Photographers go to fashion and beyond

Liu Xiaolin
An array of photos on display at Shanghai Center of Photography presents thought-provoking reflections on fashion photography dating back to the 1980s.
Liu Xiaolin

An array of photos on display at Shanghai Center of Photography presents thought-provoking reflections on fashion photography dating back to the 1980s. A collaboration with the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, “Beyond Fashion” features some 90 works by 48 fashion photographers around the world, who in their distinctive ways project narratives far beyond what “fashion” normally stands for — stunning seasonal garments.

A quote on a wall by curator Nathalie Herschdorfer reads: “Over the last 100 years, fashion photography forged an image of alluring beauty which, through time, encouraged a celebration of stereotypical ideals of beauty. These may be far from realistic but are always desirable. The work of younger fashion photographers included in this exhibition reveals how the myth is being challenged, pointing the way to a different future vision.”

The non-stop creative vision of fashion photographers is, to some extent, forged by the speedy pace of production in an industry that is always looking for something new and aspirational, according to Karen Smith, SCoP’s curator.

“For the fashion world, the attention span is very short. (You can be) really hot today, and freezing cold tomorrow,” Smith noted.

“To continually reinvent yourself is really hard,” and a challenge by itself.

Divided into four parts — fantasy, allure, surrealism and realism — the exhibition features some of the most remarkable evolutions of fashion photography over the past four decades.

For example, the rise of supermodels in the 1980s and 1990s, from being just pretty faces or clothes hangers to icons, such as Kate Moss, with their own personalities. Later into the 21st century, propelled by digital media, fashion photography moved out of extravagantly set studios and onto the streets, as stylish snapshots on social media platforms became a major part of daily visual experience for today’s younger generation. There was also the breaking down from the stereotypes of age, gender, skin color and body types.

“(Fashion photography has) moved away from the very traditional ideas of a fashion shot to sell you a piece of clothing to being about lifestyles and personal attitudes,” Smith said. “So that at the end of the day, you can wear something that cost you 50 pounds (US$62.57), or 10,000 yuan (US$1415.27), but it’s you that makes it interesting not the fashion house.

“Of course, fashion brands don’t want you to say that, and I probably shouldn’t say that too loud,” she joked.

Smith’s personal favorites include works by German photographer Peter Lindbergh. A Milagros Schmoll studio-shot portrait in green shades reminds her of Picasso paintings; and another one by Lindbergh featuring Linda Evangelista leaping up into the air leaves her wondering how the shot was taken.

“It’s perfectly focused ... she doesn’t look like she’s putting much effort into the leap,” Smith says as she points to the photo, amazed. “When you drive yourself up there must be some tension in the body, and she’s completely soft. But Peter Lindbergh is known for never using any special effects, and never doing any photoshop.”

There’s also an interesting play with contrast and juxtaposition. Photos featuring Asian ethnic costumes by Chinese photographer Kiki Xue are displayed alongside the ones by American photographer Erik Madigan Heck capturing Asian designer collections.

A 2016 pixelated underwater shot taken by American photographer Olivia Bee presents a similar soft texture to the adjacent Polaroid shots taken by Italian photographer Paolo Roversi in the 1980s for Vogue magazine. It was quite a radical move for the Italian because Polaroid was rarely used for real work rather than for test prints for lighting checks.

“That’s when photography becomes really timeless. You couldn’t say what year it is made,” Smith noted.

Today, fledging talent take the boldness to another level by blurring the boundaries between photography and contemporary art. Dutch artist Viviane Sassen comes up with a series of cheeky paints-on-photos.

Smith encourages people to come and see the photos close-up and not to jump to conclusion too easily.

“Photography is quite good at pointing out these things if you look at it quite closely. If you see it on a screen, especially a mobile screen, you don’t always see the details,” she explained. “That’s why it’s good to come to the museum to see what you don’t get to see (on screen).”

The exhibition runs through late July before it travels to Changsha, Hunan Province.

“Beyond Fashion”

Date: Through July 25, 10:30am-5:30pm (closed on Mondays)

Admission: 40 yuan (30 yuan for students)

Address: 2555-1 Longteng Ave

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