In the hills high above Los Angeles, within the white-columned serenity of the J. Paul Getty Museum, the bastard stepchild of the fine art world is finally getting its birthright.
On Tuesday, June 26, “Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911-2011” opens, and it may be the most sweeping such survey in decades, featuring 198 works (pictures, magazine covers, ad campaigns, garments) throughout eight galleries and spanning images both obvious and unknown.
Richard Avedon’s “Dovima With Elephants,” the 1955 print of a Dior evening gown amid the pachyderms, which the show’s curator said became the most expensive fashion photograph sold at auction when it went for over $1 million at Christie’s in 2010? It’s in there. Erwin Blumenfeld’s photo of Lisa Fonssagrives in a Lucien Lelong dress hanging off the side of the Eiffel Tower, the poster on many a dorm room wall? That, too. Ditto for Bruce Weber’s 1982 Calvin Klein underwear ad featuring a briefs-clad Tom Hintnaus silhouetted against a white adobe structure in the shape of a phallus. Once upon a time, it stopped traffic in Times Square.
But so are images from Willy Maywald, Neal Barr and Kourken Pakchanain, photographers whose names are not broadly known. And works from artists not normally considered fashion photographers (Man Ray, Dora Maar), but whose experimentation with the form helped advance the art.
The result is not entirely comprehensive: It is focused on work made in the four traditional fashion capitals — New York, Paris, London and Milan. And it ends in 2011, when the advent of Instagram and Snapchat changed photographers into “image-makers,” according to Paul Martineau, associate curator of photographs at the Getty Museum, who organized the exhibition. But with 89 photographers represented — 15 are women, and two are African-American — this show is more wide-ranging than even MoMA’s highly touted 2004 exhibition “Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990,” which covered only a decade or so and included 13 photographers.
“I think the last time there was really a survey show like this was in 1977, when Nancy Hall-Duncan organized one for the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester,” Mr. Martineau said.
In that gap, a tale lies. It is a reminder that despite the growing prominence of both photography and fashion in the cultural conversation, when it comes to the hallowed halls of a museum, there’s still a palpable tension around both disciplines, and the question of whether or not they belong.
“Photography had to fight to get taken seriously, and fashion photography had to fight even harder,” said Nick Knight, the contemporary photographer and founder of the fashion film website SHOWStudio, who has three works at the Getty.
Mr. Martineau wanted to explore “the intersection of these two marginalized mediums,” fashion and photography, he said. The result forces viewers as well as the institution to grapple with lingering prejudices against both forms, though not everyone is convinced that they still exist.
Jeff Rosenheim, the curator in charge of the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said the issue is “cultural, not institutional,” arguing that while the Met treats all types of photography equally (scientific, architectural, documentary or fashion), sometimes the bias is with the beholder.
Wherever the source of the discomfort resides, it harks back to the myth of the pure creative genius making art in service to the muse, as opposed to the service of filthy lucre, or, even worse, quotidian demand. Though it has long been discredited, this idea has forever tainted fashion and photography, which suffer the multiple stains of frivolity, facility and — don’t dare utter it aloud — marketing.
“Fashion photography was long looked down on as a commercial branch of photography,” said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “So even after museums accepted that photography could be art, they still resisted collecting or exhibiting fashion photography.”
After all, these were pictures that most often first appeared in magazines — disposable monthly publications. They represented the opposite of the eternal, a value theoretically at the heart of the art world. Indeed, of the numerous institutions Mr. Martineau researched while creating the “Icons” show, he said, he found a dearth of fashion photographs in all but a handful of museum collections.
“There is a hierarchy in art forms that has come down over the ages, and museums are very slow to change,” Mr. Martineau said. “Most photography departments are housed in the basement, and the gallery spaces are on the lower levels. Painting is on the upper level.”
And as with museums, so with the mental landscape. According to Mr. Rosenheim of the Met, after Walker Evans, the celebrated photographer of the Great Depression, became a member of the Century Club, he was invited to show his work at the club’s gallery. And he did: He showed his paintings.
“Which were modest at best,” Mr. Rosenheim said. “He was the most anointed photographer of his generation, and he was embarrassed to show his photographs at the Century! There’s been a dramatic change in how most of the world sees photography since then, but still: Some photographers don’t even want to be described as photographers — it’s like the most insulting thing you could say to them. They want to be called artists.”
Combine that with an even broader unease around fashion, with its whiff of indulgence and the superficial, and the insecurity and fear of not being seen as “serious” grows. “Fashion photographers and their attitude toward their work is its own area of psychological study,” said Mr. Rosenheim, who co-curated the 2017 show “Irving Penn: Centennial.” Indeed, in Norma Stevens’s biography of Richard Avedon, “Avedon: Something Personal,” the author claims that during a 1970 retrospective at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Mr. Avedon initially insisted there be no fashion pictures included, saying, “Fashion is the f word, the dirtiest word in the eyes of the art world.”
As Ms. Steele explained, “Fashion has long been dismissed as superficial and vain, in large part because of its association with the body, especially the female body, and with change, rather than permanence, truth and beauty.”
Mr. Knight, the photographer, goes even further. “In England and North America, where we are heirs to a Protestant value system, vanity is seen as a sin, and fashion is vanity. As a result, it has been marginalized, trivialized and often dismissed, though it is a universal and hugely important means of self-expression.”
There is a reason that when the Costume Institute became a part of the Metropolitan Museum, an element of the deal was that it pay for its own operating budget; it remains the only curatorial department at the Met to do so. The strategy it developed to meet that end — its annual blitzkrieg of a celebrity-and-fashion Gala — is still a touchy subject, discussed sotto voce by others within the museum, who feel its glitz and cost is somehow unbecoming to the institution.
At the same time, because of their popular appeal, shows of fashion and fashion photography are among the largest drivers of traffic in any museum.
Mr. Martineau conceived of the “Icons” show while working on the Getty’s Herb Ritts exhibition, which took place in 2012 and became its most trafficked photography exhibition (later surpassed by the Robert Mapplethorpe show in 2016). It also awakened the museum to the potential of the art form, and persuaded its leaders to allot “considerable resources” — he would not say how much — to building a fashion photography collection.
Since 2010, Mr. Martineau has acquired 70 new pictures by 25 photographers, aiming to make the Getty a dominant institution in the field, with the exhibition — and an accompanying coffee-table book — being his opening bid.
So though there is little doubt in the public mind and artistic sphere that names like Avedon, Penn and Newton have transcended their roots, what this exhibition posits is that in these and many other cases, there were no roots needed to transcend. By taking the pictures off the page and hanging them on the wall, Mr. Martineau recontextualizes them and frees them from subconscious associations most of us have with the idea of fashion magazines and ad campaigns (and our own secret interest, which we too often disavow by dismissing our knowledge as something gleaned by reading fashion magazines at the hairdressers).
He allows us to experience the power in placing a woman in a suit and heels amid the rubble of the London bombing, the way Cecil Beaton did in 1941; or the way the distortion in a picture shot from below, by Neal Barr, reflects the revolution in mores during the 1960s; and how reducing an image to a saturated silhouette, as Mr. Knight did with Naomi Campbell in a Yohji Yamamoto coat in 1987, allows it to move beyond model and garment to become an idea of itself.
Indeed, it is the less recognizable photographs that are often the most compelling, that make you think twice about the many ways visual artists were pushing the boundaries of their form while straddling the limitations of their job, and that demonstrate the preconceptions that come reflexively with the eye and memory of the viewer.
Witness a Bonwit Teller ad by Anton Bruehl from 1932 made to display “knitted-to-order sport clothes:” It depicts a female form in what looks like a body stocking, her head shadowed in an upraised arm, her silhouette resembling Greek statuary, strings from spools creating the geometric tracings of bondage over her skin. “I had seen that a long time ago, and it just embedded itself in my consciousness,” said Mr. Martineau, who eventually tracked it to the New York Public Library and arranged a loan. “It was just so daring and inventive.”
Then there’s Clifford Coffin’s painterly 1949 photograph for Vogue of four models sitting cross-legged on a sand dune, their bathing caps forming balloons of color against the sand, their torsos from the back like a row of ancient vases. There is David Montgomery’s 1965 architectural black-and-white print of Grace Coddington in profile, her Vidal Sassoon haircut and crooked arm a swirl of curves and angles, the photo a monochrome symphony pointing toward the future. And there is Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s 1945 photograph of a model in a Claire McCardell bathing suit reclining on the sand, her head veiled with a scarf, the image turned 90 degrees so she appears to be standing up. Swimsuit? What swimsuit? It fades into the background in a feint of perspective and power.
“The composition just calls out to you,” Mr. Martineau said. “It says: ‘Come near me. Examine me.’” And, he might have added: Give me the respect I deserve.
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