Vince Aletti on Weird‘s Science-------
Media fantasies about fashion usually revolve around pouting bodacious bombshells strutting down runways or preening for gushing photographers. But actual fashion aficionados know that such images are rarely at fashion’s true core, where genuine innovation often takes the form of “Weird Beauty.” That’s the title of the new International Center of Photography exhibition opening today with 20 original prints and hundreds of tear sheets from Steven Meisel, Cindy Sherman, Mario Sorrenti, Nick Knight, and Sølve Sundsbø. Weird Beauty aptly sums up the difficult delights gathered and presented by co-curators Carol Squiers and Vince Aletti. Style.com caught up with Aletti, the photography critic for The New Yorker and formerly a senior editor at The Village Voice for nearly 20 years, to discuss the powerful push/pull of jolie laide.
On its most basic level, fashion photography pushes products. How do the photographers in your exhibition express and enhance the desirability of the garments or items they represent?
Fashion photographers create a fantasy—sometimes a narrative, sometimes an elaborate stage set, sometimes just a mood—around a woman in clothes. Their work might be functional (their employers do want to promote clothes) but it’s never merely descriptive, and over the past two decades it’s become more and more atmospheric. Even in fashion advertising, the garment is often the last thing you notice, and certainly it wasn’t a prime consideration when we made our selection for Weird Beauty. Many of the photographers in the exhibition weave a powerful spell around their subject, and it was that spell, not the garment, that seduced us.
Some of the photographers in your show are primarily considered artists while others mostly fit into the fashion category. Besides the photographer’s own intention or self-definition, do you see differences between the artists and fashion photographers?
In a word, no. Whether it’s Collier Schorr or Mario Sorrenti, Cindy Sherman or Sølve Sundsbø , they’re all looking for ways to make something fairly routine engaging and surprising. Most of the artists working in fashion have been able to apply their distinctive style to the project, but the same can be said for the photographers whose prime focus is fashion. For all of them it’s about maintaining the integrity of their vision, and the fashion pros are just as concerned with this as artists who consider fashion a sideline.
You’ve taken images from both mainstream and indie or avant-garde publications. But do you think magazines with wider audiences like Vogue or Bazaar don’t get enough credit for being image innovators?
I don’t think anyone overlooks the historic importance of either magazine. They set the bar very high beginning in the 1930′s and for much of the last century. But there’s no question that these days, [they] are overshadowed by other younger and more adventurous fashion magazines, including some that give the same photographers (Steven Meisel, Steven Klein, and Peter Lindbergh, for instance) more freedom. For whatever reason, American Vogue and Bazaar are more conservative than their European counterparts, but Vogue maintains an impressively high standard. Any magazine that publishes Irving Penn on a regular basis cannot be ignored, and Annie Leibovitz has done some stunning fashion work for them.
Have you always been interested in fashion imagery?
My father was a serious amateur photographer who had a darkroom in the attic and my mother was a dressmaker who made doll clothes for my sisters. So I grew up with fashion magazines and copies of US Camera in the house, and I spent a lot of time with both. But it wasn’t really fashion that interested me; it was the atmosphere of glamour and vivaciousness that the photographers conjured up around the model and the clothes. I was interested in Penn, Avedon, Horst, Blumenfeld, Beaton, and Hoyningen-Huene, not in Chanel or Givenchy.
Do you care at all about the clothes?
Not really. Although I notice if they’re especially outrageous or ornamental, the clothes don’t much interest me—just the photograph. But the show’s co-curator, Carol Squiers, can’t ignore an outfit she thinks is ridiculous or hideous, and in several cases rejected a photo for that reason.