Art or advertisement? You make the choice

New shows of work by artists who also work as fashion photographers raise questions of commerce and culture, says Michael Bracewell
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The Independent Online

Throughout the last decade, the distinctions between fashion photography and photography as contemporary art have become increasingly complex. In the past, Man Ray, Deborah Turbeville, Duane Michaels and a host of other distinguished photographers have all turned their lenses towards couture, but the party line had tended to be that these were interesting side projects by artists with deeper concerns.

Throughout the last decade, the distinctions between fashion photography and photography as contemporary art have become increasingly complex. In the past, Man Ray, Deborah Turbeville, Duane Michaels and a host of other distinguished photographers have all turned their lenses towards couture, but the party line had tended to be that these were interesting side projects by artists with deeper concerns.

In the 1990s, however, the conceptualism in contemporary art - blurring media, punning on forms, and heavily influenced by the experience of growing up in an accelerating consumer society - enabled a whole new aesthetic of photography-based practice, which brought fresh ideas to the fashion shoot. Even away from the cat-walk, the funky end of advertisingpresumed to seek the endorsement of young artists, hoping to mirroring their explorations of authenticity, realism and irony.

An artist-photographer such as Rineke Dijkstra, for example, in her video portraits of clubbers in Liverpool and Amsterdam, probably did more to express the reality of street fashions than almost any magazine shoot. Similarly, the acceptance and impact of Nan Goldin's portraits of transvestites and transsexuals in Boston, New York and Bangkok, more or less defined a new school of volatile yet glamorous urban realism. Describing her shoot for the fashion supplement View, published by Village Voice, Goldin said: "I could do exactly what I wanted. That's why they work as photographs. One's always looking for assignments that allow that freedom."

Under these conditions, fashion photography itself - as an expression of the zeitgeist - could become an artistic medium which is open to all forms of manipulation, commentary and reinvention. Where the problems might emerge is in trying to ascribe the usual notions of status to different images or projects. The work of Corinne Day - who has shot fashion photos for British Vogue and is the subject of an exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery this autumn - has detailed the lives of her acquaintances in a style which echoed the cold, grainy efficiency of a subway surveillance camera, tying in once again with the pursuit of a new school of authenticity.

Similarly, Juergen Teller's pictures for Jigsaw, or his cool, crisp adverts for Marc Jacobs (in this month's Face magazine), show the prevalence of an aesthetic which does away entirely with the distinctions between different strands of photographic practice. Art or advert? You decide.

Inez van Lamsweerde, within this latest configuration of art and commerce, is a photographer who has taken the language of her work in fashion and translated its meanings into confrontational, disquieting studies of the way we regard passion, gender and the human body. Her work, which goes on show at the White Cube gallery this week, can seem disturbing and disturbed, with a keen political edge.

Van Lamsweerde's achievement, in enabling the two strands of her practice to inform one another so directly, can be seen as a summation of the trend which has been developing between fashion photography and contemporary art over in recent years. She manipulates the high gloss surface of fashion photography, using its sheen to laminate psychological allegories. In her pieces such as Thank You Thighmaster and The Forest series she takes squeaky clean images of young men and women and computer-manipulates their features and bodies into a riot of conflicting sex and intent. Male feet are grafted on to nubile female bodies, athletic young men are given the faces of pretty young girls.

Van Lamsweerde's "models" in these works become doll-like automata, to whom she gives what seem to be the wrong emotions, confounding our expectations of what their "feelings" might be. These are disrupted humans, cursed by a prettiness which appears to be consuming them from the inside out. In this much, van Lamsweerde seems to take the classic narrative of fashion photography - the route to happiness through glamour - and then reflect it back on itself, rather as though the surrealist montages of Hannah Hoch had been story-boarded by David Lynch. "One could say that the fetish of the face is what relates these works to fashion photography," she says. "The first motivation of these pieces is this idea of giving meaning to the surface. To 'read' someone's face in the ultimate way. I use the computer to alter the human body and face in order to visualise an inner conflict. Terror and beauty play a big part in opening up the doors to a deeper layer. The use of the computer changes both the time factor of the work and the medium: the decisive moment has been perverted, and this 'timelessness' is essential to the work."

Dutch-born van Lamsweerde's success as a fashion photographer - she has shot campaigns for Vivienne Westwood, Balenciaga and Yohji Yamamoto, among others - has been matched by her work as a contemporary artist, showing work internationally to critical acclaim. "The slow, solitary process of very few art works balances out the fast-paced, work of doing two 10-page stories a month in the fashion world," she says.

In his sumptuous study of fashion photography, Appearances, published in 1991, the historian Martin Harrison quotes artist Cindy Sherman on the photographs she took in 1984 for the Paris fashion house Dorothy Bis: "A lot of it is a reaction to growing up bombarded by stereotypes of what a woman is supposed to look and act like", she said, "beauty and civilised ways of behaviour. I preferred anything that was different from that - going against what the fashion magazines said." And about a subsequent series of photographs, commissioned by Diane Benson for Interview, Sherman added, "I think it's great that commercial businesses are employing artists ... but advertisers only choose what is suitable for them."

Ultimately, van Lamsweerde's art ignores the distinctions between fashion photography and photography as a strand of fine art. "My work is still considered shallow by several art critics because of the fact that I work as a fashion photographer as well." she says, "It's taking a long time for people not to look at the work without preconceptions. For me, there have always been works that could cross over to either field, and, by confronting the two, have intensified their similarities and their differences to give a new perspective."

Inez van Lamsweerde - 'Romance': White Cube, SW1 (020 7930 5373), Wednesday to 14 October; Corrine Day - 'Diary': Photographers' Gallery, WC2 (020 7831 1772), 5 Oct to 26 Nov

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