Saturday 16 December 2017

Girls will be boys - the blurred lines of fashion photography

Gender fluidity is a hot topic in 2017, but fashion photography has been pushing the male/female boundary for decades, as a new exhibition shows

Amber Valletta photographed by Craig McDean for Italian Vogue, September 2002
Amber Valletta photographed by Craig McDean for Italian Vogue, September 2002
In Bloom by Viviane Sassen for Dazed and Confused, 2011
Patti Smith in front of her famous Robert Mapplethorpe shoot. Photo: Nick Harvey/WireImage
Justin Passmore photographed by Jack Pierson
Lebohang Otukie, 2026 (In collaboration with IB Kamara), 2016. Photo by Kristin-Lee Moolman.

Sophie Gorman

Fashion photography is no longer willing to remain within the safe confines of the studio. The days of the traditional posed portrait are fast receding as boundaries are being pushed until they are demolished. Linear concept development has become determinedly lateral; a woman's dress is no longer a woman's dress. And a fascinating new exhibition in Belfast's Ulster Museum illustrates just how the newest generation of fashion photographers arrived at this point.

Curated by Diana Edkins, Blurred Lines: A Matter of Attitude opens tomorrow as part of the Belfast Photo Festival, which this year is themed around sexuality and gender. A fine art photography curator, editor and author, Diana has published more than 30 books and worked with American publishing giant Condé Nast for 20 years.

For this exhibition, she has worked through decades of fashion magazine imagery and selected some of the most internationally influential fashion photographers, with shoots from trailblazing fashion publications including British Vogue, Vogue Paris and Dazed & Confused.

"Fashion photography now is a depiction of what people are really feeling, the freedom of expression," explains Diana. "This is not just about taking snapshots on the street; this is more about capturing the ambiguity of today's young people. There is a new visual vocabulary being used. And there is a discrete enigma today - it is about being celebrated rather than being kept covert."

Diana has noticed a decisive change in how gender is represented in fashion photography in recent years. "Now, there is much more freedom. Models are not hiding, they are not posing, they are revealing their true selves. It seems to now be more about bodily and gender acceptance; there is a confidence as people have stopped always pretending to be something that they are not."

Playing with gender representation in fashion may be very topical - and, indeed, in the wider world, where RTÉ radio presenter Jonathan Rachel Clynch has identified as gender fluid, and a New Scotland Yard police offer is using separate male and female identities at work - however, the origins can be traced back over many decades. Here, Diana begins in 1975 with the photographic lion that was Robert Mapplethorpe.

"In this show, I wanted to look specifically at this shift in gender and sexuality in fashion photography and the artists over the past 40 years who have focused on this as a part of their photographic signature. I start, of course, with Mapplethorpe: that iconic picture he took of Patti Smith for her Horses album. Here she is, androgynous, ambiguous."

This simple black and white portrait gracing the cover of Smith's first record is still regarded as one of the most pivotal album covers of all time. It depicts Smith in a clean white shirt with a long black ribbon around the collar. She holds her jacket over her left shoulder, her hands meeting at her heart. She is looking straight at the camera, open and present.

The photo was taken by Mapplethorpe using a Polaroid camera and only the natural light in the small New York apartment that he then shared with Smith. Apparently, the record company did make attempts to alter the picture, but Smith refused to bend. This was her cover.

Alongside that image, Diana is showing Mapplethorpe's own self-portrait from 1980, when he is dressed as a woman: make-up, fur, gentle and soft. And this plays against his picture from a year later, when he photographed himself again, this time in full maleness, motorbike machismo.

"What I really wanted to talk about in this exhibition was how, in the beginning, people like Mapplethorpe and [Bruce] Weber's work was characterised by an unwillingness to conform to prevailing conventions. And this baton has very much been picked up and carried by today's photographers like Craig McDean and Stef Mitchell: their work really reflects what is out there in the street."

As evinced in this exhibition, icons clearly don't simply belong to the past. There are contemporary images that are instantly part of the ongoing fashion narrative, pictures such as Jack Pierson's 2011 photograph of American model Justin Passmore for Candy magazine - a publication dedicated to transgenderism which has featured stars such as James Franco and Chloë Sevigny in drag on the cover. In Passmore's picture we have a manly man sitting on a New York fire escape wearing nothing but a pair of women's black lace knickers and a strong confident sense of self.

Lines don't get much more blurred than in Craig McDean's picture of the actress Tilda Swinton embodying David Bowie for Italian Vogue in 2003. Swinton - such a dramatically identifiable character in her own right - has somehow been unrecognisably transformed by McDean here. She has become Bowie.

South African photographer Kristin Lee-Moolman deconstructs gender in a celebratory way. Images such as her determinedly non-conformative pictures from her exhibition 2026 reveal a very new Africa that is beyond such definitions as sexuality and segregation. Here, the two men stand in a proud embrace - one in a wedding dress teamed with a Stetson and boxing gloves. Fashion is not so much challenged as turned on its head.

In possibly the most euphoric image of the exhibition, In Bloom sees a woman obscured by layers of clothing as she seems to be almost falling or floating in a sea of pink tulips. This dynamic 2011 image for Dazed & Confused magazine is by Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen, who has said that her approach is often to confuse the viewer by presenting unusual perspectives or dramatic angles.

Are fashion designers and editors open to seeing their work depicted in these radical ways? "Yes, I believe this is the new democratisation of fashion," says Diana. "You have seen it with much more vitality in advertising - look at Burberry and Prada over the last 20 years.

"Advertising has become the exciting laboratory as opposed to editorial, where works used to be more experimental. Vogue Italia was the linchpin of all this under [editor] Franca Sozzani for almost the last 30 years.

"They really experimented with the freedom to express visually what was happening in this explosive marriage of fashion and photography. And everyone has followed them.

"This new approach is not simply a woman dressing as a man or vice versa; it is about a state of mind. Attitude is at the heart of it all."

Blurred Lines: A Matter of Attitude is at the Ulster Museum from June 4-30. See belfastphotofestival.com

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