Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Mystery of the Fashion Photograph

Dovima in an evening dress by Dior, Photo by Richard Avedon 1955

Unlocking the mystery of a great fashion photograph is something that I'd like to better understand. I think I know it when I see one (like this one by Avedon), but is it a matter of opinion or is there something that great fashion photographs all share?

One of the chapters in the recently released Berg publication "Fashion in Fiction" is called "The Mystery of the Fashion Photograph" and was written by Margaret Maynard, Associate Professor at the University of Queensland. She poses these questions:
1. "What makes certain high-end photos eye-stopping, what gives them their strange thrill, their compelling intrigue, and why is this important?"
2. "What is it about some images that evoke in the viewer a desiring state of mind?"

 Like many scholarly works, I had to read between the lines to try and figure out the answers to these questions as the author does not clearly state her opinion. She references other people's opinions, but it is hard to clearly discern her point of view.  The other problem that I had with this book is that there are references to images but very few photos are included within the book. Describing an image is a lot different than seeing it. I had great difficulty understanding what this author considered to be a compelling fashion photograph based on her description of it. Even if the photo had been in black and white, it would, in an instant, convey what paragraphs of description cannot do. I found that to be a problematic issue in this chapter in particular and throughout the book.

Nevertheless, I think that this author defines a great fashion photograph to include a narrative or an open-ended drama, "specifically set up to lack a bounded point of view." (page 57) Furthermore, "the most interesting fashion images seem to obscure, even hide, their raison d'etre, their commercial links. Sometimes details of commercial or designer retailers are minute, relegated to the back of magazines or even absent. It is possible their absence energizes desire by strength of visual impulse." (page 61).

The author also links the text accompanying the photograph to the viewers engagement with it. "We need to acknowledge current multidimensional approaches to photography and current views of the complexity of verbal/visual tensions and intersections between photos and text that produce understanding. Barthes suggests that fashion images provoke fascination (1981a:17) but also that the presence of language acts to stay perception, thus cementing meaning as fashionable (Carter 2003:150)."

Cover of "Women" a book by Lillian Bassman 2009
It is probably evident from the passages that I've quoted that this book is meant for other fashion scholars. As someone who reads extensively, I appreciate writers who can take dense material and make it accessible to a broad audience. Without photos to accompany the text, I only have a vague sense of what the author might consider to be a compelling fashion photograph.

For me, a great fashion photograph has a strong graphic component, a sense of narrative and perhaps an element of surprise. My favourite fashion photographers are Richard Avendon, Irving Penn, Deborah Turbeville, and Lillian Bassman.

Do tell, what do you think makes for a great fashion photograph? And do you have a favourite fashion photographer?