PERIL-AGE PHOTOGRAPHY

Byline: Peter Braunstein

NEW YORK — In the realm of commercial fashion photography, the last few years have been the veritable salad days for depraved, high-concept spreads, porno-chic thematics and creative pyrotechnics that regularly pushed the boundaries of taste.
Remember Juergen Teller’s famous shot for Jigsaw men’s wear featuring a besuited man falling from a tower? Then there’s that Terry Richardson terrorist-chic layout in September’s The Face featuring dirt-covered guerrilla chicks with machine guns. Or perhaps you recall that bondage spread in the May issue of Numero magazine involving Kate Moss and a snake? How about that Perry Ellis ad featuring a seemingly drugged Karen Elson lying on the floor with a nude man hovering above her?
But given the New World Disorder involving terrorist attacks; threats of biochemical warfare; real-time unsimulated pain, suffering and loss, and global economic fallout, this playful and provocative photo-aesthetic has lost much of its charm. WWD checked in with several noted fashion photographers about how the new, more somber mood will affect their work.
Photographer Tina Barney is renowned for her photos showcasing family relationships, interpersonal moments, and the minor delights of daily life — the essential fodder of social existence that, in today’s climate, has acquired a new resonance. For Barney, Sept. 11 bid adieu to an artistic sensibility that had overstayed its welcome.
“I felt that much of the photography coming out this year was like a child who was so naughty that it had to be punished,” Barney said. “The mood in photography, and in the culture in general, had gone to such extremes, in both provocation and materialism, that some kind of retrenchment was inevitable.
Does this mean that fashion spreads will take on the more homespun quality of a Prada campaign? “I expect to see an extreme conservatism and classicism in photography, followed by surrealism,” said Barney. “A lot of what we saw prior to 9/11 was hard-edged and mean, and people are too damaged right now to be mean.” As it so happens, the quotidian orientation of Barney’s work could well become a more pervasive vogue in photography, as many people explore a newfound appreciation for being alive. “It’s strange, because my pictures always were meant as a way of saying, ‘Don’t you understand? This can all be gone tomorrow,”‘ said Barney. “I was referring to the existence of the upper class, but the sense that everything can disappear at any given moment has now taken hold everywhere.”
Tierney Gearon has also made a name for herself photographing family members and feels that photography may evolve from Nineties-era faux realism to something more authentic and sincere. “I’ve always tried to capture everyday moments in my photos, and America, to me, is a place where nothing ever happens — until now,” said Gearon. “People have been deeply affected by this, and I feel a longing for real moments. Of course, there have been campaigns that have used families, like Cole Haan, but those shots are surreal, there’s no realism there. Then you have other images, like that Versace campaign, of someone’s maid standing in front of a Ferrari. Who can relate to that? It’s not real. It’s like they were capturing fake moments and trying to make them real.” Gearon admits to having trouble divining the new face of photography. “You can be provocative in calm times, but there’s no need to provoke now,” she said. “Things need to be upbeat, yet realistic.”
Charles DeCaro, co-head of the ad agency Laspata/DeCaro, feels that any return to more traditional imagery doesn’t necessarily mean endless photos of little girls clutching teddy bears and staring at big, starry skies. “I’m not saying that everything will become one big MGM musical, but people are tired of hyperrealist imagery — we’re bombarded with reality right now,” he said. “But we can still be inventive. I mean, the Dior ads, which are filled with cartoon-like characters and look like a Japanese comic book, actually may fill the public’s need for escapism.” DeCaro envisions a narrow, precarious road leading to a retro aesthetic. DeCaro forecasts that the next wave “will be a Fifties aesthetic, the message being, ‘We survived, and here we are with our toasters and families’, something more Grace Kelly than Ida Lupino.”
Craig McDean feels that it’s too early for photographers to know how these unfolding calamities may affect their creative output. “I don’t have a perspective on my work right now, apart from being quite conscious of the sadness these events have evoked in me,” said McDean. “People tend to put connotations into photographs afterward, once they have some sort of distance. But I think happy, upbeat photos were already in vogue, and that will continue.”
Photographer Kelly Klein sees few artistic limitations imposed by the current mood. “I still think that what the photographer can offer is work that evokes beauty and hope, that’s uplifting and not depressing,” said Klein. “After all, beauty is a fertile enough artistic playground. On a practical level, however, I do expect productions to be less costly, maybe fees will come down and you won’t be traveling around the world to remote locales for shoots.”
Photographer Michael Thompson is a case in point. He was scheduled to fly to Italy to shoot for Giorgio Armani, but the locale was moved to Long Island instead. “If I was still single, I may have flown to Europe, but I have a wife and child,” he said. Thompson feels that upbeat photography fills a vital compensatory role. “I look at it this way: People were watching ‘Gilligan’s Island’ during the Vietnam War,” said Thompson. “Funny, even silly fare can thrive during hard times; it’s completely necessary. Right now, the first thing people want to do is be with their loved ones, and that also involves laughing and enjoying life.” For that very reason, he tends not to lend much credence to the current marginalization of celebrity culture. “Right now, celebrities seem trivial, but they’ll soon become a necessity again. You can take just so much heaviness every day.”

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