A century of fashion photos at the Getty
“Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911-2011” at the Getty
by Bondo Wyszpolski
The late photographer Irving Penn described his role at Vogue as “selling dreams, not clothes,” because being stylishly attired often gave one the illusion that doors to one’s personal or professional life might now open wide.
The intent behind this expansive display at the Getty (160 fashion photographs, several mannequins finely dressed, and 89 photographers) is to further the claim that fashion photography is an art unto itself, a genre as valid and as distinctive as portraiture and landscape, and deserving to be shown in the same museums and galleries that proudly display their Raphaels and Rembrandts.
In 2012, the show’s curator, Paul Martineau, organized an exhibition devoted to Herb Ritts (“Herb Ritts: L.A. Style”). It met with resistance from some quarters, but might have gone over a little easier had Martineau mounted “Icons of Style” first. Little did we know that Ritts was a precursor of things to come!
Flash forward, and it will be hard to ignore the range, the quality, and presumably the reception and impact of this endeavor. “The best fashion photographs can remind us of other works of art or expand the boundaries of the genre,” Martineau writes, “redefining what a fashion photograph is supposed to do or be. The photographs that do both are the ones that excite me the most.”
As this exhibition, through Oct. 21, makes clear, there is no one way to set about shooting fashion. It’s all here. However, when we use the word “fashion” (always in opposition to “trend”) it’s usually implied that a specific look or style or an outfit is a cut above the norm. I think the word itself is more likely to suggest elegance, sophistication, and often (one thing following another) education, upbringing, and intelligence. It’s a truism that clothes make a first impression. They also can invite a second and third look as well.
The fashion photography that catches our eye tends to involve imagination, design, and a poetic sensibility. The models are mostly women, and largely they are young and attractive because, and who can deny it, we are drawn to the prettiest flower in the garden.
But a pretty woman in a brand new outfit is not enough. “Clothes worn well are clothes worn with conviction,” Angela Britzman wrote for Equator magazine. “Even when an outlandish outfit is worn, one must not appear to be on the way to a costume party.” Or, as Elsa Schiaparelli put it, “Clothes must look as if they belong to the woman who wears them or they are not right.”
Not all of the images in “Icons of Style” meet this criteria. A few of the photographers, and I’m looking at you, Corinne Day and Terry Richardson, have given us grittier images that seem to purposely provoke the viewer, challenging his or her idea of what fashion photography can or should be. But that sort of statement, which makes or attempts to make a point, is soon dismissed. How much more rewarding it is to focus on the inventiveness of their contemporaries like Nick Knight and Tim Walker.
Why does “Icons of Style” begin in the year 1911? As Martineau explains, “that was the year Edward Steichen… was challenged to create the first ‘artistic’ fashion photographs, of gowns by the French couturier Paul Poiret.” These images, in the popular Pictorialist style of the day, have a soft blur, like Vermeer paintings although without the sublime coloring.
Photographic art, like all the arts, constantly advances, trying this and trying that.
We may wonder, which years represent the “golden age” of fashion photography? The answer is probably subjective, but many of the movie star images of the 1930s through the 1950s surely must have influenced our regarding fashion photography as a higher art.
Paul Martineau surveys the years from 1930 through 1946, and considers the work of George Hoyningen-Huene, George Hurrell, Martin Munkácsi, Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, and Louise Dahl-Wolfe, among others. Many of these photographers shot for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and other landmark publications.
With Susanna Brown we look over the years 1947 to 1969, when radical changes began to occur, and now we are introduced to the work of Lillian Bassman, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin, Frank Horvat, and Hiro, with a little more adventurousness and ingenuity starting to creep in.
Michal Raz-Russo, taking the fashion baton up to 1989, writes: “At the end of the 1980s, after two decades of experimentation, fragmentation, and contradictions, fashion images had never been as varied or as abundant. Yet one potent idea emerged: cultural attitudes are as integral to fashion photographs as clothes.”
Perhaps that was not so much the case before. But now magazines and their art directors had to keep up with changing times, and so did the photographers they employed. As Raz-Russo also notes, “As fashion became a central form of cultural expression, fashion photographs increasingly demonstrated the intertwined, inseparable relations between fashion, mass media, and high and low culture.”
As usual in a catalogue with several contributors the writing varies, but one essay that stands out is by Ivan Shaw, the photography editor of American Vogue from 1996 to 2016. He writes with authority, and “Ye Fakers: Realism and Fantasy, 1990-2011” carries us to the start of the present decade.
By now, the photographers, which in this section include Herb Ritts, Glen Luchford, Arthur Elgort, Sarah Moon, Steven Meisel, Steven Klein, Mert & Marcus, plus several mentioned earlier (Day, Rutherford, Walker and Knight), have shown us the potential of the fashion photograph by pushing all the buttons… and the zippers too.
Just in this century, as Shaw writes, “The idea of a model passively posing, or ‘sitting,’ for the photographer was turned upside down, and the studio became a laboratory and a place for experimentation with the pure elements of lighting, background, and perspective.”
We can go back to the beginning and look at the images produced by Edward Steichen and Man Ray and Baron Adolf de Meyer and only wonder how they were first perceived. Today, do we find them quaint or mannered, old fashioned even, or do we still gaze at them with awe? How will the public regard the work of Helmut Newton and Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts at the end of this century?
Will they look at fashion photography (in whatever form it takes) and still buy into the dream? Will they still look for the exquisite and the elegant? Will people look at the images and agree with what Friedrich Schlegel wrote some 200 years ago, that “Beautiful is that which is simultaneously attractive and sublime”?
Paul Martineau and his colleagues have assembled a panoramic overview, including its historical context, of a century’s worth of fashion photography. I imagine it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and I imagine there will be additional photo shows at our finest museums with fashion as the central theme. Styles may come and go, but fashion is forever in fashion.
Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911-2011 is on view through Oct. 21 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. For directions, hours, and related events call (310) 440-7300 or visit getty.edu. ER