Transcript: Fashion in the Mirror Discussion

published on 2 September 2008

SHOWstudio's Penny Martin, curators Michel Mallard and Raphaëlle Stopin and photographer Jonathan de Villiers discussed the landmark fashion photography exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery, London in 2008. Read the full transcript of their conversation.

SHOWstudio's Penny Martin, curators Michel Mallard and Raphaëlle Stopin and photographer Jonathan de Villiers discussed the landmark fashion photography exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery, London in 2008. Read the full transcript of their conversation.

Queen by Norman Parkinson, 1962

Penny Martin: Michel and Raphaëlle, I know you of old from curating the fashion photography aspect of the Hyères festival in the South of France but perhaps you could begin by saying what your practice involves?

Michel Mallard: We run a little Art Direction studio in Paris. I'm Mexican even if I have a French name, I grew up in a family of weird left wing intellectuals who were too much into culture, so I thought art was great and a great privilege, but I thought very few people are really interested in art and maybe not for the right reasons - it's very incestuous.

My life as an art student was completely changed the British graphic designer Neville Brody, he was doing The Face magazine, which said to me 'Ok, culture can be portrayed not only in galleries or museums but also in magazines and it can have a bigger audience'. I then became interested in those strategies of the interweaving of art and fashion. We thought magazines could be a great, interesting venue to provide this kind of content.

After finishing school I was hired to do a cultural magazine, and I hijacked it. I called all my heroes at the time, I called Jean Baudrillard, I called Sophie Calle, I called Peter Greenway, I called Barbara Kruger and very naively asked these people to work for my magazine and they all did! That's how I started doing a magazine. You get bored working for the same people and so eventually we grew independent. Raphaëlle I met later.

I started taking risks with a fashion magazine in Paris, it was called Biba, it was the same time as Dazed & Confused was being launched, so I met all these crazy kids from London who wanted to change the world. Sadly now most of them are just into making money and not changing the world anymore. We thought we could change the scene, magazine-wise. We started making books for publishing houses like Schirmer Mosel and Steidl. And we began to curate a emerging young talent photography competition in the South of France (Hyéres Festival International de Mode et de Photographie), as part of a fashion design festival that had been there for around 17 years and which Viktor & Rolf had won in 1993.

In the beginning it was very easy for me, as I was working in the magazines, I could spot the right young people. But after two or three years of that I was accused of being 'The Mexican dictator of fashion photography in Europe'. So then we did a real open call for submissions. We figured out that it was very difficult for young kids to make good fashion imagery, you need lots of money, good styling, and good models. So instead we focused on finding the right talent who have ideas and on bringing a very interesting panel of judges, the leading locomotives from the visual world from all horizons, from magazines, museums, galleries. It's a perfect match for developing their careers.

Raphaëlle Stopin: I had a much more academic background than Michel's. I studied History of Art at university and worked in a Museum for a couple of years. Then I met Michel and got hijacked also and now I'm mainly doing the Hyères Festival which means curating and scouting for new talent.

Jonathan de Villiers: It should be said that these two go and seek it out. It's very hard if you're just some kid in Argentina or wherever doing fashion stuff – the pages of European fashion magazines seem a very distant and impossible dream. What's been extraordinary is that Raphaëlle and Michel have really targeted countries around the world and got people to submit. They don't just sit there and put a submission form up on the internet, they ring up art colleges, they try to find people in the former Soviet Union, Japan or wherever. There's still a large number that enter from the fancy Swiss colleges, but it has been a very interesting starting point for a lot of people.

Karl Lagerfeld by William Klein, Harper's Bazaar, 2007

PM: Jonathan, the first time I ever heard of you was witnessing two stylists prepping a shoot in our studio where they needed to find the clothing for ten Mexican wrestlers, ten Para-Olympians and ten other crazy sports for an epic Nike shoot?

JdV: That was me, was it?

PM: Yes, for Nike. Would you say that's representative of your practice?

JdV: Yes it was- they weren't Mexican wrestlers though! Well I have a French name also, it seems to be a common bond here tonight, but I am not French at all. I'm English. Very English, I grew up in London. I was really into music as a kid. I was buying the NME and going to clubs and seeing bands and stuff, buying The Face and i-D, I was really into The Smiths and The Fall - my background is quite a typical British collision of popular culture and art and graphics and music and so on.

I was photographing from pretty early on, the bands I went to see and so on. Then worked for a graphic design company when I left school. It was an awful place - it did work for the nascent computer industry, but it had a photo studio and a graphic design studio and a dark room. I was a dogsbody and was paid eighty quid a week, but I could work in all these different areas. I was doing paste-up, this was pre- Macs; I was doing layout work, color printing, black and white printing. I was going off to computer firms on the A4 corridor and photographing people shaking hands or typing at computers, stuff like that.

I did that for a couple of years and then a photographer I met (I had always printed a lot) he asked for me to print his show. He was a very big advertising photographer at the time, chair of the Advertising Photographers Association. I quit my job and printed up this show for him. He had a studio in Soho, and lots of his mates were big-time advertising photographers. He said he would back me to set up a printing firm. So for several years I had a lab in Soho in Poland Street and printed for many different well-known photographers. That was my starting point.

I'd never studied art or photography At that time it was impossible to earn a living doing art photography. Fay Godwin was the big name at the time. It's inconceivable to people now what the scene was like then. There was photography and there was art, and if you were in photography then you earned your living by teaching. It was very earnest, black and white – England was a total backwater. Then there was the commercial world, which was awful as well just in a different way- excruciatingly naff and there was no connection with art. They pretended there was but there wasn't. It was lousy if you were interested in contemporary art, which I was, if you were interested in ideas, which I was, it was just naff.  

While was doing the printing I got fed up of the day to day running of the dark room, it didn't pay well and it was very hard work. I got lots of prestige and won awards, but it was a 24-hour job really. I got more interested in intellectual stuff- I started studying at the Open University. I eventually quit the lab and did a degree, all the time still taking pictures. By the time I finished my university degree in philosophy, the whole world had changed in this area.

I'd been going to things and seeing it change, the Saatchi Gallery opening and all that stuff. Also there had been this deep recession so all the wankers that were big names in the advertising industry, they'd all gone bankrupt. There was no money in advertising anymore, so lots of people who previously hadn't a hope of getting into things, were given breaks. Also everything was cheap because of the depth of the recession. On the fashion side of things you had Alexander McQueen and people like that started up, they had loads of people on the dole that could work for them, they had space that was cheap.

Suddenly, you've got Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller doing all this interesting stuff in the commercial/crafts/art world. I wanted to do something in this area, so I got a job in the civil service, because I was so poor when I left college. I was moonlighting, basically. What I would do was ring people up from my cubicle and say 'Would you like to see my pictures?' and then I would talk long lunch breaks, maniacally cycling across London to magazines.
I really wanted to work for Dazed or i-D but neither of them were at all interested. I got great satisfaction when both of them subsequently really wanted me to work for them and I could say no. I did start working with Sleazenation, which was a new, small, rather crap style mag and that was my break. I did a couple of little things and it really blew up. The last ten years or so I haven't had a proper job, I've just done this fashion game thing. I shoot for magazines, and then I get paid work for doing advertising.

PM: We've spent quite a bit of time establishing the background of everyone here, but I hope this is useful in establishing that there are fairly traditional inroads into the industry. Can you now tell me, Raphaëlle, how you ended up curating the Fashion in the Mirror exhibition?

RS: Well we had this commission from The Photographers' Gallery to do a show on fashion photography – carte blanche so to speak.

MM: We were really proud because it was the first show dedicated to fashion photography for The Photographers' Gallery.

PM: One of your contributors begs to differ: I think Nick Knight and Cindy Palmano had a show in 1989, I feel since I'm on the books of Nick Knight's website I should point that out! But you're right that it's the first show dedicated to fashion photography as a subject.

MM: And we also did here in 2004 a show of a Japanese Photographer called Happy Victims. Anyway, we were discussing what can we do for a serious institution like The Photographers' Gallery - it couldn't be a shallow, frivolous show. For a certain time fashion photography was ashamed of being fashion photography - it felt it should be more than that, it should be art, it should be cinema… For example, I had a weird situation once when I called Mr Lorca diCorcia and he refused to partake in Hyères, because it was a festival of fashion. He shoots two or three times a year for W magazine, so he does fashion but he's kind of ashamed of doing it.

RS: We didn't want to do another show about fashion and art. There have been great exhibitions during the last decade- like Fashioning Fiction at MOMA or Chic Clicks, but these all explored fashion photography's route into different territories. We decided to take the opposite direction, to ask 'what if we consider as a starting point fashion photography that looks at itself?'

MM: To focus not only on the fashion but more on the photographic side of it: 'How did photographers think back in the day, how do they think today, how has the profession evolved?' To show people who weren't ashamed of being fashion photographers.

PM: It seems to me Fashion in the Mirror falls into two key periods: the sixties and then the past decade. I wondered whether you meant that those two periods are when fashion has been at its most reflective, or to say that fashion's reflectivity is more of an ongoing thing and these were just two periods that you most like the look of?

MM: In the late fifties and sixties this industry was really at the beginning. There was haute couture before, but this is the beginning of massification- when this trade was really exploding. So it is very interesting that the photographers were starting to be a part of the scene- and starting to deconstruct the shoots. You saw what the photographer is seeing through his viewfinder and suddenly the photographer himself appears in the frame – he is becoming part of Pop culture.

At the same time there are two major films - Antonini's Blow Up, that makes the scenes of the fashion photographer visible and also William Klein's Who Are You Polly Magoo? They really communicated to the public the cliché of what a fashion photographer is.
From these rich beginnings, then it goes to the era of supermodels and to the grunge/daily life phenomena. Once again, photographers are being ashamed of doing fashion photography. Now in 2008, more than ever, fashion magazines talk about fashion.

There are periods of experimentation, and then there are periods of less creativity, more commercial periods- like I believe today is.

PM: Can you explain how each period is different?

JdV: In the sixties, when photographers appeared in the pictures shooting themselves is was self-aggrandisment. There was a kind of a 'look at me!', which in way was legitimate in that 'working-class-boys-made-good', class fluidity. I don't think it was reflexive in a sense that it was terribly thoughtful. It was more pop star egotism: 'Look at me and my Hasselblad, shooting the hot model!' It doesn't sum it all up but it is an element, and in Nick Knight's more recent pictures that's no longer present.

MM: If you go back to old magazines, the photographer's name really was a small credit in the gutter of the magazine, so his appearance was very discreet. Today, some of the egotistical art directors you see – photographed by so-and-so and styled by so-and-so – are credited in big capital letters. These people have become household names. So what was in the beginning something fun and about a few key figures, is now about the cult of personality, fame and self-aggrandisement.

PM: Those two periods were both preceded by periods of more earnest photojournalism: those that were photographing for colour supplements in the British press in the sixties, or those that were making supposedly 'realistic' fashion pictures during the so-called 'grunge' period. After which, in each case, we get a period of very studio-based fashion fantasy.

MM: It's completely different. The sixties was the beginning of the deconstruction. Fashion imagery began with drawings, then very static studio shoots of clothes on models. Then Munkácsi has the idea of taking the model out into the street, photographing and assimilating daily life. By comparison, when you look at the Vogues of the eighties, it's all about make up and supermodels - it's not about photography. Then when the British grunge Juergen Teller/Corrine Day thing happened it centred more on independent magazines, shooting in cheap apartments, low budgets. What was experimental in early stages became commercial later.

There are periods of experimentation, and then there are periods of less creativity, more commercial periods- like I believe today is. When Brett Rogers, the Director of The Photographers' Gallery, asked us to come up with this show we were really challenged because we though that there was not really that many interesting things happening. For singular careers like Jonathan and like Tim Walker, of course there are original souls, who do very challenging work. But the general rule is that it is quite commercial- because of crisis, because of September 11.

JdV: The older I get the more I'm inclined to view myself and all creatives as totally in the sociological grip of the period. We're just all cogs in it, rather than any individual genius perspectives.

PM: For those of us who perhaps hasn't witnessed how it works now, Jonathan, can you take us through the basics?

JdV: If you're shooting for a fashion magazine, you're really part of a machine, these major corporations promoting their product. So if you're an editor at Vogue, or even at Dazed & Confused, you'll know in the next few months that you're going to have to create X number of covers for YSL and X number for someone else because they pay the advertising. When you produce your magazine you also have a tick-list - an excel spreadsheet, you've got to get X number of Louis Vuitton shoes. . .

PM: ...And not only that, they have a special points system for how much of the garment you show.

JdV: And what page it's on, right hand page is more valuable than left hand page. It's this elaborate mechanism, I just want to give you an impression. So if you're a fashion PR then at the end of each month you have to account to your client by pricing the pages that you've got in the different magazines.

So I'm the creative artist and the fashion magazine rings me up and says they want me to do a shoot. Basically if you're a fashion photographer and you're working for fashion magazines you don't get paid. You might make a few hundred quid sometimes but broadly speaking the budgets are such that all the money goes into production.

MM: In Europe – in America it is different.

JdV: I don't want to make too much of a sob story because I can easily get £20,000 a day for doing commercial work and that magazine is the shop window for it.

Penny Martin: The business of fashion fascinates us, doesn't it? We may agree that it's pretty iniquitous, but all us former museum curators and university graduates still want to work in it. What is the lure – that this exhibition demonstrates so well?

JdV: It's like what Michel said that attracted him at the very start. You're in this public space, the ephemeral quality of it is great. A few weeks ago I was in the woods outside Paris shooting and now it's on the newsstands - 20 pages in the magazine. You can intellectualise it as much as you like, but it's fun. Especially because your in the middle of this machine fucking with it. Well that's me, but I introduce humour where there very rarely is any and that's great in that space. I've had work in the V&A and the ICA and it just isn't as much fun as seeing your work on billboards or seeing people with it on the tube.

MM: I have a photographer friend in Paris and he always says why should he go into a museum when the best museum is the street. What he does is on every newsstand and at every airport- for him that is more fun.

PM: It's true that kind of blatant triumphalism appeals to certain men –and it is almost exclusively men in this exhibition. But there are other mechanisms of display, such as the material form and actual structure of a magazine, that are important in consuming fashion.

JdV: I find it fun that's all, but I also like that it's not earnest and worthy. It's out and it's gone. Art photographers can produce only a few images a year. If you're a fashion photographer you're commissioned a week before, you've got to come up with answers and ideas and on the spot you've got to produce 15 or 20 pages in two days. That intensity is also attractive- and then it's gone again; it's trash, it's not interesting.

PM: Would you say that there's a certain type of photographer that would be in an exhibition like this?

MM: Certainly yes. What we've tried to pick up on here are exceptions, to highlight singularity. For example there was this amazing opportunity to display the work of Steven Meisel in a vitrine. A 36-page shoot called Supermodels go to Rehab...

PM: It was a really controversial shoot in Italian Vogue. People were dancing with rage and excitement when it came out.

MM: It's about social criticism. Yes they are fashion images but he is playing with the system. Most of the shoots he does are pretty commercial but he is still thinking. I think most of what you see in magazines today is pretty boring. The problem is there is no underground any more, because all the same magazines target the same advertising because they're the ones that will pay your bills. So everybody wants the big brands- if you put young designers in your magazine then there won't be space for enough big brands to pay your bills.

JdV: Can I make a banal point- there is a certain cost involved in producing a 150 or so paged colour magazine, which we buy for £4 or £5. So when we're talking here about why the advertisers have so much control we also have to acknowledge that if the true production costs of the magazine were reflected in the cover price it would be a very different cover price. The way in which it's sold is almost like commercial TV - these are banal points but one has to remember them – why should a commercial organisation subsidise magazines for people? If we want creative magazines, we have to be prepared to pay a high cover price or bend with the wind of whose paying for it.

PM: Also, it seems like every crisis in publishing is followed by creative rebirth. After magazines like Zg and Viz foundered at the end of the 1970s, and everyone said the market was oversaturated, The Face, Blitz and i-D were all launched in 1980. We might feel the market is currently oversaturated – I get new magazines through the post at SHOWstudio every day, it seems like – but there is a feeling that something more ambitious is around the corner.

JdV: There is also this Apple 'everyone's creative' buzz. It's like Flickr etc., and everyone feeling like they're an artist. Everybody always did, they just didn't have the opportunity to push their crap out there. I know it sounds terribly elitist but you go in the Apple store and it's full of people who want to shoot movies and do shoots.

PM: Aren't we already witnessing an increased desire for taste, opinion and guidance again?

JdV: Gatekeepers.

David Bailey & Veruschka by Bert Stern, US Vogue, 1965

PM: A return to thoughtful curation. Before we finish, I'm very interested to know if all the photographers were supportive of being shown in this way? You've got so many big names alongside each other, it almost seems unbelievable. I can't believe that Steven Meisel, fashion's preeminent image-maker, agreed to have images shown as a set of tear sheets, while his peers are shown in huge frames. It's audacious!

MM: We had to be intelligent. This space has a great reputation, but it's also not Tate Modern. We don't have an endless budget. So we have to work the system and show the full combination of works. You also have to be wise in asking what piece we needed from each photographer.

PM: Jonathan, yours are Chromalins, aren't they?

JdV: We couldn't get Chromalins but we go the next best thing. They're printers proofs, match prints.

PM: And they're deliberately pinned to the wall, the idea being to reflect another part of the culture of the production?

JdV: Well, if you want to get pretentious it's another layer of reflectivity. It's a show about fashion photography looking at itself, well this is the print looking at itself. But also they look really nice, and people don't normally get to see them. They're nice physically.

PM: Well we've spoken for an hour now and that's along time for the audience to hang on. So maybe let's hand over to questions.

Audience: Penny, I wonder if you could say a little about the possibilities of fashion imaging and photography online and the future of those industries?

PM: I started at SHOWstudio in 2001, when really it was absolutely impossible to get any fashion people to talk about online at all. You would phone Katy England, or other stylists and they would just say 'Oh I don't do computers' and you'd ask to email them and they'd say 'I don't have an email account'. That would literally happen all the time. We couldn't get them to look at anything we had done either because they wouldn't have broadband. They'd be trying to look at a film with a 56k modem. Every other field that we were dealing with – architecture, music or design – were really teched up. We worked with Bjork and we had a massive online audience that would literally break our site.

For fashion, the tipping point was probably when people started getting broadband in their homes, about 2003. iPods came out, people had more Macs that probably had the right plug-ins that they hadn't known how to download before. So to begin with, we were really fighting a technological barrier. But once advertising became interested in the fact that they needed to be online, is when the budgets were put into the production of projects. Luxury advertisers like Prada and Gucci and Hermès have known for some time that they need to be online, so the last few years have been furnishing their own websites with extras and moving image. We've only just witnessing them starting to place online advertising now.

In that time, there have been one or two organisations, Tank TV and others who have been trying to pioneer fashion film or new media. But only now is it actually becoming a commercial proposition. It's almost as if it's not until fashion wants to put money by something that literally it exists. Although we might feel we've known about it for a long time it's actually only just happening.

Audience: Jonathan, when you were talking about your preference to reaching a wider audience by showing in magazines rather than in galleries, it reminded me of what photojournalists used to say - that they always preferred Sunday magazine colour supplements to get their work out to a broader audience. Do you really feel that the gallery is an unsuitable arena to consider the much more reflective quality of a fashion image?

JdV: Well obviously not or else I would have said no, but the thing is for me personally is I've been to thousands of exhibitions, and there's only a handful really that I've felt that the images in the exhibition context did something differently to the printed page. I really like photographic books as opposed to photographic exhibitions for that reason. Even worse are films in galleries. I mean, I have been to shows of photography that have had a big impact on me.

PM: Tell us what they were and why did they work?

JdV: Well partly the shows that influenced me most were because I hadn't seen the work before. I saw Eugene Smith at the Barbican, he was interesting because he did engage with scale, it was the way in which it was shown. To credit Raphaëllle and Michel, they do think a lot about how things are shown.

Audience: Do you think in your work that it's more important that elitism is decided by the individual or by the collective? Clearly your opinion is very important to you, but it's just interesting who decides what is important work.

JdV: I don't know if you've ever read John Updike, an American writer, who wrote this Rabbit series, written every decade about this figure, who is an American everyman from Pennsylvania. In the first book he escapes and listens to pop music on the radio in the fifties, he leaves his pregnant wife in the suburbs and takes off. Anyway in the last book he does the same thing, he's sick, he's a slightly revolting sexist character, he turns on the radio and hears all the music again. He realises it's all the same, the music from the fifties and the music from the eighties. It serves a socio economic function, you can kind of map that track is appealing to this market segment, that track is doing this and that.

Sorry it's a very round about way of elucidating things. I used to love pop music. I still love pop music but I see all the cogs in the machine working, you can see what function it's serving and I don't see myself as that thing when I'm shooting. In the end I am part of that thing, I see myself as part of that machine.

PM: Isn't the point here that you are the producer and you can say what your work's about all you like but it's not necessarily what it means. You don't control it. By putting fashion imagery in a gallery context, you're opening it up to a whole level of scrutiny that it would never get on hoardings and in magazines. Though this show has had fantastic appreciation within the fashion industry, I have read some quite hostile reviews by very bright art critics. Some I think have missed the nuances and some have interesting points, ones that are never discussed in the industry. When you open your work up to a British gallery going audience, put your images on a wall on which many of the battles in British photography have been contested, it opens it up to a whole lot of other potential meanings that we can't possibly even remember.

MM: Fashion and photography share some particular characteristics. They haven't got very definite boundaries. Fashion can be looked at as something really commercial and a business, and on the other side can be seen as something very creative, guys who are sculpting and tailoring things. Photography on the other hand shares the same range- you can be a technical guy who is doing the most boring tech shots without meaning, or you can do very inventive art. These boundaries and fine links are not really defined. I think this inbetween state is a territory that deserves to be explored in galleries or other spaces.

JdV: I would say that I really do seek to control meaning but I can't. To expand on that very slightly, I did a shoot that won prizes and was celebrated in some ways and perhaps failed in others. It was a shoot in Kenya of Erin O'Connor, quite an over-the-top fashion shoot, a 'white model amongst the natives'. I was trying to do probably too much in one shoot. I was trying to allude to special Ambassadors to Africa, Geri Halliwell or Audrey Hepburn. I was trying to allude to the terrible naïve colonialism of fashion photography- tall white model amongst the natives, the naff visual contrast with their 'primitive', 'colorful' outfits. To some degree I was really pleased with it- it was a big story in Italian Vogue- but they didn't understand this element, and lots of people didn't. So it didn't have the meaning that I attributed to it, it had the bad, reactionary meaning, to some degree. So no, I don't control meaning, though I wish I did!

MM: Two years ago I was Creative Director of Vogue Homme International Paris, where we tried to push the limits to make a really interesting magazine. We had Hans Ulrich Obrist writing for the magazine, we had Erwin Wurm, Maurizio Cattelan and Araki. We had many interesting art takes on fashion photography and it was great for people like us who like to navigate these borders. But most people hated it, they just wanted to see clothes.

PM: That is a valuable part of fashion photography, though.

JdV: I think for a successful job, you have to do something that works on a fashion level. You have to do something that functions as a fashion photograph with all the great stuff that crystallises a moment, tunes into what's happening in the culture at the time. Then you do your other stuff, your criticism. I agree wholeheartedly with Penny- it's just not interesting if it's cool and it doesn't function on a fashion level.

MM: Jonathan's work, for example, is really powerful when he plays with you a little. It seduces you and attracts you, makes you come over and then it punches you in the face. We went to Shanghai- we wanted to witness something like New York in the last century. So we went and shot Chinese workers in Prada suits - we went to the top of the highest building in Shanghai and had the guys washing the windows. It was great. I mean we could have had a much easier time if we had worked in Paris, gone to a studio, found some models and went home at seven. But instead we wanted to witness Shanghai and its migrant workers. In the end it was a great shoot but Vogue hated it.

PM: I hesitate to end on that point but I think it's a great place to stop. I'd like to just take the time to thank everyone for their candour and entertainment.

Michel Mallard, Raphaëlle Stopin, Jonathan de Villiers
Thanks to:
Johanna Empson, Karen McQuaid and Brett Rogers



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