Selling Dreams / Reviewed by Roy Exley / 30.04.12
This travelling show, devised and curated by the V & A Museum and displayed in two rooms of the elegant neo-classical Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, presented a sort of alternative history of photography, one that started in the second decade of the 20th Century rather than in the 1840’s. The history of fashion photography, which is the ‘raison d’etre’ of this exhibition, is witness to something that was far pacier than the history of photography, as a discipline, in its entirety. Fashion Photography established its own agenda, creating its own distinctive momentum, very different to that of mainstream photographic practice. The title of the show was derived from a quote by Irving Penn in 1984, when he said that that he saw his role at Vogue as ‘selling dreams, not clothes’.
In 1911 Edward Steichen claimed that he was establishing the genre of fashion photography when he created a series of photographs depicting models wearing Paul Poiret dresses. One of this series, which was the first photograph in this chronologically arranged exhibition, depicted two models in distinctively Edwardian dresses, long, voluminous and flouncey, which declared, decisively, that the age of Romanticism had not yet run its course. A photograph by Baron Adolf de Meyer, taken in 1919 and titled ‘Two Models at a Table’ seemed to corroborate this, the two women, one standing, rather posed, somewhat awkward, and the other seated at the table, seem to spring straight out of a Gustave Caillebote painting of the 1880’s. This image is a Romantic fantasy as much as contemporary fashion photographs are erotic fantasies and equally as far removed from reality, but, hey, we’re selling clothes here!
When we come to Irving Penn, whose photograph for American Vogue in 1950 depicts Lisa Fonsagraves-Penn in a dress by Jerry Parnis, we become very aware of the presence of a modernist aesthetic in the way that the picture plane is divided, in an almost abstract way, into a chiaroscuro of black and white geometric forms. The angular gesture of the model creates an empathetic rhythm within the image as a whole and imbues it with a mesmeric visual quality, a balance between symmetry and asymmetry tantalisingly achieved. As we continue around this exhibition we move into a more intensively stylised oeuvre in the canon of fashion photography with the work of David Bailey, Helmut Newton and Deborah Turbeville. Turbeville’s sepia toned image, ‘Bathhouse’ from 1975, with its misty, inchoate look, where the gestures of the five models hover uncomfortably between the classical and the ‘Egon Schielesque’, presents a scene in which the energy of the models is spread across the picture-plane, bringing a new dynamic to the concept of the fashion photograph, it trashes those ideas of both glamour and sophistication that characterised the classical fashion photograph.
With Juergen Teller (his ‘Go See’ series), Rankin, and Corinne Day, from the 1990’s, the exhibition advances, almost seamlessly, into colour photography and, at the same time, into a more abject take on fashion (‘heroin chic’ et al.), the street replacing the studio, and its appeal to a wider audience. Is fashion necessarily a cultural indicator, a signifier, or is it a response to already established cultural tendencies? Was an inherently ‘Punk’ aesthetic responsible for the direction that the work of Juergen Teller and Corrine Day took? In asking these sorts of questions, the viewer of this exhibition is made very aware of the transmigratory dynamic and vibrant synergy that exists between the worlds of contemporary photography and fashion photography, this exhibition clearly illustrates that the threshold between the two has been progressively broken down, by pluralistic cultural trends, until it now no longer exists.
Royal West of England Academy
Queen's Road, Clifton, Bristol BS8 1PX
0117 973 5129