Susan Bright, freelance curator of photography exhibitions and author of the highly successful book Art Photography Now discusses her new exhibition Face of Fashion (15th Feb. - 28th May 2007) below...[update: Read Susan's interview about 'How We Are Photographing Britain', Tate Britain]
Links to information about the five photographers included.
Read the Press Release.
Hear Susan talking about the exhibition on 3rd March at the NPG, booking information here
Susan will also be discussing fashion photography with some of the key players on Friday 13th April in a Tate Modern study day 'When Fashion and Art Collide'.
Nigel: Face of Fashion at the National Portrait Gallery has more publicity before it has opened than some major exhibitions get altogether. Why do you think there is such fervid press interest here?
Susan: I think there are many reasons for it. There are five photographers, so there are five potential stories and takes on the subject; the photographers have good links with the magazines so in turn publications are more likely to feature them; the exhibition features celebrities which of course sell column inches and finally the NPG has an excellent press department with very good relations with the media. You are also probably noticing it more too as you know me. Hogarth has had a lot too!
Nigel: What is the main theme of the show?
Susan: There is no over-arching theme. Its not a survey but a glimpse at the work of 5 photographers, highlighting their virtuosity as portraitists and the diversity of the genre within a commercial setting. I like what Philippe Garner wrote about it in PLUK.. “…Face of Fashion does not claim to be encyclopedic or even comprehensive. It feels, rather, like and intuitive and sensitive probing of the field and presents work of just a few photographers…but each in sufficient depth to underscore their individuality. The list is international; it is diverse, and it succeeds in demonstrating the very considerable shifts that have marked the world of fashion imagery since the early 1990s. Without the straightjacket of a self-conscious curatorial structure, the work is encouraged to speak for itself, and it successfully puts forward some challenging ideas.”
Nigel: What is fashion portraiture?
Susan: Portraiture that is done by photographers that work mainly in fashion and portraits that appear within fashion and lifestyle magazines. This can be advertising or editorial.
Nigel: Is it different from other kinds of celebrity portraiture?
Susan: Yes. There are many types of celebrity portraiture – publicity shots and grabbed paparazzi shots for the ‘red tops’ example. Here we are looking at the very best editorial and advertising shots of the famous.
Nigel: I do think there is something different about fashion portraiture, but am not quite sure what it is. Perhaps because many of the subjects are particulary good-looking there is less focus on character (if the subjects are famous they are famous for the way they look, so everything is on the surface). It might have something to do with portraiture created for the more ephemeral medium of the fashion magazine spread too...Do you have any thoughts about this?
Susan: I think a lot of portraiture in ‘art photography’ is about the photographic act. Subjects tend to be awkward and over self-conscious about the camera. This is what makes so much of it strong. I am most obviously thinking of Rineke Djkstra here…In fashion portraiture they have been commissioned. The models or actors are very used to being photographed and are acting. It's their job to be photographed so the photographic act is totally taken for granted on some levels. They know what to do.
Models are like silent movie stars. Tilda Swinton wrote very eloquently in the handlist about being photographed by Paolo and how to move so not to appear frozen. She totally gets how to move, how to react. Production values are much higher too in commercial portraiture and don’t forget sitters will have been styled and made up. Also post production is much more rigorous and we only see the ones that make it to the final edit.
Nigel: In your book Art Photography Now (p.13) , writing about photographic portraiture, you asked, rhetorically, 'Is it all about surface appearance or can it communicate something more?' Are you prepared to answer this question in relation to Face of Fashion?
Susan: I think its all about the surface. Portraiture is about role playing, performance, posing. Corinne’s work comes closest to showing more about the presence of her models but they are still aware of the camera.
Nigel: How did you select the five photographers?
Susan: I was limited by space. The NPG is a modest museum. I wanted 5 different sets of work so that I could show a good amount of photographs rather than just three or four by more photographers. I wanted to show how each photographer approach portraiture in very different ways. However, it was important in the selection to illustrate that what links them together is that they all form very close collaborations with the sitter. All the photographers deal with intimacy on some level although they do this in very different ways. Their relationship with their sitters comes from empathy and respect. There is not any cruelty in their work. I am not condemning cruelty in portraiture (some of the very best photographers use this to wonderful effect – Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn to name a few) it's just not what these photographers are about or what the show wanted to say about portraiture. This doesn’t mean to say that the photographers in the show are just interested in flattering their sitters, far from it, it's more that they are prepared to work very closely with their subjects to produce results that push both themselves and the sitter due to high levels of trust created whilst shooting.
Nigel: Are we in a golden age of fashion photography?
Susan: Sadly no. Very conservative times indeed. The control of the advertisers cannot be underestimated. This doesn’t mean good work isn’t being produced though – but a Golden Age it certainly isn’t. The work in the show starts at the early 1990s which can be understood as a very significant time in the history and runs to the modern day.
Nigel: What are the highlights of the exhibition for you?
Susan: Working with Mario Sorrenti and Paolo Roversi. The integrity of both photographers was overwhelming.
Nigel: As a curator, are you able to influence the manner in which the photographs are displayed?
Susan: Yes, and no……with some photographers I worked very collaboratively. With others it was much more of them saying how their work was to be presented. We of course discussed everything through before display but each relationship was different.
Nigel: Many of the sitters for these portraits are startlingly beautiful, yet remarkably thin. Are you worried about supporting the size zero approach to beauty here and influencing vulnerable teenagers?
Susan: I am interested that you think some of the sitters are remarkably thin. Don’t forget that models have always been thin (in fashion) think of the body shapes of famous models of the 1960s and 1970s such Gerry Hall, Marie Helvin, Twiggy…. Are the body shapes we have in the exhibition any different? Not really. I think they look strong and independent. They certainly are not anywhere size zero. All the models in the show are from reputable (top) model agencies and most of the commissions are from magazines such as W, POP, Vogue which never show size zero models and have a working rule of only using models over 16. The whole ‘skinny’ model thing is fascinating and comes, I think, much more from Hollywood rather than fashion magazines. The red tops' obsession with weight is much more ‘to blame’ if we are going to band blame around.
Nigel: Kate Moss emerges as the star of this show. Somehow she manages to upstage the photographers even. What is it about her that makes her such a mesmerising subject?
Susan: Her ordinariness on one level and her total understanding of the photographic act on the other. I know that sounds like a weird thing to say, but an anecdote might better illustrate this. A friend of mine was a fashion photographer in the early 1990s. Kate was often sent to him as a ‘go see’. He never bothered to take her picture and couldn’t understand why she kept being sent. He just didn’t get it. They became friends. He was at the time seeing an American model and remembers walking down Kings Road with her and noted that all the men were eying her up and then looking and him and wondering how he managed to go out with somebody so beautiful. A week later after one of the shows he was walking down the same road with Kate and noted that none of the men looked at her. Not one. Get her in front of the camera and she transforms. You can’t take your eyes off her. I noticed this at the opening - when she was in front of the cameras she transformed, totally lit up. It was incredible. So we can relate to her as ‘one of us’ but also as somebody so glamorous and unattainable. This is a perfect combination for obsession and fascination – for both men and women.
Nigel: What are your plans for future projects?
Susan: Coming up in May 2007 I am co-curating How We Are: Photographing Britain with Val Williams for Tate Britain. This is to take place in the Linbury Galleries and is to be Tate’s first ever large scale exhibition of British photography. In May I also start a book on photographic self portraiture which I am currently researching. In October I am curating an exhibition at Fotogalleriet in Oslo. I am also thinking about getting a full time job rather than working freelance.
Nigel: Thank you very much.