Essay: The Photographic Historian

by Philippe Garner on 10 August 2011

A textual examination of the postmodern crossover of fashion and pornography by photographic historian Philippe Garner.

A textual examination of the postmodern crossover of fashion and pornography by photographic historian Philippe Garner.

Fashion photography and pornography have in common the objectives of stimulating desire and firing the imagination. This has always been the case. What has changed over time is that fashion imagery has evolved a new set of reference points and sexually charged scenarios, choreography and styling are far more predominant than was once the case. Up until the sixties, fashion photographers for the most part used their cool, attenuated, white marble-skinned models as ciphers for style, elegance and social status. The desires that they sought to stimulate where aspirational rather than erotic. Fashion was nothing if not hierarchical. The world of fashion was so polite, so formal. The sixties marked a turning point, though the imagery of those years tended to be rather more chaste than one might expect from the decade's associations with sexual liberation.

It was in the seventies that fashion magazines first significantly explored the powerful sexual as well as social codes that are of course implicit in dress. Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Chris von Wangenheim led the way in using fashion photography to present overtly sexual narratives. Their provocative pictures probed the erotic aspects of dress and gesture and deliberately presented their models as objects of considerable sexual interest. The term 'Porno-chic' was used to define this new tendency. As fashion magazines became ever more sexy, pornography, soft or hard, was in danger of appearing increasingly conventionalised. Newton used to berate Playboy for not allowing him the same creative freedom that he enjoyed with French Vogue. The styling and production values of mainstream erotic-pornographic imagery meanwhile became as polished as anything to emanate from Condé Nast or the Hearst Corporation - look at Lui, Oui (to which Newton was a contributor), or their tougher counterparts Hustler and Chic.

Attention spans are short. Appetites are strong and swiftly jaded.

We live in an increasingly visually sophisticated and crowded world in which a vast publishing industry spews millions of photographic images each month in the overlapping fields of fashion, celebrity and the erotic, each trying to catch our eye. Attention spans are short. Appetites are strong and swiftly jaded. Sex is an obsession, and sexually compelling pictures - be they banal or slick, sublime or disconcerting - are a staple ingredient of the visual culture. The barriers are down. Ours is the knowing Post-Modern world in which image-makers sample and plunder ideas across the genres and from the past. Fashion photographers are as likely to draw inspiration from Larry Clark or Nan Goldin, or the imagery of porn, as from Beaton or Horst. And they recognise that the great erotic-pornographic photographers sure understand two ingredients - high shock value and intense sensuality - that can be crucial in grabbing the eye from a page or a hoarding. Fashionista Steven Meisel is the archetypal photo-DJ, spinning, mixing, tasting, sampling, able to do sexy or elegant, or a cocktail of both as required. Nothing is disallowed. Terry Richardson has been perhaps the most confrontational, arguably the most honest in using pornography as an ideas-bag for his fashion and advertising pictures. Richardson's Sisley catalogues v. Hustler: the jury is out on which is the more provocative. Where do we go from here? Your guess is as good as mine. Watch this space.



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