The Photographers’ Gallery on Ramillies Street (I always call it the mini Tate as it reminds me so much of the Tate Modern) hosted a blogger breakfast recently. I was invited to attend along with an interesting mix of fashion and culture writers, bloggers and of course, photographers.
We viewed the latest exhibitions; Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937 and Analemma: Fashion Photography 1992 –2012. As it was the day of the opening, there was an anticipatory buzz around the place. And as with any event, the essential last minute changes and finishing touches were going on around us as we wandered from floor to floor.
Very much a then and now pairing, a story arc connecting the Steichen and Sassen is the birth of artistic fashion photography and a statement of where it is at this very point in time.
We began with the Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937 which includes over 200 vintage prints, many on public display for the first time since the 1930s. Even though these working photos, many of them published in Vogue and Vanity Fair, were no larger than a sheet of A5 or A4, they transport you back to an altogether more glamorous and analogue era which ironically still seems ultra modern.
The life story of Steichen is one of legend; he was maverick, creative, fearless and dashing. A painter prior to becoming a photographer, his influence from Europe to the US was immense. He brought many European artists to America and is widely accepted as the first fashion photographer, a craft to which he brought his fine art sensibilities. His candid portrait photography passes the test of time, as well as society fashion models, he shot dancers, film stars, musicians, and other cultural icons of the burgeoning film industry. Some images are unforgettable, especially one of a seated Charlie Chaplin, without costume or make up, which I found captivating and hyper real even though it was a hand printed black and white photo. I particularly enjoyed the Gloria Swanson photo which is beautifully shot, and used for the programme. (You could be forgiven of thinking this was Vanessa Paradis.)
Dazzling and beguiling as this collection is, another thought crossed my mind – these images of the gifted and beautiful people, untouched by modern foibles such as face lifts and liposuction, record the birth of modern mass produced celebrity. The portraits were not one offs, they are photographs design to boost the circulation of magazines and sell fashion. This new approach has greatly influenced generations since but as we all know, it’s not an entirely positive outcome.
[Look out for the random hanging of wallpaper here; it was designed by Steichen himself.]
There is nothing so predictable as change itself which is why Analemma: Fashion Photography 1992 – 2012 is completely refreshing. It’s the first London show of works by Dutch-born photographer Viviane Sassen. Her fashion house and editorial pedigree takes in award-winning campaigns for Stella McCartney, Adidas, Miu Miu, and Missoni along with i-D, Purple, AnOther Magazine, Dazed & Confused and POP magazines.
The way Sassen’s work is presented is ethereal and our host explained the intention behind this; it’s a nod to the speed and movement of social media and how we consume images. This is more installation than exhibition. Gone are the usual accoutrements of exhibitions; labels, frames, prints, books and so on. The room is divided into two areas. First you will come across a projector, mirror and wall construct which is the vehicle for a continuous flow of images; now multi dimensional as they spread across the floor and wall. The second area has seating for viewing while another photo stream plays out onto a wall.
To view the images in full, you need to spend about 20 minutes or so there. It’s both confounding and meditative which I really like. The images are no longer objects, they are a body of work in full flow. The presentation style does not detract from the startling compositions which are hyper modern, with more than a few nods to past Old Masters and South African tribal imagery, and a great contrast to the Steichen.
Following our tour, we sat in the gallery and talked about both shows and whether social media was relevant for fashion and art photography.
In 45 minutes we covered more angles than an Escher etching and it was great to hear so many perspectives and personal insights from the group. There were two interesting streams of discussion; one that was pro social media and the street style movement as a way of getting new talent to the surface in fashion photography and writing. On the downside of this we explored the dilution of talent and the homogenic bubble of digital and social outpourings putting talent at risk by blurring it out. Another topic was about creatives and how they will always appropriate technology and cultural influences within their work and therefore social media becomes a logical element to be used and abused accordingly. We could easily have continued our conversation for an hour or so longer, but I’ve always said if you keep creatives in a room together for more than an hour, there will be blood on the walls, so maybe it’s best we went our separate ways after that! Joking aside, it’s a really good idea to have a prompted discussion about anything you’ve just seen whether it’s photography, art or theatre, so well done The Photographer’s Gallery for putting the event on.
THE PHOTOGRAPHERS’ GALLERY
16–18 RAMILLIES STREET, LONDON W1F 7LW
ADMISSION: £4.50 / £3.50 Conc
Free Admission Mon – Fri, 10.00 – 12.00
OPEN 7 DAYS
Monday – Friday: 9.30 – 18.00
Thursday: 9.30 – 20.00
Saturday: 10.00 – 18.00
Sunday: 11.30 – 18.00
From Oxford Circus Tube Station take Exit 7, turn right and go along Oxford Street. After two minutes walk you’ll come across a staircase next to Boots. Go down the stairs and you’ll see The Photographers’ Gallery directly ahead.
For journey planning and live travel updates, visit the Transport for London website at Journey Planner or you can use Street Map to plan your visit. Nearest tube Oxford Circus. Nearest bus stop OP on Oxford Street.