short.

On exhibit

What: Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990

Where: The Museum of Modern Art, 33rd Street at Queens Boulevard, Long Island City, Queens N.Y.

When: Through June 28

Hours: Thursday-Monday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 7:45 p.m.

Admission: $12 adults, $8.50 students and seniors

Call: 212-708-9400

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