Selling Dreams begins with an iconic Irving Penn 1950 shot of Lisa Fonssagrives in a harlequin-patterned dress and ends with a 2005 Tim Walker photograph of Lily Cole with a giant camera literally walking all over the exact type of Vogue-chic black and white photography that Penn’s picture forms a part of.
Is it true that this kind of deliciously glamorous image is now consigned to the creative floor? The exhibition itself with its ability to firstly knock the viewer into a nostalgic trance would suggest it is not entirely dismissed, but that, as with the Tim Walker photograph, it constitutes a very particular backdrop to our imaginings of the term ‘Fashion Photography’.
Segmented into decades and arranged in chronological order, the RWA has organised the exhibition in a circular formation across two adjoining rooms. After attending so many confusing multi-room exhibitions at major galleries, this is refreshing as there is no need to waste time wondering where to tread next.
To begin with the show appears to be a nostalgic’s dream, with shot after shot of inter-war glamour and delectable crumples of touchable silk. However, as a viewer afflicted awfully with this nostalgic disease, I was surprise at the speed at which it becomes saccharine.
Instead, what really stood out are the points at which fashion photography took subversive twists. The first introduction of this is the 1930s Surrealism section, which includes an image of one of the movement’s most impeccable characters, Lee Miller, photographed in a Madonna-style bra surrounded by Madonna Lilies – a joke for the modern eye which the Surrealists would surely have appreciated – along with an example of solarisation and, most interestingly, a haunting Horst. P. Horst picture of the back of a deathly corset looking skeletal against a barren background which crucially anticipates the 1980s works of Corrine Day.
Before, however, we reach that decade there is another great shudder evoked by the introduction of Helmut Newton’s androgynous and supernaturally sexy shots. Given our modern familiarity with Newton, in part due to Yves Saint Laurent, this impact is unexpected and yet in this hourglass-heavy context the captivation caused by distorting and merging the sexes perhaps partially explains our current fascination with the sexless, skinny models of today.
When we do reach the era of Day, it is interesting to also note a widening of fashion publications – the early decades are so dominated by Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar – to include Dazed and Confused, The Face and ID. As an even more recent addition, there is also a photo by The Sartorialist blogger Scott Schuman of two Islamic girls in Amsterdam. This is a very deft inclusion on the part of the curator as it at least nods to the massive revolution which has taken place in fashion photography under the name ‘Street Style’ during the last five years or so.
In fact, photography of Schuman’s kind is arguably a more dominant trend in the genre during recent years than the last section of the show titled ‘Fiction and Fantasy’ has been. However, the sheer beauty of the images, particularly Miles Aldridge’s Technicolor Le Manege Echante (2007) which looks like a picture of the Louis Vuitton S/S 2012 carrousel invaded by an Angela Carter heroine, more than justifies their inclusion.
For all these subversive moments to really take effect, we of course need the original glamour of early Vogue shots as our continual point of departure. We need the clinched-in-waist cliché for the sex of Newton to get the blood moving and we need all the black and white in order to become addicted to the overly saturated, intense hues of Aldridge and Steven Meisel.
As a Beginners’ Guide to Fashion Photography, this concise exhibition considerably satisfies, but it also encourages the uninitiated to appreciate what an enticing and innovative era we are at present living through with regards to this art form. Hopefully there will be a few more Lula and Love subscriptions asked for come next Christmas.