Fashion Photography’s Tempestuous Relationship With the Art World

Do artistic and commercial photography mix well?

Version Française

If we believe the official narrative, art and commercial photography are like oil and water: each utterly repellant to the other. The art world turns up its nose at commercial photography for its anti-intellectualism and superficiality; in turn commercial photographers frequently disdain art photography for what they perceive as self-indulgence, pretentiousness, and incomprehensibility.

And starting out as a photographer, one of the first things you’re expected to do is choose which side you’re on, and then stick to it.

To be sure, any photographer who attempts to traverse the heavily-policed frontiers between art and commerce will likely find the way ahead guarded by industry gatekeepers. And even if you do make it across the border, just try keeping your artistic credentials intact in the fashion world while still paying the rent.

Yes, you may pick up some edgy and prestigious editorial commissions, but don’t be surprised if you’re expected to foot the entire production bill yourself for the “privilege” of appearing in the magazine: just as with a model’s editorial fees, the more respected the publication, the smaller the budget.

Goading aspiring photographers into shooting high-profile but low-paid editorial of this kind is the convenient industry fable that it will lead to lucrative advertising work. In reality though, while being seen as “arty” may bring plenty of kudos in the fashion industry, very rarely does genuine artistic integrity translate into hard cash: this instead goes to the safer choice of more commercial photographers.

Yet those hoping to transition the other way – from commercial photographer to artist – will likely find the route to success even rockier still. Indeed, try introducing yourself as a fashion photographer to a room full of gallerists and curators; you might just as well inform them that you’re carrying the Ebola virus for all the welcome you’re likely to receive.

But are the divisions between the art and commercial photography worlds really so clearly defined and antagonistic? Do the two industries behave like the couple in a Bavarian Weather House, destined to never meet? Or are they more like two sides of the same coin, each essential to the other’s existence?

Photography’s Shifting Relationship With Art

We only need go back a few decades to arrive at a time when no photography was considered art. There was fashion photography, advertising photography, and photojournalism. But “art photography” was an oxymoron: it was all commercial.

Art meant painting and sculpture, not machine-made reproductions of reality.

But with photography by artists such as Andreas Gursky, Richard Prince, and Jeff Wall now hanging in the world’s most important art museums – not to mention fetching millions at auction – clearly the medium’s place in the art world is fully secure today. But do the old divisions between the commercial and artistic spheres persist?

Monochrome to Color

They undoubtedly do to an extent. Yet even as far back as the ‘70s, a few intrepid photographers succeeded in transversing these limits. In the 1960s, if any kind of photography was valued as “artistic” – rather than journalistic or merely technical – such praise was entirely reserved for the “expressive” and elegant qualities of black and white photography. By contrast, color photography was considered common and vulgar: for weddings, foreign cruise brochures, or adverts touting the merits of a new soap powder.

Then came William Eggleston, who filled the Museum of Modern Art with saturated color images of everyday objects such as sauce bottles and lightbulbs. Eggleston and a handful of others saw the radical potential of appropriating techniques from commercial photography and applying them to more artistic pursuits – thus changing forever what could be considered “art” photography.

Romantic to Realist

At around the same time, Nan Goldin began documenting her own life, and that of her circle of friends, in Manhattan’s New Wave and LGBT+ scenes. Goldin became an icon of art photography largely on account of her honest confessional portrayal of turbulent lives – particularly her own – touched by domestic violence, addiction, and AIDS.

Interestingly, though, it was fashion photography that had inspired Goldin to pick up a camera in the first place. Of course, the images she produced in the late ’70s and early ‘80s were very far removed from anything that would have been classed as fashion photography at the time: raw, impulsive, and often graphic in content, Goldin’s work made an aesthetic of being anti-aesthetic.

Glossy and Stylized

Meanwhile, art director and graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude was transitioning to a highly successful career as a fashion and commercial photographer. What made Goude’s photographic work so original is the way he incorporated into it many of the skills and techniques he’d acquired in his earlier career as a commercial artist. As case in point, today Goude is most particularly remembered for the striking, ultra-stylized album covers he produced at the cusp of the 1980s for his romantic partner at the time, Grace Jones. Through Goude’s lens, Jones became a chiseled and androgynous superhero.

Goude was no doubt a very capable “straight” photographer and drew on his background in art direction to create elaborate studio sets on which he’d shoot his subjects in fantastic scenarios. Yet arguably the most groundbreaking part of Goude’s photographic process took place after the photos came back from the lab: now he would cut and paste, paint and draw; elongate the models’ limbs, airbrush their faces; turning them into larger-than-life stylized perfection. And all this by hand, at a time when technology such as Photoshop was barely even conceivable – let alone actually available.

Raw and Unforgiving

Goude’s approach to fashion photography would prove to be massively influential throughout the ‘80s – a decade distinguished by an excessive striving for perfection, often to the point of artifice and caricature. It’s perhaps not coincidental, then, that in reaction to the high polish of the commercial world at the time, certain art photographers instead began experimenting with techniques borrowed from “low-brow” vernacular photography.

Previously, the harsh “slap” of a camera-mounted strobe was a look you’d most expect to see on a snapshot of a small-town mayor opening a new supermarket. Or a tabloid photo depicting the scene of a crime. Such a crude method had no place in art photography. But just as Eggleston and others had done with color photography in the 1970s – and perhaps also taking their lead from Nan Goldin’s earlier abrasive approach – now photographers such as Paul Graham and Martin Parr began using flash in their “serious” documentary work, turning this frank and unflattering technique into an acceptable tool in the photographic artist’s arsenal.

Credit:  Evolution Atlanta via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/evolutionforever/
Nineties fashion photography was strongly influenced by the underground rave scene.

Anti-Fashion is On-trend

Funnily enough though, in the ‘90s this look was to cross back over to the commercial world once again, as a new breed of fashion photographer reacted against the padded-shoulder perfectionism peddled by the glossy fashion publications of the previous decade. Closely tied to the UK’s burgeoning DIY rave scene and the popularity of Grunge, in the early ‘90s a more spontaneous, grimy, and unpretentious style of fashion photography was to emerge in the pages of London style magazines i-D and The Face.

The airbrushed ‘80s were replaced with “heroin chic,” and photographers who in another decade might never have contemplated a career in the fashion industry began shooting a rough and ready documentary-fashion hybrid that harnessed the energy of the UK’s underground party scene. This was a school of fashion photography that rejected the stylized perfection of Goude’s decade, and instead sought grittier inspiration in the documentary photography of Graham, Parr, Larry Clark, and particularly in the loosely composed confessional works of Nan Goldin.

Time’s Up! Environmental Organization via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/txup/
Nan Goldin’s raw documentary influence could be seen throughout the ‘90s and even today.

Outsiders Are the Establishment

Renewed interest in Goldin’s work during this time saw her career as an artist flourish. And ironically the anti-fashion style she’d pioneered in the ‘70s now became the fashion industry’s default look, with Goldin herself commissioned to produce some major campaigns.

Meanwhile, Goldin’s spiritual offspring also rose to the top of the fashion industry and even transcended it. For example, Juergen Teller shot fresh and exciting campaigns for brands such as Jigsaw and Marc Jacobs, before deciding he wanted to become a serious artist and promptly taking off all his clothes (because, you know, that’s just what artists do, right?). And Wolfgang Tillmans started the decade shooting off-beat fashion images for i-D and Interview, and ended it as a recipient of the highly prestigious Turner art prize.

However, perhaps the most obvious inheritor of Goldin’s diaristic approach was Corinne Day, a photographer who rose to fame in the early ‘90s photographing a very young Kate Moss for The Face. Superficially at least, Day’s photos may appear random and unconsidered. However, she actually possessed a very strong eye for aesthetics, and when her book Diary was published at the end of the decade, its tilted, angular, faux-accidental compositions influenced an entire generation of self-referential snapshot-shooting wannabes.

As a former model herself, Day was to a certain extent a fashion industry insider. And much of the appeal of her photos no doubt stems from the fact that she documented the hedonistic lifestyle of her model friends – albeit usually in rather grotty and insalubrious surroundings. However, Day’s photos acquired a greater poignancy when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, the treatment of which she subsequently documented in harrowing honesty.

Although Day started out by shaking up fashion photography with radically “wrong” compositions and scummy subject matter, by the time of her death a few years ago she had transformed into a “regular” fashion photographer, producing straight up studio shots for Vogue.

From Style to Substance

Overlapping with Day’s arc to becoming fashion royalty – but traveling in the totally opposite direction – current art world darling Taryn Simon instead began life as a commercial photographer, shooting for Vogue and producing campaigns for Chloe, Cesare Paciotti, and other designers while still in her mid-20s. True, Simon always had a more edgy look than the average Vogue photographer. Nonetheless, her early fashion work was a far cry from the more cerebral, well-researched photographic projects that have since brought her so much success in the “serious” art world.

Interestingly though, in order to establish herself as an artist, Simon effectively had to erase all reference to her commercial past.

Of course, with contributors to internet fashion forums periodically digging up old campaigns and editorial shoots from the analog days, it was only a matter of time before Simon’s previous photographic incarnation would resurface. But with her status as an art world heavyweight now so firmly established, at this point, such revelations are unlikely to cause her career any damage.

Adding Substance to Style

Simon’s early work was clearly influenced by the photography of Philip Lorca diCorcia. In the late ‘70s Lorca diCorcia had begun using studio lighting techniques learned from advertising and fashion photography, but instead taking his strobes out on location to photograph “real” people rather than professional models. As the influence of the grungy post-Goldin school of photography waned toward the end of the ‘90s, the more technically accomplished and highly cinematic work of Lorca diCorcia had its moment in the limelight.

Interestingly though, despite enjoying art-world superstardom with shows at MoMA and other prestigious venues, Lorca diCorcia now also took on commissions from publications such as W Magazine to shoot fashion stories – once again closing the loop between the art and commercial photography worlds.

Battlefield to Runway

More recently, Magnum documentary photographer Paolo Pellegrin has produced several campaigns for Fred Perry. He is nonetheless a well-respected photojournalist who has major gallery and museum exhibitions dedicated to his work.

Above all though, this gritty combat photographer seems like an extremely unlikely candidate for shooting polo shirts.

Even more so when we consider that, stylistically, the bright, clean images he’s shot for Fred Perry are about as far removed from war photography as you could possibly imagine. Quite why the brand chose to work with this hardened combat photographer – only to then ask him to shoot images that could have been created by countless fashion photographers – is anybody’s guess. Nonetheless, it shows that the divisions between photographic genres may not be as firmly entrenched as they once were.

Final Thoughts

The commercial world has always drawn on the art world for inspiration.

But it’s much less acknowledged that the reverse is also true: because artists on the cutting edge are always looking for some way to overturn the values of the previous generation and expand what is meant by the word “art” itself, those working with photography frequently also pillage the commercial world in search of “taboo” ideas.

What’s more, the once rigid barriers between the spheres of commercial and art photography have become much less of an obstacle than they were even just a few years ago.

One photographer who effortlessly moves between the worlds of art and fashion today is Viviane Sassen. Encompassing portraiture, fashion, and some unusual still-life/landscape hybrids, Sassen’s colorful and graphic compositions have been highly influential in both the fashion and art camps in recent years. However, rather than starting out on one side of the divide and then abandoning it for the other, Sassen appears totally comfortable straddling this diverse terrain; producing exhibitions and books of her personal work while also regularly shooting fashion editorial and campaigns. Her work is focused and shows no sign of schizophrenia, and this fluid attitude to photography doesn’t appear to have damaged her career in any noticeable way either.

Nonetheless, it’s worth going back to consider the case of Taryn Simon: in order to re-establish her career in the artistic realm,  Simon had to carefully reinvent herself by obscuring her past. This can likely be taken as a sign that there still remains considerable art industry prejudice against photographers “tainted” by association with the commercial world – especially if they wish to position themselves on a more intellectual level. Even today, a photographer attempting to shift from a commercial career to exhibiting in galleries and museums will likely encounter numerous hurdles blocking their access to the more elite echelons of the art industry.

The relationship between art and commercial photography remains tense, suspicious, antagonistic even, but nonetheless highly symbiotic, and the frontier between the two sectors is likely more porous than ever before. However, while there is certainly more opportunity to walk the thin line between art and commercial photography than 40 years ago, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a photographer hoping to combine the two disciplines will find the path an easy one to navigate.

Let us know your thoughts on this topic by commenting below!

Leave a Reply