Once we’d missed our Union Square movie, my friend and I decided to make the most of our trip by browsing epic art books at the Strand. I own exactly three table books — one on writers’ houses, one on chick surfers, and one on Dita von Teese (signed, bitches) — none of which, of course, reside on actual tables.
But I digress. We wandered from Natural Curios to High-Falutin Art Bibles to the inevitable Painfully Glossy, Books O’ Fashion Photography. There was the book on Balenciaga (all high contrast black-and-white), the book on the disco era (filled with garish color and some shocking nudity) and finally, what everyone really wants to look at: the book on models. While I stared, transfixed, my friend peered over my shoulder and said, rather matter-of-factly: “I don’t get fashion photography.”
I mean, what is there to get? It’s basically just a universe of pretty things, photographed prettily — and who wouldn’t want to live in that universe? The real question is one that has plagued fashion photography ever since it was first exhibited in a gallery: Is it art or just consumerism?
The current exhibition at the Visual Arts Museum (at SVA) presents six artists who, as the exhibit claims, blur the line between “‘artistic’ and ‘commercial’ photography.” Their range and scope definitely present a challenge to people who think they know what to expect from typical fashion prints: While Chiun-Kai Shih’s images exert an almost “oh, come now” advertorial allure (dig the Abercrombie-type guy in a field of flamingos — ohhh, I get it!), Guy Aroch offers images so wispy and remote (one contains only a mouth) that one wonders what fashion he could have even intended to capture?
While I’m still not sure fashion photography can be lumped into the same category as, say, Steichen’s ‘The Pond-Moonlight,’ I do think the field actually says more about fashion than all of Fashion Week put together. Looking at these pictures could inspire you to think of fashion as more fantasy-concept than a way of dressing — like, er, how you can’t draw a perfect circle. These images are designed to evoke a kind of envy — a desire to reside in the provocative and tempting universe they present. Maybe conjuring that surge — the urge to possess, to consume — is an art unto itself.
“Click Chic: the Fine Art of Fashion Photography”: Through Oct. 6 at the Visual Arts Museum at SVA.