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Fashion Foward

Culture Watch
Herb Ritts' Cindy Crawford, Ferre 3, 1993.

By Rachel Wolff

An impossibly leggy glamazon mugging poolside in couture; a modish, wideeyedTwiggy parading down the streets of London; a lithe Kate Moss pouting in her skivvies. Beauty may indeed be in the eye of the beholder, but something universally transfixing happens when these bastions of beauty pose for photographers whose careers are predicated on making them shine.

Fashion photography is pure fantasy—reckless abandon in the most glamorous sense of the term. In the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, W and Vogue, women aren’t women— they’re storytellers, reveries and blank canvases. But despite their unwavering commitment to the craft, contemporary fashion photographers have historically struggled to find acceptance in the greater art world.

Things are changing, though. Twentieth-Century titans like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts have been embraced as fine artists by some of the best institutions in the world (the Getty in Los Angeles is opening a major Ritts retrospective on April 3). There’s an increasingly wide collector base for work born on the page; traditional art galleries are no longer shying away from the stuff, and with more and more fine artists getting in on the action (Cindy Sherman, Juergen Teller and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, among them) snobbish naysayers have been forced to give other high-sheen output a closer look as well.

For Vince Aletti, a prominent photography critic and adjunct curator at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York, it’s these crossover artists that have laid the groundwork for a more serious consideration of contemporary fashion photography as a whole. It’s a simple enough argument: if accredited art-world luminaries are willing and eager to tackle fashion, why not examine those who’ve made it their life’s work? “There are enough people working in both areas and working seriously,” he says. “I don’t think a good curator of contemporary photography could ignore that work or not look at who else is working in the field.” The Museum of Modern Art was, in some ways, a trailblazer in this reconsideration with the 2004 exhibition “Fashioning Fiction in Photography since 1990.” Every single piece on view was originally published in a fashion magazine or advertising campaign—once a faux pas of sorts for museum-worthy work. “The people they included in that show were the obvious crossovers—Sherman, Tina Barney, Nan Goldin,” Aletti says. “But they also included a number of people who work primarily in fashion—Cedric Buchet, Mario Sorrenti, Steven Meisel. It was a good range and it was a significant thing for a museum like that to pay really close attention to this area. It becomes easier for curators to make the leap and see the connections [between fashion photography and fine art photography] when they see that there’s strong work being done.”

A similar survey, titled “Face of Fashion,” at the National Portrait Gallery in London followed and in 2009, ICP, a longtime advocate for any and all photography, dedicated an entire year of programming to fashion-born and fashion-inspired work. Mario Testino scored a 2010 solo show at the Thyssen Bornemisza museum in Madrid; Annie Leibovitz nabbed a massive survey at the Hermitage in Moscow last summer; and, on the heels of last Fall’s survey at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the late great Helmut Newton will have his first full retrospective at Paris’ Grand Palais from March 24 through June 17.

The crossover action continues to be ripe as well, with Jack Pierson signing on to shoot Bottega Veneta’s Spring/Summer 2012 ad campaign (succeeding fellow fine artists Robert Polidori, Nan Goldin and Robert Longo). And Sherman’s current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (running February 26 through June 11) features examples of her past fashion forays including a recent collaboration with Chanel for Pop magazine in which a disgruntled-looking Sherman poses awkwardly in front of Icelandic landscapes, donning couture.

Among those taking the runway-to-gallery route, Terry Richardson has his first solo exhibition in Los Angeles at OHWOW, with a series of new photographs dedicated to life in Hollywood (February 24 through March 31). And the fashion world is still buzzing about Steven Klein’s surreal showing at New York’s fashion week last Fall: the notoriously edgy shutterbug screened Time Capsule, a series of short, slow-moving, black-and-white films in which an exquisitely styled Amber Valletta ages from 20 to 100-plus. The piece was on view in a multi-channel installation at Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow late last year, as well. As for the market, the auction houses have had substantial success as of late selling works by the aforementioned titans. A November 2011 sale at Christie’s Paris dedicated solely to Penn and his oeuvre yielded some $2.9 million in total; his high-fashion-inflected Woman In Moroccan Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), from 1951, earned more than $490,000, the second highest price ever paid for the photographer’s work at auction.

Demand remains steady on the more contemporary side of things as well, confirms Chelsea gallerist James Danziger, who has long dealt in such work. Yet it still has a ways to go. “Fashion photography is well recognized in the marketplace with the most significant fashion photographs going for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Danziger says. “That’s been established. It’s just that the next generation hasn’t quite sorted it out yet. It’s a generation in waiting.

Fashion itself has had such explosive growth. They’re so busy that they haven’t focused quite as much on exhibiting and selling their prints.” But that, he’s certain, will come. (In other words, buy now before it’s out of reach.) However, there is one artist in Danziger’s stable who’s managed to marry commercial and critical success right out of the gate: Scott Schuman, better known as the Sartorialist, the hyper-influential blogger whose streetside snapshots of well-dressed locals have inspired legions of followers and copycats. Schuman hadn’t even considered printing and selling his work before Danziger approached him. But since their collaboration began five years ago, the images have been acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, not to mention a bevy of eager collectors, proving that it’s not just fashion in print that’s getting a fresh look.

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