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The seduction of the image.

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From In and Out of Fashion by Vivianne Sassen

I came to Arles with fashion and art camping in two separate parts of my head.  It wasn’t that I didn’t think the lines could be blurred, because of course they can, and it wasn’t that I didn’t think fashion photographers were creative, because of course they are.  I just couldn’t get past the product / profit-driven purpose of the commissioners and believed fashion and art didn’t really mix when push came to shove.
I changed my mind.  In a way.
The three artists related to fashion were Guy Bourdin, Wolfgang Tillmans and Vivianne Sassen.  I am going to speak about their work in terms of Objet d’art.  ‘Object’ is the key word here – the tangible and physical aspect of the photograph.

He made it clear, as no other photographer before him had done, that we are seduced by the fashion image rather than the product the image promotes.

From the introduction to the Guy Bourdin show at Arles.

Guy Bourdin’s early black and white work welcomed us to Arles and it was with delight that I witnessed his delicate treatment of the image.  The work was mainly small in scale, beautifully printed, often dealing with disturbing contradictions of beauty and fear which strengthened it’s pull and brought out the humanity and, dare I say, meaning from the images.

Meaning.  That’s where I was going wrong.  I was searching for meaning in fashion.

by Guy Bourdin

Wolfgang Tillmans treats his images as a celebration of the medium.  Each one is blown up to grand proportions, to be looked at; they seem to be there to create an impression.   The ones that captured my attention were abstract, showing subtle textures and often ruptures of the surface that became intriguing when viewed at such a scale and out of context.  I was taken by nothing other than the image before me – the physical beauty of it.


 by Wolfgang Tillmans

Vivianne Sassen was another thing entirely.  Her already huge catalogue of work shows her progression through ideas and experimental visions as she has shot to the heights of both the fashion and art worlds.  She seems to not only occupy both worlds but straddles them.
This is what I was unsure of; how can a fashion photographer also dominate the art market?  And can the same work sit in both places?  Sassen’s art is separate from her fashion but the style is consistent throughout – after all it is the same photographer.  Charlotte Cotton says that her work is ‘out of kilter with convention’ and that ‘nothing is operating normally, nothing is what it appears to be.’ Isn’t this is the heart of both fashion and art – to show a different view of the world?  Sassen continues to shock, please and provoke in fashion and in art and it’s working for her.  A bold and arresting aesthetic is important to her and instead of apologising for it she embraces it and uses it to her advantage.

From In and Out of Fashion by Vivianne Sassen

In fact aesthetics are an important consideration for all three photographers.  And it makes me wonder if there is a place for ‘pretty pictures’ if they are approached in an innovative way.  The thing these photographers share is that they all make personal work and they also make fashion photographs.  The two strands tend to operate in different ways but there are also overlaps (of style and innovation).  I’m yet to be persuaded that aesthetics are enough but if you show me enough images that take my breath away maybe I’ll change my mind some more.  We all know theory is not always a reflection of reality.  But I suspect this is as close as it gets for me.
What fashion and art (photography) do share is the photograph and I left convinced about one thing; that the photographic image, in whatever guise, can very effectively hold my gaze.  I found myself relinquishing my preconceptions to the allure of the image, letting go of any need for meaning and finding pleasure in the simple act of looking.  To put it another way, I was seduced.  I love a good photograph and these three exhibitions helped me see that photography has the power to make us desire the image and to enjoy looking.
Now pass the macaroons I have a ballet to watch.

Posted by author: Sharon
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4 thoughts on “The seduction of the image.

  • I find myself in a similar position to you Sharon. I wrestle with the acceptance of the fashion photograph as ‘art’; and I think part of my problem is the fact that it is done commercially, attracts financial reward; and is associated with the commodity. But I also fight against its rejection as art! Maybe, I’ll get to a stage of acceptance one day. Have written about it a number of times of my blog:

  • “…And it makes me wonder if there is a place for ‘pretty pictures’ if they are approached in an innovative way…”
    I don’t think there is anything wrong with being enchanted by ‘pretty’ images – aren’t photographs supposed to be looked at?
    But I think the word ‘pretty’ needs a bit of consideration: to me there is something inherently polite and a bit benign about ‘pretty’ things. I think ‘prettiness’ implies a kind of generic-ness too; a normalisation of form. I don’t think one can be truly seduced by something that’s just as pleasing to the eye as the next thing in line.
    I wonder whether ‘pretty’ and ‘innovative’ are actually mutually exclusive? Really good fashion photography – and any other commercial photography, because that is actually what we are talking about here (not just jumpers and boots!) – engages us, not necessarily because it looks nice, but because it looks new, fresh, exciting, marketable. It looks like something that we didn’t know could look pleasing to the eye.
    Whatever one might think about commercial photography, there is no denying that it has driven technical as well as aesthetic innovation. Ok, it’s not necessarily meant to make you ponder as something in a ‘high-art’ institution might, but it too is designed to make people react on a conscious and subliminal level, so they are pretty close bed fellows really.

    • Back in the 60s, photography seemed to turn Pop Art on its head in that, whereas the Pop artists (Eduardo Paolozzi, Roy Lichtenstein et al) took commercial art as their starting point for making Fine Art imagery; the commercial photographers (David Baily, Brian Duffy, Terry Donovan etc) took Fine Art images ad their starting point for producing fashion and social photography. By the end of the century, Post Modernism had pretty much broken down the divide between commercial and fine art practice so that album covers, music videos, advertising etc., etc. were as much Fine Art as Graphic Design and the commercial photography found in, say, The Face was discussed (see Dick Hebdige, “The Bottom Line on Planet One: Squaring up to The Face“) in the same terms as gallery exhibitions.

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