The Gentlewoman, edited by Penny Martin. The magazine's low-key aesthetic sums up what she believes is the future of fashion media. This spread is from issue 1. Images © Alexandra Catiere.
Is the future of fashion media online? And what of fashion photography’s crossover into galleries, and the emergence of fashion film? These and other key issues are discussed by Penny Martin and Charlotte Cotton, who are behind a two-day symposium on the future of fashion imagery in October
Fashion media, whether that’s writing about fashion, or creating illustration, photography or film, is huge and, like any other media, is currently reinventing itself online. Or is it? That’s what Penny Martin started to ask a couple of years ago after seven years as editor-in-chief of Nick Knight’s innovative online project, Showstudio. She left in 2008 to become professor of fashion media at the London College of Fashion and to do something totally unexpected – launch a print magazine. The biannual title The Gentlewoman first came out last summer and was a runaway success. Issue two is about the hit the newsstands.
“There’s a real received wisdom in the industry at the moment that the future is online, everything online is good, social networking will bring great media, and the future is fashion film,” says Martin. “For a long time I was involved in promoting that agenda at Showstudio, but now I wonder whether in our thirst to invest everything in online media we might throw away a lot of the value and stories and arguments that had been won before.”
She’s in an excellent position to ask. With her professor of fashion media hat on, and with her LCF colleague Djurdja Bartlett, she’s organising a two-day symposium on fashion imagery on 21 and 22 October, gathering together some of the leading academics and practitioners in the field. That includes Charlotte Cotton, who is creative director for the National Media Museum’s forthcoming London galleries, and was previously a head curator at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), The Photographers’ Gallery and the V&A, where she put together groundbreaking exhibitions such as Imperfect Beauty: The Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs (2000) and Guy Bourdin (2003). She also established the Words Without Pictures blog at LACMA with artist Alex Klein, envisaged as a forum and journal of record for contemporary discussions about photography. She has joined the fashion imagery symposium in very much the same spirit.
“For me, it’s parallel to how we started Words About Pictures, which is that it’s not a one-off,” she says. “It’s not a one-stop wonder. This is us dealing with fashion media, it’s bringing people together and seeing what emerges from that. Afterwards there will be discourse on how we can facilitate those discussions and record them, so that there is a nice reader about these things that aren’t text books and definitely aren’t coffee table books, but that define the really significant issues we were thinking about at one time.
“Words About Pictures was the same thing – partly thinking, ‘Well, unless we get on and record these conversations, what’s our document of how we marked this really amazing moment? Was it the three exhibitions we managed to do and the one book and the one commission? Or are there other formats that are something really meaningful to leave behind?’ This conference is exactly the kind of discussion we would want to host at the NMM [when it opens in London]. We have to be willing not to speak with institution-wide voices, to just be the host for other people.”
The conference will cover a wide variety of topics under the broad umbrella of fashion media, but, say Martin and Cotton, a key question will be where fashion media is heading in future, and what role fashion film will play. As they point out, the internet has popularised moving fashion imagery, but while many photographers have thrown their lot in with it, there’s no viable business model and some of the results have been of questionable quality. “I think there’s a big question whether the stills photographer is capable of being the auteur with moving images,” says Cotton.
“Every great stills photographer makes these films this kind of slight movement.”
“A locked-off shot, occurring in front of the frame because the idea of moving from A to B involves choreography and narrative,” agrees Martin. “One of the interesting things – and I was talking to Inez van Lamsweerde about this, and she was saying it’s causing unholy trouble – is that the campaigns are asking for moving images, but they’re wanting the same models they usually shoot because they have that aesthetic, but actually that model may not be English-speaking, she may not look beautiful when she speaks, and she may have no acting abilities whatsoever. She’s saying there’s a whole new group of models they’re going to have to find to fulfil this secondary function.”
One possible solution is to take still images from moving footage – the kind of promise made by the Red camera range. But, says Martin, the quality of the stills isn’t up to current standards, which means the aesthetic of fashion imagery will need to change before fashion photographers can really take advantage of it. She believes the really big-budget, extraordinarily high-production value shoots that have been popular over the past 10 years will disappear, and points to W magazine’s recent change of direction as evidence.
Once known for its lavish, high-glamour stories, W has appointed a new editor-in-chief, Stefano Tonchi, whose first cover, for August 2010, featured an altogether lower-octane shoot. “That’s a big moment because that’s where you saw the highest level of intelligent, big-bucks editorial photography,” she says. “The clever magazines need to be more curatorial in how they think about photography. It needs to be more editorial and more editorially driven, more sartorial and more knowing about its relationship with selling the product. It’s a bit less about a huge glossy magazine with highly produced fashion shoots that cost £70,000. That is not going to continue.”
Martin is confident that print magazines are here to stay too, partly because they are a more chic reading experience than moving, flashing websites, as she puts it, and partly because they have a successful commercial model. In fact, industry input into the debate is really important to her because, “without the experience of practitioners I can’t see how an academic will be able to answer any of the questions about what’s going to happen in future”.
Cotton agrees, and in fact is wary of the concept of the “auteur” photographer, celebrated to the exclusion of the industry he or she works in. She’s also wary of the growing trend for fashion photography to be repurposed for gallery exhibitions, turning it, “into this slightly pretentious rarefied object that doesn’t carry the energy of what it means to be a fashion photographer working in the industry”.
“That makes me prickle with heat – ‘Don’t make it into bad art’,” she says. “Then there’s the issue of the agendas that we associated with fashion in a clear-cut commercial context, compared to considering the gallery the locus of its expression. I don’t think the gallery is the locus of image production right now, I think the world and the web and our personal lives are. It will be really interesting to see what happens with fashion photography in galleries – will we stay with the big museum model, which is auteur theory, big, high-production prints, a party that gets an institution into the society pages?
“Is that fashion’s role within the gallery context? I really hope not. And I would hate that to be the record of what we thought of fashion photography at this time, that we felt it could be repurposed in this pretentious socialite way rather than having the discussion about what is it as a creative industry.”
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