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A Darwinian Theory of Fashion Photography

I’ve been reading an interesting conversation on the decline of fashion photography going on over at StudioMarcotte — yes, Bob, I do read your blog — and I started to leave a comment when I realized that a) my comment was going to be too long, b) my comment would make an interesting article by itself, and c) if I spend my wad writing such a long comment on Bob’s blog, I won’t have time to write my own blog article.

Why not kill a small flock of birds with one stone?  Isn’t that partly what trackbacks are for?

The Crux of the Problem is Not Bad Photography

I’ll ignore the bait I so wanted to jump on when JimmyD pointed out Justice Stewart’s cop-out comment that he knows porn when he sees it. I’ll also point out that I (mostly) agree with JimmyD’s comments. (If you like good photography and aren’t offended by nudity, JimmyD’s own interesting photography blog is worth checking out.)

However, I don’t think that I agree JimmyD got to the crux of the argument in the Slate article. So my agreement with some of JimmyD’s comments does not mean I agree they explain the problem Lehrman was addressing.

Lehrman’s complaint is more darwinian.

After pointing out that critics think the problem is that old-time fashion photographers believed they were just doing a job and current fashion photographers cover their inadequacies by calling themselves artists, Lehrman actually disagrees that that is the problem. It’s not, Lehrman says, that too many photographers see themselves as artists and not photographers who “were just working for a living.” Sure the fashion photographers of years past were just photographers working for a living, she says. But they were also artists.

So that’s not the problem.  And Lehrman has two other complaints, but they are not the problem, either. One complaint is that some modern photographers forget the art part; some forget the commerce part. Still another complaint is (and I think this is what JimmyD was commenting on) that too many modern “photographers” aren’t really photographers. As Lehrman notes on slides 24 and 25, the fashion photographers of the past were steeped in art.  They really knew what art was — and not the way Stewart knew porn; they could actually explain why something was (or was not) art.  Today’s fashion photographers don’t have that.  At best, they have some good instincts; at worst, they have the flawed photographic skills which, as JimmyD notes, causes them to produce bad photographs and dub them “art.”

Nor is the Crux of the Problem the Photographers

However, this is not the cause of the decline of fashion photography.  Blaming the decline of fashion photography on poor photographers is like blaming real prostitutes for the existence of prostitution.  Without the johns — without the market — the prostitutes do not thrive.  Prostitutes are, in the end, just people taking the easy way out; people looking to make a living without exercising any other real marketable skills.  They can do this by artlessly offering up their bodies for sex, or artlessly shooting piss-poor photographs for art directors and fashion magazine editors.

The Problem is the Art Directors and Fashion Magazine Editors

Lehrman would agree.  If you read through all the slides, she consistently puts the blame where it belongs: in the lap of the johns: the art directors and fashion magazine editors.

There still are photographers steeped in art and striving for visual sophistication and beauty.  Even more, there are photographers without the art background striving for visual sophistication and beauty.  I know some of them.  But as Lehrman points out,

Fashion photography isn’t obligated to take readers into an elegant fantasyland, though that certainly was nice. But it should be different from photojournalism, and especially photojournalism concentrating on society’s dark side. (Slide 17.)

Yet, as the majority of Lehrman’s slide comments point out, it’s the fashion magazine art directors and editors we have to blame for the fact that fashion photography has replaced beauty with photojournalism concentrating on society’s dark side, or shock photography, or “fashion” photography that has lost touch with both the art and commerce of fashion photography’s past.

JimmyD finally makes that same point in the last comment left on the subject at StudioMarcotte when I wrote this article.

[It] seems to me that many art critics are exactly the people who have attempted to elevate crap to art. Unfortunately, they’ve been successful at doing this a few too many times.

There are good photographers attempting to do fashion photography the way it used to be done.  They’re trying to do what JimmyD, Bob, and the others commenting at StudioMarcotte might consider “art” versus “crap.”

The problem with today’s fashion photography isn’t with the photographers.  The problem is more darwinian: it’s with the selectors. And until we start selecting for beauty, artistic sophistication and commerce, that’s the way it’s going to be.

In short, the problem with fashion photography is that fashion is out of style.

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2 thoughts on “A Darwinian Theory of Fashion Photography

  • Saying contemporary f. photography is crap and the old f. photography is art is like saying mozart is great and beatles in 1960. or Beatles is great and Oasis sucks.. wow, what a remarkable insight!!!! apart from comparing apples with oranges, f. photography just like any other form of art/communication is a reflection of the society it is adressing and love it or hate it but this is the way modern world functions… more than ever fashion photography have evolved into different genres and styles these days and again compared to 50 years ago there are +1000 good photographers working… what is art afterall? old people should stop whining about how things were better previously and start giving some effort to finding analogies between their youth and the youth now.. then i think they might realize that what avedon did then and what teller is doing now, in theory, is not so different at all..

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