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A New Pictorial Strikes A Pose On Fashion Photography

By James DiGiovanna

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  Fashion: Photography of the Nineties, by Camilla Nickerson and Neville Wakefield (Scalo). Cloth, $60.

FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY IN the nineties can be roughly divided into the "glamour" and "grunge" schools, with the former drawing much of its inspiration from Helmut Newton and the commercial photographers of the fifties, and the latter dipping into the world of "art" photography for its references.

In Fashion: Photography of the Nineties, edited by Camilla Nickerson (senior fashion editor at Vogue) and Neville Wakefield, the connection between the worlds of art and fashion is explored in a totally pictorial manner, dispensing completely with introductory essays or explanations of the choices of photographs and photographers presented. This approach is tremendously effective. The juxtaposition of full-page images from such fashion industry mainstays as Ellen Von Unwerth, Mario Sorrenti, and Inez van Lomsteerde & Vinoodh Matadin with photographers known more for their interest in shocking, art-gallery images, such as Nan Goldin and Richard Prince, illustrates well the almost suffocating influence that the photographers of the street have had on fashion imagery. Emphasizing the "grunge" or "heroin chic" look which has been fashionable, and fashionable to criticize, this collection of photographs is rife with the kind of real-world degradation that Goldin has been capturing for years in the images of her friends, and that Larry Clark recorded in his youth.

Indeed, Clark seems to have had the greatest effect on nineties fashion photography, and his images of doped-up teens committing extremely offensive crimes are conspicuous in their absence--especially when Sorrenti's Calvin Klein ads (the ones which landed Klein in so much hot water for being a "child pornographer") look like nothing more than slightly cleaned-up Clark prints. Even the emphasis on seventies decor (note the wood paneling and shag carpeting) hearken back to Clark's youthful images.

Goldin, of course, is equally responsible for the vogue of posing models in trash-filled, squalid apartments on rotting furniture or stained carpeting, and her images are well-represented here. One of her photographs, of female model James King, shows silently how strong is her hold on the current generation of commercial photographers: King was the girlfriend and favorite subject of David Sorrenti, the heroin-chic photographer whose death earlier this year sparked a public outcry over the use of blank-eyed, splotchy models in seedy settings.

In spite of the current backlash against the grungy look, another thing this volume demonstrates--by including Helmut Newton-inspired, highly posed and polished images--is that the "glamour" look may be even more dangerous. (Newton himself is not represented here, but such disciples as Von Unwerth and Lamsweerde & Hatadin are.) The glamour models, made-up so as to lack pores, and always posed to make their bodies appear perfect and imposing, present impossible images of beauty. The grunge shots, by contrast, are willing to let a pimple or patchy section of skin show, to pose the models in way that allows fat to roll, or which seems awkward. With their clothes bunched up and imperfectly mended, they seem far more human, and no less attractive, than their mannequin-like counterparts in the glamour shots.

Many important figures and trends are necessarily excluded from this book. Rather than try to be complete, it focuses more on what's new in the nineties. Thus, Herb Ritts is absent, perhaps with good cause. His work, while important and influential, was already well established by the time the young photographers represented here began to work. On the other hand, David LaChapelle's absence is odd, as his flavor is on the rise and as innovative as anything represented in this volume. Nonetheless, his style is still so singular that his influence cannot yet be judged, and no school claims him as member or progenitor.

In spite of its incompleteness, this is one of the best documents of the contemporary (or perhaps recently passé) trends in commercial photograph; and the reproductions are incredible, benefiting from the advances in color printing which have made fine works like this more accessible in recent years.

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