Drop Dead Gorgeous

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by Steven Klein for W Magazine, August 2007

The exhibit “Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now”, currently at the International Center For Photography, highlights contemporary fashion photography, organized in a loosely thematic way. The exhibit is grouped under Roman numerals, with each numeral (I through XIV) representing a cumulative theme, whether a “common narrative thread, a mood, a style or an allusion”, according to the introductory statement on the wall at the beginning of the exhibit. The photographs are exhibited in their original, intended form–magazine pages or “tear sheets”, which, as the introduction explains represents the fact that the printed magazine page is fashion photography’s “natural habitat”. All the photographs are mounted in a minimalistic, unobtrusive way,  on simple white boards, arranged under the numeral headings and arranged in unevenly spaced rows, the effect of which suggests a giant crossword puzzle pattern of columns up down and across the walls. The space as a whole is extremely minimal–unobtrusive lighting, white walls and simply presented attributions accompanying each photo or series of photographs.

One of the first thematic, content-based things I noticed about this exhibit is that it represented numerous examples of a trend I’ve noted before in fashion photography–the commonness of portrayals of violence of varying forms and degrees enacted upon women’s bodies. I’ve written on my personal blog in the past about this phenomenon and the way that it seems to me that fashion photography sometimes justifies the objectification and abuse of women’s bodies by explaining that it is simply artistic stylization. While I very much believe in the importance of artistic freedom, I don’t think that it is tantamount to a blank check to produce and disseminate images of women that suggest extreme violence like rape, murder, or abuse in order to sell clothes or other products. One of the first images I laid eyes on in this exhibit, for instance, was an image of a woman with a shock of red hair and deathly white skin lying motionless on a linoleum floor with glazed eyes and an open mouth. Out of her mouth are dribbling milk and cereal which trickle across the floor away from her. In one limp hand, she holds a milk-covered spoon.

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Directly above this, an image by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott shows a woman clothed only in nude colored underwear lying lifeless, contorted,  limbs akimbo, eyes closed in the midst of an overgrown thicket. The most remarkable thing in a way is the lack of reaction these images evoke–most of us encounter images equally or more disturbing on a daily basis, and have become desensitized to some extent. I can appreciate the artistry that goes into the creation of each of these images, and the fact that fashion photography like much other art is infused with fantasy and fetish and does not necessarily represent any intentionality. Yet, merely by the mass dissemination of such images, they become normalized, in my opinion, creeping into the public consciousness and the realm of the real. Therefore, I’m not sure that claims of fantasy or artistic experimentation totally acquit the photographers, the magazines, or the brands of responsibility for reifying a particular set of patriarchal values through the creation and dissemination of such images.

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Steven Klein for Dolce & Gabbana

The kinds of objectification and violence of female bodies in this exhibit took all kinds of forms–a photo series entitled “William Eggleston” by Juergen Teller depicts a man lying on a couch with a woman on top of him. The man is holding the woman in a head lock, covering her face with his arm and hand, and, in one photograph holding her head in place by pulling a handful of her hair violently back. In another series by Alas and Piggot entitled “I’m a Marionette”,  the face of a human model is transposed onto the body of a limp wooden-jointed marionette puppet whose body is photographed shoved into a corner, thrown into a box, and draped limply over various objects, lifely, helpless, broken, the embodiment of a fully controllable, soulless human clothes hanger. In the series from which the photo above of David and Victoria Beckham was taken, by Steven Klein, David stands aggressively above Victoria, expressing domination with hands on hips and stern expression, as she lies across the hood of the car, wearing a bathing suit and thigh high boots, eyes closed, body contorted in pain or pleasure. Indeed, the associations drawn between sex and death or violence are undeniable in many of these images. This reminded me of a truly shocking fashion ad I wrote about on my personal blog, for the clothing brand Duncan Quinn (below).

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Interestingly, certain lighting and compositional characteristics seemed to be particularly associated with the more obvious examples of objectification and violence–severe lighting, either strong, harsh, cool flood lighting or extreme contrast lighting with fast fall-off and high drama. The the bodies of the women in these pictures are often broken up, bisected or disected by the framing–sometimes their bodies are displayed while their heads are cut out of the frame. Often, these models are photographed from above, from a position of power, as they lie prostrated, looked upon. Also, the subjects of these photos rarely look directly at the camera, but rather are portrayed with closed eyes, downcast eyes, or eyes that avoid the front, looking somewhere off the side of the frame instead.

Recently, for another class, I read something that discussed coutoure fashions as a means of social differentiation and reification of class, the idea of immobilized women, women restrained by the very non-functionality of their clothing and shoes, as symbolic of a lifestyle which does not require work, or even movement. Many of the photos in this exhibit, in fact, featured women lying down, at rest–even sports or action sequences were frequently stylized into still-life form, with the models frozen in place, far from implying action or motion. Many of these models are thus explicitly portrayed compositionally as art objects rather than beings with agency, bound, corsetted, perched on stilt-like shoes, tied and tangled up in fabrics or other items, and the formal qualities of the images only serve to reinforce this portrayal. They are props through which products are displayed, merely another object within the compositional frame. The photographers, not the models, often seem to be the agents of the message.

These issues are ones I am very interested in pursuing in my future work in media. One of the things that drew me to media studies in the first place was the desire to obtain the skills and expertise to mobilize myself as an agent of change in the context of the women’s movement. While I’ve since found myself branching out in new and sometimes different directions, my commitment to these issues and my awareness of and interest in the particular feminist perspective  remains as strong as ever.

Here are a few other things I’ve written on related issues of women’s portrayals in advertisements on my personal blog:

http://katieheimer.wordpress.com/2008/12/12/dead-sexy/

http://katieheimer.wordpress.com/2008/12/13/ad-nauseum/

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One Response to “Drop Dead Gorgeous”

  1. […] just a quick link to a review/analysis I wrote of “Weird Beauty”, an exhibition of modern fashion […]

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