Catherine Atherton: The fine art of fashion photography

From a talk given at the Museum of Modern Art by the senior lecturer in art, publishing and music at Oxford Brookes University
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The Independent Online

Fashion photography is carried out in order to sell clothes; it is a part of the wider advertising industry and exploits desires and aspirations through reference to lifestyles. As such, it is an unapologetic appropriator of styles and techniques. This poses questions about the meaning of street photography ­ if it includes fashion photography ­ and about its place, too, in the canon of art photography.

While you might at first see fashion photography as different because it is commercial, perhaps it is rather a good example of the need to contrive in all photography. Looking at fashion photographs we wonder to what extent other, apparently spontaneous, photographs were contrived. The idea that fashion photography represents a debasement of the medium must be challenged at a time when the visual language of advertising has permeated "high" art. In any case, the "captured moment" in its diversity and manipulation, is the basis for all photography.

Perhaps categories of photography exist not only because of context or subject but because of the need for definitions within a medium that has been widely employed by amateurs, technicians and professionals in many fields. Bourdieu sees that problems of definition in photography place it outside the cultural hierarchy. The "uneducated" consumer ­ his phrase ­ feels able to view and judge photographs without having to acquire the kind of specialist knowledge necessary for mainstream art. His view that photography falls outside the "consecrated arts" does not prevent those inside attempting to appropriate and/or marginalise it. Fashion photography falls between art and commerce.

Donovan, Klein and Tillmans have worked in the fashion business. Donovan, although his work was not confined to fashion, worked in the commercial world. Klein and Tillmans have moved between the commercial and art worlds.

Klein's preoccupation in the 1950s with intervention ­ in relation to his subjects and during processing ­ can be seen in his fashion and street photos. He got into the action and later, during processing, bleached and cropped his images for a highly contrasted, grainy effect. That he was influenced by documentary photo and cinéma vérité is clear, but, in the fashion shots, vérité has given way to cinema. He actually acknowledged being influenced by Cecil Beaton.

Even the greatest and most original of photographers must respond to the commercial imperative. Klein's extremely and obviously contrived fashion photos have a formality that is not seen in Tillmans' images.

Tillmans, like Klein, has done a lot of fashion work and, according to Russell Ferguson, "all of his various types of photos can be shown together producing an over-archingly structural view of urban life. He has been working through the past decade at the same time as certain fashion photographers have aimed at a particular realism that reflects aspects of urban life." Corinne Day's photographs of Kate Moss caused a sensation in the 1990s ­ they were too realistic, even though carefully staged and no more "real" than Mike Leigh's films.

The acceptance of photography as part of the art world took place in the 1960s and, since then, it has come to displace painting. As a result, artists such as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall can now bring narrative into fine art photography. Their styles are very different: Jeff Wall building a kind of realism and Cindy Sherman working within a fantasy world. We can see both approaches mirrored in contemporary fashion photography.

So I seem to be coming down on the side of fashion not being separate from mainstream photography; how can it be otherwise when Tillmans won the Turner Prize last year? Fashion may be regarded as a category of photography, but it has had a symbiotic relationship with art photography, both through its practitioners and as a reflection of movements and styles.

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