World premiere exhibit feature works by seven photographers is on display through March 16
Fashion is a kind of language — a wearable identity code that defines your tribal allegiance, status and sexuality. A total stranger who knows the code can read you at a glance. Clothes make the man, as they say. Or woman. But for many liberated women, the code of fashion is a straitjacket. Liberated humans of all descriptions have been pushing to rewrite the code for decades. Contemporary fashion photographers have felt the push.
“REAL Fashion Photography” reflects their response at Ringling College of Art and Design. This exhibit was curated by Tom Winchester, a St. Petersburg-based photographer and art critic, and a former adjunct faculty member at Ringling College. It explores what happens when seven fashion photographers get real. Or try to.
Female fashion is their focus. Artificiality is their enemy. (Awkwardly, it’s also the heart of fashion photography.) Even so, these photographers do their best to defeat it.
They reject the glossy, slick fraud of mainstream fashion photography. They scorn the unattainable ideal of female beauty, created with airbrush, digital fakery, and self-starvation. Instead, they go for the real thing.
The women in their viewfinders aren’t impossibly perfect. You’ll see a wider assortment of female body types, skin colors, ages, income levels and attitudes. But it’s not a random assortment. Most are still young, thin and pretty. But they look like real women, not anorexic Barbie dolls. So what does a natural woman look like?
It depends on the photographer.
Pamela Reed and Matthew Rader are a husband-and-wife duo. Their photography has a happy-go-lucky, cartoony feel. In fact, “Spooky Suburbs” was a commission for the Cartoon Network and a line of women’s clothing.
Reed herself is the subject. She sits in a surreal beauty salon (which resembles the set of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse”) with clamps on her fingers. The robot from “Lost in Space” stands behind her, holding a tennis racket. Reed’s dolled up in a parody of overdone makeup. Her hair sticks out like she’s just plugged her finger in a light socket. Beauty salons exist to create unrealistic beauty. This witty image defeats that purpose. But Reed is still good-looking.
Emma Bee Bernstein’s “Untitled Self-portrait with Red Eyes” (2006) is far less playful and breaks more fashion rules. The setting is harsh and institutional: a battered lamp and an ugly chair at a juncture in an ugly hallway. Bernstein looks cornered, as she often does in her photos. She sits in the ugly chair, draped in a shapeless shroud of red fabric. Her eyes are also red. “Eliminate red eye” is one fashion photographer’s rule. “Smile for the camera” is another. Bernstein breaks that, too. Red eyes or not, she’s still a pretty woman. In the spirit of Cindy Sherman, Bernstein took a skewed, subversive take on her own beauty. Her early work had promise. Sadly, that’s all we’ll ever see. Bernstein died at age 23.
Hao Zeng is a multitalented Chinese artist. Along with songwriting, directing, and filmmaking, he’s adept at fashion photography. And finding beautiful women to photograph, it goes without saying.
Zeng’s “Zuoye, Manami Kinoshita, and Gao Jie” (2017) is a cluster of three women. (Young, thin and pretty, of course.) Sweaty, like they’ve just come back from the gym. They’re up against a wall and crowded in the frame. They huddle together, protective, suspicious, untidy, and a little bit sexy. The subject of Zeng’s “Karis” (2017) looks the camera in the eye with a cool, direct gaze. She’s a thin, African-American woman, self-confident, and poised. She’s pretty as well, in case you were wondering. Now let’s get back to the core question …
Can the fraud of female fashion photography ever be defeated?
These photographers push the boundaries, to be sure. They fight the good fight against artificiality. But they don’t win. How could they?
It wouldn’t be fashion photography if they did.
Their models are unconventionally pretty. But they’re still pretty. And most are young and thin. To be fair, you’ll also see a few plus-sizes, and a few fifty-somethings. But those women are the exceptions. These photographers push the limits of feminine allure. Expanded or not, the limits remain.
That’s not to deny the hard-fought victories of these photographers. Their work is a healthy alternative to the sick body shaming of our selfish selfie age. It’s a rejection of the unattainable ideal of feminine beauty that drives most women’s fashion. But it’s not a rejection of fashion itself.
“Don’t judge by appearances” is not the new rule. “Some women are pretty, and some aren’t” is still the core principle.
And that’s the way it works.
Fashion is a competition. A game of pretty faces, cool clothes and implied judgment. “I’m better than you” is always the message. What else could it be? The alternative is dressing the planet in school uniforms. That’ll probably never happen. If it does, fashion photographers around the planet will be looking for a job.