Most men in suits don’t look like sex symbols. Gary Cooper did, at least in Edward Steichen’s come-hither 1930 photograph of the actor for Vogue.
In those days, a fashion magazine was the go-to place for seduction by portraiture, publishing the most provocative photographers, writers and designers of the moment.
Today, a style magazine is literally a museum piece at New York’s International Center of Photography. Proclaiming 2009 as its Year of Fashion, the center is presenting four separate but unequal exhibitions that propose fashion photography as a crucible for new ideas in art.
To accomplish this, the center, which prides itself on classic photojournalism, has taken a radical step. Its lead show, Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now, pretty much dispenses with photographic prints. Those it does show are nearly lost within a blizzard of magazine layouts, and not even original ones at that. All are reproductions, most published within the past two years.
Fashion trades on fantasy and Weird Beauty includes some startling images. Several center on the mouth, exemplified by Miles Aldridge’s bright color close-up of a woman’s blinding white teeth clenching a yellow gemstone between her fiery red lips.
This picture is surrounded by Aldridge images from recent magazines, some featuring languid young men sleeping under bushes. Their clothing is secondary to their presentation as objects of desire themselves.
That is what is most striking about the images in this show: Clothes are not the center of attention. The artifice of the image itself is what takes center stage — the dramatic lighting, framing, styling and posing that combine to brand the style of each of the show’s 40 photographers rather than any designer of fashion.
From Nick Knight we get an overhead, black-and-white shot of a model in a laced-string camisole laid out on an examination table as if begging to be ravished. Paolo Roversi’s Blue Mask surrounds the model’s face behind the blow-up of another Roversi photograph of her tinted blue face, with a fake pink mouth attached.
Removed from their commercial context, it might be easier to consider these images as ingenious works of art. But we see them here only in the service of commerce, to sell a label or a concept, not to create any larger understanding of the human condition.
Steichen, who mined the Romantic tradition of the sublime before becoming a hard-core modernist, was one of the stars of the Conde Nast firmament in the salad days of Vogue and Vanity Fair, from 1923 to 1937.
His work for those magazines is the subject of a retrospective at the center, with 175 photographs of socialites and celebrities who ruled the gossip columns of the day.
Two smaller shows force a closer consideration of the artistry behind a fashion photograph. Munkacsi’s Lost Archive presents a small selection of new prints from a cache of glass negatives by the Hungarian photographer.
Before he died in 1963, Martin Munkacsi was a top talent at Harper’s Bazaar whose art took place as much in his darkroom as on a set. The show reveals his process, juxtaposing original shots that include an assistant’s hands or feet in the frame with the tight focus of a cropped, finished print.
More absorbing – and curious — is This Is Not a Fashion Photograph, a group of unrelated photographs from the center’s collections that curator Vince Aletti cites as having as much calculated style as documentary truth.