Monday, August 18, 2014

What Does It All Mean? Fashion Photography in the Fine Art World - Thoughts on a Lecture by Vogue's Ivan Shaw

The Divers by George Hoyningen-Huene


Last Friday my friend A. invited me to attend a lecture given by Ivan Shaw. The lecture took place at the beautiful Detroit Institute of Arts and discussed photography's place in the fine arts world. In the short hour he gave an overview of how fashion photography has fit into the art world from the 1920's to the present. He rounded out the academic portion of the discussion with anecdotes about some of the the better known fashion photographers lives. He also told a few personal stories of how he knew or interacted with some of the later era photographers. He has been in the business for several decades and had a very broad and vast knowledge about the history of it.

By the time the first ten minutes of the lecture was over I knew there were going to be some great things to think about and mull over so I had pulled out the tiny notebook I always carry with me and I took down some notes. Here are a few choice anecdotes for you:


  • Mr. Shaw mentioned that displacement was an overarching theme in a lot of Conde Nast fashion photographer's lives. Many of them fled their homes during conflict, and for a large portion of them were forced to move, leaving everything behind, during the World Wars. Many of you have seen Horst P. Horst's famous Mainbocher Corset Photograph. Mr. Shaw mentioned that this was Horst's very last photograph in Paris. He took this picture in September 1939 and as they were shooting this photograph the model (I can't remember the name of her though it was mentioned in the lecture) was crying because all things were ending. 
  • In the 1930's fashion photographers were spending a lot of time in Cafe Circles with other artists and literary figures. In this way there really was no disconnect between fashion photography and the fine arts world. Later, this changed significantly as fashion marketing and the meaning of fashion photography changed. I still am not sure what (if any) catalyst concretely caused this to happen. It seems like there was a surge of putting the fashion first in the photograph during the 1950's and sixties. 
  •  During the Q&A Mr. Shaw briefly touched on the relationship now between fine art photography and fashion photography right now. My biggest takeaway on what he said is that there are two different skill sets needed for each subject matter and the job descriptions.  The ideas may seem similar to the outside observer but are very different. He didn't detail the exact skills needed for each part but he did say that some people can easily transition between the two and some people can't. Also, he noted that fine art photographers transitioning towards fashion photography need to be cautious and retain their sense of identity that made them a great photographer in the first place. 
  • Another audience member asked him what he looked for when he was looking at the portfolio of beginner photographers with promise. Surprisingly, Mr. Shaw said that many times the work of the best photographers is rough. He said that often times those photographers have something they really want to capture, an idea or a way things should look, but they don't quite know how to get there yet. Instead of being nervous about it and mimicking someone else's style they keep going for what they know will eventually look right to them. At some point the skills catch up with the vision.


Until recently, I've never thought critically or objectively about my own photographs. While I've always tried to improve my skills and get what I see in my head into the picture,  I've never considered myself a photographer. Taking a picture was never the point of my camera. I ran around with a camera all through middle and high school (In fact I just recently found seven unexposed rolls of film in my parents basement - I am so curious about what is on them and will have to get them developed soon!) but it wasn't about me being a photographer. It still isn't. Its just about me being present in a really amazing place and it's always about the moment that is happening then and there.

It might seem silly to never reference myself as a photographer because my blog is so picture heavy but taking photos is more about what's in the actual picture than the fact that I'm taking a picture. All of my favorite photographs up here have been me trying to capture specific moments more than the straight up HD fashion-centric photographs. For example, the photographs from Toronto or the ones in the vintage dress I took all by myself in my empty Denver apartment just an hour before leaving to move far away stand out as some of my favorite pictures. These pictures, more than ones where my hair is curled and my makeup is done perfectly, and I managed to get great lighting, tell the truth. They explain to you, (and sometimes me, after giving them a second or third look) what is really going on.

Circling back to my notes, Horst P. Horst's Mainbacher corset photograph is dreamy - the woman, the pose, the draping of the laces, the line and shape that points back to classical art. We see a woman gracefully covering her face. The image easily features the piece of clothing they were trying to capture, but beyond that it's kind of a desolate image, all curves and lines and greyscale. When you are told the story of the model, who was his friend, crying and them packing up and leaving their vibrant Parisian life because of the war the things you knew about the photograph click. Here is Horst being honest with the moment. And here is a piece of clothing, half undone, in the middle of an unraveling life.

And, thankfully, I have come to a conclusion, after all that thinking and talking about this weekend and trying to answer my lingering question from the lecture. The connection and link between the very best art photography and the very best fashion photography and the very best blog photography is that the image is truthful in some way. It's a simple concept but its not something everyone can just do.  Beneath whatever magic and makeup and lighting we've used to make that photograph happen, the images that endure are honest photographs that seek to explain the truth about something.

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