Saturday, May 02, 2009
In local news, Mrs. New York Portraits and I went to the Metropolitan Opera Friday for the opening night of La Cenerentola, then on Saturday hit the fashion photography shows at ICP.
Weird Beauty seems to me to get the role of curator completely backwards: you are supposed to take material and amplify it, not diminish and confuse it.
The idea of showing contemporary fashion photographs as tearsheets is a good one -- but completely undermined because it's done in a half-assed way. That is, the text for the show explains that work from fashion magazines should be shown as tearsheets, but the exhibition puts the tearsheets on the wall and mixes in framed versions of some pieces, a meaningless roman numeral system of dividing sections, and places some of the work so high that you can't really see it properly.
The thing about work in fashion magazines is that the presentation is one of oversized glossy splendor -- you hold the magazine close, it's large and at a scale that fills your visual field. Presented as in this show, however, the scale of the work is ruined: the top row of images feels different than the middle row, since you can't get close to it; the unneeded framed works are sometimes just a little bigger than the tearsheet versions and only distract; and as presented all the work feels small.
That's not helpful for fashion photography, as the point is sensual fulfillment (since there's at best one or two new ideas in this room filled with 200 magazine snaps, you should at least let it be pretty rather than pretty vacant). A last flaw: if a show is going to be completely dependent on current fashion magazines -- which thrive on the idea of being cutting edge, now, and wild -- why make such a conservative selection? I like the NYT fashion shooters, but seeing several spreads from such a mainstream source made me realize that there are likely a lot of people dragging around the Lower East Side who have a better grasp of what's been cutting edge in the magazines lately than the curators of this show. This collection is too mainstream, and fails at the main goal of fashion photography: to possess stopping power. As presented, the strongest images in this show lose much of their ability to stop you from flipping past, on to the next image.
This Is Not a Fashion Photograph makes an even bigger faux pas: it takes fantastic images from the ICP collection, and asks us to consider them in the context of fashion photography. That does no favors to the images or fashion photography. The photos are merely crowded together, and after the disaster of a show one has just seen the effect is not the intended one but pure confusion: the feeling is that these images have been misunderstood, and half of them should quickly be put away so that those which make sense in this context could be properly understood. That is, a smaller show with more context could work here -- there are many photographs that are in fact interesting when re-thought in the context of fashion -- but this presentation reduces that theme to nothingness by simply accepting anything at all. It's diluted.
Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, on the other hand, is just fine. It presents 175 photographs without destroying the context of the work or making them hard to see and therefore beats out the previous exhibitions. The work is, of course, great.
My only complaint is that there's a lot here that could be informative in light of the contemporary fashion photo show upstairs -- and it isn't brought out. As one specific, note that Steichen is allowed to let clothing fall into complete shadow -- a contemporary no-no -- which shows he's holding a lot of the power in the creation of these images. Take a look at this image and imagine a contemporary fashion mag editor letting a shooter get away with that dark, textureless dress. A contemporary Vionnet would be at the shoot, previewing each shot on a laptop and yelling about featuring the dress -- then threatening to pull 14 pages of ads.