22 January 2007

Making Sure the Shoes Look Good

In The Guardian last Saturday you can find a story on the upcoming show of fashion photography at the National Portrait Gallery in London. If you've been around here much you know that I don't have much good to say about fashion photographers - especially when they make "political" statements; more generally, the enterprise seems to me an excuse for wasting talent. (See, e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] [5].) Hadley Freeman, the reporter for The Guardian, notes that:

"Fashion photography straddles a tricky line between portraiture and making sure the shoes look good. .. . [T]he best fashion photographers have managed both, but in doing so created images that have defined their time as much as any film, book or painting."

There are, of course, the ponderous questions as to whether such photography is "art," about the "depth" the photographers give to an incredibly shallow set of people and performances, and so forth. My view is that all of that is more or less bullshit in the technical philosophical sense of the term. What gives this photography any pretense of being "art" is the fact that it is being hung in a museum. And the Museum will reap whatever fees and notoriety and visitor statistics that come from hanging the show. All of that will make the curators and adminstrators look good.

Fashion is a cultural and a commercial phenomenon, replete with ritual and convention and profit, but that does not make either it or the images used to sustain and sell it "art." So, the fact that some images haved defined their times, need not elevate them (if that is the appropriate metaphor) to the status of art. Think, by comparison, of the many iconic images that defined the period of the Vietnam War. Are they "art?" Powerful reportage, surely. Art, quite doubtfully. For my money, it is considerably more important to frame that period in memory with photo-journalistic images from Vietnam than with fashion shoots featuring Twiggy.

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