Behind the Lens

A set of pieces looking at the conceptual ideas behind fashion photography by W. J. Humphries

Naked Power

By W.J. Humphries

It has been well established since the pioneering work of Edward Louis Bernays, nephew of Austrian psychologist Lucian Freud, that sex sells. Indeed, Bernays’s combination of Le Bon and Trotter’s “crowd theory” with his uncle’s own work on unconscious sexuality gave birth to modern advertising, as we know it. Instead of focusing on the practical utility of an item, customers were encouraged to view an object in relation to how it may or may not impact their chances of finding a partner – tapping into our most bestial needs. No industry has embraced this message with as much fervour as fashion, with each house vying to demonstrate how their clothing can best project sexual accomplishment, availability or suitability on the part of their wearer. However, as fashion attempts to propel its message further, through the media of photography and film, how are perceptions of its models and its clients established? By examining several photographs, we are able to see a mixed message in which both power and submission is encoded into the images themselves.

This first image, taken by Helmut Newton in 1981, is an attempted diptych replication. Indeed, apart from the change of planted foot in the second model from the left, the postures have been reproduced accurately in the latter image, clothing the naked models. There are several things that make this image significant in regards to its attitudes towards women – external and internal to the image itself. The first point to note is Newton’s reputation as a photographer: an unflinching attitude towards female nudity in his work has seen labels of misogyny directed at him. The question of whether this external reference is significant in how we approach the image is an interesting one that in turn raises questions of intention and execution. However, it is with an inkling towards such a reputat¬¬ion that we should then examine the photograph – although it would be a mistake to allow it to entirely influence our perception of the work. 

 Helmut Newton – Diptych 1981

The first thing we recognise when looking at this diptych is the order of the images. Placed together as they are here, the models are not being stripped but clothed by the Newton; it is an essential feminine essence that is being captured by the photographer, encased in cloth rather than voyeuristically exposed. The stances too are not those of victims but of dominant individuals: hands on hips, arms crossed, striding purposefully towards the camera rather than shying from it. The entire project is, in fact, a denial of pornographic stereotypes – the photograph is stripped of its eroticism, the uncompromising reveal serving to remove the titillation associated with erotic photography. However, whilst the photograph certainly projects an image of female power, we would be wise not to forget that the direction is still male; Newton is the puppet-master controlling the action onstage. Ultimately, it is still a male perspective that is capturing this image.

Daniele & Iango – Malgosia Bela 2011

This second photograph, taken of Malgosia Bela for Daniele & Iango, is far more eroticised than the previous. The lighting of the image places emphasis on her breasts and inner thighs through the shadowing caused by the upper-right hand light source. What should be noted in this image is the contradictions in posture: on the one hand, we have the dropped shoulders and protruding chest that suggests a masculine control; whilst, on the other hand, we see the tilted head with neck clearly on display, a physiological signal indicating feminine submission. I should note here, that the terms masculine and feminine are used as an identifiable convention and need not be affixed to the genders of male and female – as such, my suggestion of ‘masculine control’ does not strip this figure of her female gender. A complaint against the use of such terms must be directed against the culture from which the terms are drawn and not the author who exists within it. 

However, what is more important with this image is the placement of the products that are being advertised: the bracelets and bag are not accidentally located across the model’s pubic region. What we must unpick is whether the photographer has placed the accessories there in an attempt to force the direction of the viewer to that area, or if, instead, they have been placed there knowing that the viewer is likely to gaze there, thus giving the product the greatest exposure. Regardless of causation, the bag is implicitly associated with the woman’s sexuality, eroticising the product. And yet, this should not be seen as a submissive gesture to male objectification; Malgosia Bela is the one controlling our vision. Certainly the titillation of having her full nudity denied is greater than the previous image; however, it is empowering because of that fact not in spite of it.

Valentine Fillol-Cordier 2012

The final image is of model Valentine Fillol-Cordier and serves as the most ambiguous image as regards to the status of the model in relation to the viewer. Her posture is softer, more feminine than the previous images, with the slightly parted lips of her mouth drawing the viewer in with erotic seduction. It is the most overtly sexual of the three photographs; and yet, of the trio, there is the least nudity in this one. This is, perhaps, confirmation that it is through the withholding rather than revealing of the body that we are most enticed. As with Bela, Fillol-Cordier is in utter control here, her obscured left hand controlling the curtain’s cover. Of all three images, it is the eyes in this one that are the most striking. The obscuring fall of her hair becomes a mirror to the curtain, offering as fleeting a vision of her right eye as the curtain does of her pubis. The luxuriant juxtaposition of the curtain’s velvet texture on her smooth skin does elevate this image towards the erotic; however, its function is not to arouse so much as to seduce. Fillol-Cordier is there to advertise a lifestyle not merely a product; in this case it is one of sensuality. 

Our Bestial Nature

by W. J. Humphries

'Dovima with the Elephants' - Richard Avedon

'Karen Elson with bird' - Glen Luchford

'Model with butterflies' - Ryan McGinley

‘Look up, laugh loud, talk big, keep the colour in your cheek and the fire in your eye, adorn your person, maintain your health, your beauty and your animal spirit’. These words of nineteenth-century critic and philosopher William Hazlitt encapsulate the multifarious inflections of our bestial nature. The beauty and the violence of animal life continue to intrigue us, even as we begin to unlock its mysteries. The photographs that I wish to examine here each, in their own way, seek to incorporate animals either as a reflection of their human subject, or as a counterpoint. However, what begins to emerge from this is an evaluation of the extent to which man himself is an animal or whether we have begun, through culture and art, to shake off the shackles of bestiality.

The first photograph needs little introduction. Indeed, Richard Avedon’s ‘Dovima with the Elephants’ has become an iconic image and one that is emblematic of his 1950s experimentation with fashion photography. What is particularly remarkable about this image is its combination of careful execution with fortuitous serendipity. Dovima, born Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, holds a spinal curve that recalls Hogarth’s famous ‘Line of Beauty’. Head to shoulders, shoulders to waist, waist to ankles: these points form a delicate twist and highlight the model’s vulnerability; should she feel but the slightest touch, she would fall. Juxtapose this with the strength of her companions and an unnerving element is introduced into the photograph; however, the elephants themselves fall into the structure of the game through the raising of the leg: whilst formidable creatures, they too become vulnerable, even comedic, through that gesture. 

The next thing we notice is the anthropomorphic flick of the trunk, forming a remarkable likeness to the model’s raised arm. The physical differences between the subjects are increasingly highlighted by the stark similarity of their poses. Dovima’s central position in the photograph renders her the focal point of the image; and yet, we cannot help but explore the periphery, especially noting the third, exiting elephant. The luminosity of her dress and skin provides the dividing line, which is itself intersected by the black gloves and band, which actually cross her body perpendicularly. The three bands of colour are thus established: a white foreground, a dark middle, and a grey background. Ordered in such a way, the image seemingly flattens out, and Dovima appears to be within the group of elephants, when in fact their feet are all planted behind hers. 

The second photograph, taken by Glen Luchford, depicts musician and model Karen Elson. The contact between model and bird is incidental, with the main focus being Elson’s deep eyes. However, the inclusion of the bird adds a brooding element to the photograph and a strange sense of the potential for movement to an otherwise static image. The blackness of the bird is contrasted with the whiteness of Elson’s body and arms; what is unsettling, however, is the fact that her head has no such corresponding image. Indeed, the bottom left quadrant of the image remains empty. It is for this reason that Elson’s face seems so out of place, creating a sense of vulnerability, with her ruffled hair mimicking the delicacy of her companion’s own splayed feathers. Indeed, as we gaze at the image, one begins to question whether it is Elson who is supporting the bird, or the bird who is supporting Elson, such is the languid positioning of her wrist. 

The final image in this series was taken by New York-based photographer Ryan McGinley. The muscular, tattooed body of the model is both contrasted with and complementary to the delicate but colourful butterflies that have settled on him. The model’s own idiosyncratic inking suggests something about the unique patterning of his companions, and whilst he gazes down inquisitively at the butterfly on his hand, one cannot help but feel that the butterfly is gazing back. Two things make this photograph into a beautiful image. The first is the hunched shoulders of the model, which add a certain tension to the body that entirely dissipates in the face; it creates a strange balance between contortion and relaxation. The second element is the soft, green background colour: this removes the image from any specific location, making it otherworldly, almost magical. 

POSTED:25 September 2012

Through the Looking Glass

‘How these shadows last and how their originals fade away.’

These haunting words of Oliver Wendell Holmes describe the process of remembering enacted by the camera, capturing the world as a momentary truth, the simulacra lasting where the reality fades. Since Ancient Greece, art has often been compared to a reflection within the glass; the Platonic shades of our perception, in the words of Plato, merely ‘that of turning a mirror round and round’. However, it is Holmes himself who captures the very essence of this new artistic medium: ‘The camera is a mirror with a memory’. With the memory of these words, we approach contemporary photography, noticing an insistence on the inclusion of mirrors, allowing us to look through, to look within.

In memory of the late Mr. and Mrs Comfort
Richard Avedon (1995 New Yorker)
The first photograph in this group is taken from a series by Richard Avedon, completed at the end of his career in fashion. Entitled In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort, the photographs are an assault on a perceived complacency in fashion. A world of decay is inhabited by a female model and her skeletal companion. The boundary between life and death is transgressed as both skeleton and model engage in increasingly sexual acts, the French petit mort never finding a more appropriate pictorial representation. However, it is this photograph, out of the dozens in the series, that captures the entire essence of Avedon’s porject. Gazing into the mirror, the model, and by extension the viewer, is confronted by a dual existence; she is caught in a moment of flux, a composite of two realities. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes a photograph of Lewis Payne, executed in the United States over the Lincoln assassination conspiracy, by suggesting that ‘he is dead and he is going to die’. The photograph itself is of a man, now dead, captured in a moment before death; his transition is yet complete. Avedon highlights this dilemma in his own photograph, extending life out to the point of death, allowing both to coexist within and behind the mirror.

Helmut Newton with Jane Newton 1975
The second photograph, taken by Helmut Newton in 1975, is a truly fascinating image. The full extent of the mirror only becomes apparent upon close inspection, but within it is caught not only the model but also the photographer and the seductive legs of an anonymous female. Indeed, upon first viewing, we assume the white space to be the extent of the mirror’s framing but this is not the case; the floorboards fuse into the flat surface of the mirror, extending back as if to grant unrealized space. However, what elevates this photograph beyond anything similar is the inclusion of Jane Newton to the right of the mirror. When looking carefully, we can see that her chair is not in front of the mirror, but slightly behind it. It is owing to the limited width of the mirror that she is visible and not completely obscured by the glass; her own spectacles acting as an, albeit contingent, reminder of this fact. As we, the viewer, take on the role of the photographer – both observing and observed in the mirror – Jane acts as a further extension of this observation.

Louis Dahl-Wolfe
The final photograph, taken by Louis Dahl-Wolfe, combines two antagonistic concepts within the beautiful simplicity of the image itself. On the one hand, we voyeuristically observe this moment of pure abandon, in which the model appears unconcerned by the world around – a rejection of self-awareness and the pressures of the panopticon of constant observation. However, as the back is turned upon viewer, and so too the world, this abandon is tempered by the self-conscious actions of the model as she reaches into the glass, pressing up her hand against her reflected counterpart. The light is entirely emanating from off-frame, to the right of the model and mirror; the effect of this is a strange luminosity, as if the mirror was not only reflecting light but also generating it. She is absorbed by her own image; we are invited merely to catch the reflected rays that fall from the glass.

W. J. Humphries

There is a Light

From Left: Kate Moss- 1994, Twiggy- 1966, Natalie Portman- 2005
There is something deeply haunting in the confrontational assault on the viewer enacted in each of the three photographs that I have chosen for this essay. It will be obvious to those who look in turn at each image that there is only one place to which our gaze is drawn: the depthless well of the eye. With these portraits, the photographer breaks the barrier separating model and viewer, with the eyes acting as a conduit for that transgression. What I wish to explore is our emotional response to each of these pictures and breakdown the various elements that contribute towards such arresting images. It is clear that there is overlap between each of these pictures, most prominently between the Twiggy and Moss photographs; however, each one has a subtly different emotion wrapped within.

Taking as our starting point the Natalie Portman, which was featured in the 2005 Vogue Germany, we are confronted initially by the partiality of the face presented. The shoulder in the foreground has been pulled across the frame of the photograph as she twists away from the reader. It is because her jaw is now at a forty-five degree angle to the flat of her shoulder that we see the muscles in her neck tensing; this in turn generates a remarkable sense of vulnerability. The jaw line, as it falls from the ear to the chin, is in perfect mirror to the curvature of her shoulder, as it arcs from her upper back into the arm. This leaves that neck even more exposed in the center of the image. The image may thus be divided into three, slightly unequal, thirds, with the neck in the middle providing the only relief from the grey background. At the same time, the image divides in half; the top half dominated by the chiaroscuro of the black hat, in stark contrast to the white of the bottom half. The effect of this is tripartite and bipartite division of the image, which occurs simultaneously, is unsettling. This is precisely the mood of the picture; one which is only heightened by the single piercing eye situated exactly half way across the photo. Indeed, we might so far as to suggest that the eye rests at the point of crucifixion, the point at which the cross-beam of Western Christianity meets the vertical post. And yet, the image is so subtly crafted that we hardly notice the inner workings. This is Caravaggio in the twenty-first century – beauty wrought from light and dark. 

The second, taken by Barry Lategan in 1966, image is defined by its symmetry. Indeed, it is only on account of the side parting of the hair that this picture does not descend into the ridiculous. As with the Portman image, it is the eyes which draw us in; Twiggy’s are both huge – emphasised by the eye-makeup – and melancholic. This latter effect is certainly achieved in large part by the mascara which visually pulls the corner of the eyes downwards. If we look closely, we can see the eyes sink just as the corners of the mouth sink likewise. In combining the eyes and lips in this way, there is a sense of hollowness; we gaze deep into the eyes and find no warmth contained within. Looking again at the Portman photograph we can clearly see the difference; the corner of the eye is raised and the lips stay flat. Strangely, it is the choice of jumper that makes this image; the Christmas stars form a negative to the eyes to the model. Each one is splayed out like an eyes, framing the simple elegance of the face with a startling complexity. 

The final image is of Kate Moss, taken by Peter Lingberg in 1994 and in no small way a homage to Richard Avedon’s In The American West series (1985). Here the image is far less elegant than the previous two; there is a roughness in tone set, perhaps, by the wooden backdrop, the denim dungarees, and the androgynous, slicked back hair. This image, like the Portman, seems vulnerable, the lowered strap on her left shoulder exposing that side of the neck. And yet, her vulnerability is coupled with a hidden strength. The jaw is more wide set, the forehead, more imposing; this is not a weak woman, albeit a vulnerable one. The eyes connect with us as a determined plea, not for pity but, perhaps, for respect. Where the previous two photographs display a refined poise, this image feels raw in its intensity.

W. J. Humphries

The Magic of Elsewhere

The fundamental element underpinning both the photography of fashion and the essence of Haute Couture design is the magic of elsewhere. What we observe time and again is the otherworldly nature of these designs, with the models themselves acting as a conduit through which we are transported to an idealized vision of our own society. Controversy will reign about the extreme physical nature of today’s models; however, it is simply impossible to imagine a change occurring. This is not some failing on the part of the industry to protect its workers; instead, it is inherent within the magical reimagining of the world undertaken by fashion itself.
Lara Stone
Perfection is not everything; we need only look at Georgia Jagger or Lara Stone to see that it is idiosyncrasy that defines this industry. However, both women, beautiful as they are, will begin to lose their caché as the feature that defines them becomes increasingly normalised; this is the crux of fashion’s dynamic progression and the reason why ‘last season’ will never be good enough. In the words of Mao Zedong, there is enacted a ‘constant revolution’, in a way that the capitalist market thrives upon. The clothes, and the models who wear them, must forever depart from the normal, forever depart from the security of the present.

This ethos is captured on film just as forcefully as it struts along the catwalk; everywhere we see a desire to express that which does not occur in our daily life: the clothes are impractical; the scenarios, fantastical; the models, an impossible extension beyond the realms of our imagination. The photography we see in the pages of Vogue orHarper’s Bazaar is not simply the commercial wrangling of the major fashion houses as they jostle for primacy, it is a form of escapism in which we can briefly imagine a world beyond our own.

Vogue Italia, January 2008 
 Hermès, Spring 2009
The beauty of these images is that they need never come into contact with reality; they remain the preserve of our fantasy and need not translate into the practical utility of daily wear. There is no doubt that a certain filtration occurs, in which elements of Haute Couture will find themselves reproduced synthetically at a High Street level; however, this is not to be sneered at. Indeed, this entire process completes the cycle of normalisation required to compel the industry into action. As one image finds its way to our wardrobe, there is the necessity to enact a departure, to defamiliarise once more; it does not matter to where we choose to depart, as long as it is elsewhere.
W. J. Humphries

Helmut Newton

All Helmut Newton, from left: Vogue Paris 1980, Vogue US 1996,  Vogue US

Helmut Newton is widely regarded as one of the most sexually provocative fashion photographers of the 20th century, imbuing his work with an eroticism that has seen the charges of misogyny and fetishism leveled at him. Whilst there is no doubt that Newton’s relationship with the female form is problematic, often reduced to erotic fixation, there is an elegant poise to the three photographs displayed; an equilibrium, in which the dualism turns at once from harmony to conflict. These three images all come from his long relationship withVogue magazine and display the full breadth not only of his vision of social interaction but also his own tortured association with women.

Newton’s choice of poses across these three photographs marks a significant sense of power. Throughout his photographic career, we see his female models repeatedly imbued with such authority. The charges of misogyny are, indeed, superficial readings of his images; what we see time and again is a sense of self-determination and idiosyncrasy in his subjects. The ‘dancers’ photograph rests on the cusp of this transformation; the women are both vulnerable in the wasteland of their surroundings but also empowered by their dream-like rejection of reality. They dance for themselves and for each other; we are neither seen nor heard above the music of the record. The gender roles, as with the ‘cigarettes’ photograph, are confusingly divided and reunited. The woman on the left appears to be the submissive of the two, as her partner leans into her; and yet, we notice that each of them have taken the waist-hold (a distinctly male trope) with powerful arms thrust out. The women undo their feminine identity in an adoption of masculine body-language; and yet, at the same time their silken clothes fold sensually, highlighting their femininity.

It is for this reason also that the ‘cigarettes’ image is unsettling. The figures buckle, both in union and in conflict; the touching cigarettes find consummation where the outstretched hand repels. Once again, we have the male figure leaning in, displaying a superficial dominance; however, we quickly realise that it is the female figure who dictates their proximity. The bared leg and neck of the femme-fatal luring in the androgynous companion in feigned submission. Compositionally, Newton mirrors the empty space between the male’s legs with a corresponding shape below the female; however, where on the male it is the absence of being, for the female, the light-shaft is her very being, the long, seductive leg.

The antagonistic concepts of conflict and union are most clearly explored in the ‘fencers’ photograph. The two women hold one another together, the latter’s right leg literally penetrating between the legs of the former as she makes her advance. The muscled back is back is strong, the pose is inelegant and once again, we get the sense that these are dominant not submissive characters. As with the ‘dancers’, the setting for this image is ethereal: their conflict unending. The gauze dresses float seductively below them revealing and concealing the flesh beneath.
In each of these photographs we see an alienated self, the figures mirroring some aspect of themselves in a divided duality which constantly collides and then breaks off. Whilst some would see these images as overly-eroticized (although by Newton’s standards they are Victorian) the images are not for the idle amusement of the observing male but, instead, demonstrate the powerful independence of the female.

W. J. Humphries

With special thanks to Heather West.

A Sense of Movement

From left: Coat, Carmen- Paris 1957,  Dress, Dior- Paris 1956,  Skirt and Jacket, Dior- Paris 1947
What is fundamentally remarkable about Richard Avedon’s Paris photographs is their dynamic sense of vitality. The photos I have chosen to examine encompass a ten-year period in which we observe the maturation of a photographer whose early experiments in movement culminate in 1957 with one of the most elegant photographs of twentieth century fashion. These photographs define Paris for us: a simple elegance, composed of contrasting black-on-white, and a wonderfully keen awareness of the spatial dimensions of the body.

Beginning first with the 1947 Dior shoot, we cannot help but join the three men, lingering out of focus, in a voyeuristic observation of the female subject; as she turns away from the viewer, Avedon invites us into the spectacle. Looking analytically, it is a wonderfully crafted image: the stiff back, neck and arms of the woman contrasts with the fluid movement of the skirt. The folding of the fabric, caused by the sudden twirl, reflects the undulating waves of an ocean and breaks up the clear linear pattern formed by the paving slabs beneath her. The black clothing, fanning out below the woman’s torso, sits perfectly within the center of the shot in an almost renaissance adherence to artistic composition; the three men acting as the perfect break to the otherwise symmetrical pose. Ultimately, it is only the firmly planted foot that we see, as she pivots around, which prevents the model from taking off.

The 1956 photograph, again for Dior, demonstrates the progression of nine years in the artist’s ability. Avedon’s composition is, once more, remarkable, especially considering the complex movement of the two subjects. The planted legs form a neat parallel with one another, whilst the lifted legs create a ninety-degree angle. The man’s outstretched arm and the woman’s scarf form a similar visual pattern mimicking the line of Louis XV buildings, which stretch the northern length of the Place de la Concorde. As with the first photograph, the faces are turned away from the camera; the subjects do not break the barrier of the lens but, instead, are caught in this moment of pure joy.

The final photograph, the 1957 shot, is the apex of such dynamic posing. It is beautifully elegant: the erect back, the hand in pocket, the long thin legs stretching out into the road. And yet, despite the beauty of the shot, Avedon never fails to remember that this is a commercial venture. The coat is the focus of the viewer’s gaze; we are drawn into the folding cloth. The three points – each shoe and the umbrella – direct the eyes inwards towards the product itself.

The success of these photographs almost certainly comes from their sense of movement – the camera capturing a singular moment in the progression of the individual. By injecting such vitality into the images, we get a sense of narrative playing out behind the scene; peering through the camera’s lens, Avedon allows us to observe this distinctly Parisian narrative unfold in all its splendor.

W. J. Humphries

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Robin said...

Very nice piece Will x

Tessa McGuire said...

Great article!

Seb Brixey-Williams said...

Nice points, well made. Good stuff.

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