Experiencing Fashion Photography. Essay by Andrea Kollnitz

Fashion is Human – Experiencing Fashion Photography

Fashion photographs, both everywhere and far detached. I first encountered them as a child in the shape of my mother’s German women’s magazines. Shyly devouring every image, wondering about what grown-up life in grown-up bodies might be like. Later glossy luxurious fashion magazines, hardly ever purchased, mainly found, seen, touched, glanced at in public spaces, at hair dressers, places where wo/men are indulging into becoming more perfected, idealized versions of themselves. Inspired by model images.

Essay by Andrea Kollnitz

Fashion images attracted and repelled, even scared the young me, all at once. The wonderful beauty of clothes, bodies, people. The thrill, pleasure and dreamlike fantasy of fashion, of persons and stories created through fashion. The anxiety coming from having to look like that, being able to look like that, having the obligation, the liberty and the power to ”make yourself up”. And who were the people in these images? I couldn’t reach them. They seemed distant and detached, not only through their supernatural, otherworldly beauty, but also through their unreadable faces, purified or emptied from any “true” emotion, their refusal to express and give away the personal – only their dressed ideal body speaking in a way I initially experienced as cold superiority.

First many years later, after years of professional training to be an artist, an art historian, a fashion scholar, years of developing the creative eye of an aesthetic, the visual analyst, keen and curious to find and describe every possible detail, nuance and sensual facet in these depictions of human beauty and creations of ideal identities – from painted renaissance portraits to Nick Knight’s fashion films – I surrendered to the fascinating appeal, expressive meanings and artistic force of fashion and fashion photography. Delving into the pleasures of fashion aesthetics interwoven with the artistic techniques of photography I began to study the self-fashioning of artists and their portrayals in fashion portraiture and photography. To explore and explain the powers of fashion photography in my teachings, from the powers of the aesthetic sublime to the powers of self-consciously styled, created and confirmed identities. As Anne Hollander writes: fashion is to be seen as an image, an expression of visual art and clothes don’t make the man, they make the image of the man. Images of human beings are most of the time images of dressed human beings. And as Eugénie Shinkle writes, fashion photographs need to be interpreted not only in their semiotic meanings, read as texts, but in terms of pleasure and allure… It is then the ambivalence inherent in any fashion photograph, actually several layers of ambivalence that make fashion photographs a fascinating phenomenon: they exist somewhere between the material and the immaterial, the sensual and the symbolical, between art and commerce, between the personal and the impersonal, the human and the superhuman, the real and the surreal.

The reality and humanity in and of fashion photography became most obvious to me after having encountered the work and personality of the photographer who has founded this magazine, Magnus Magnusson, when I and my colleague Marco Pecorari invited him to share his work and thoughts with our students at the Centre for Fashion studies. Thinking about the nature of fashion photography and his own role as a fashion photographer he often started his lectures with a favourite image. “This is a picture I like a lot”, he said, pointing at a photograph showing a glamorously dressed longhaired model with a cigarette, standing on the rooftop of a bright dusty and shabby Mediterranean building, beneath a blue and sunlit sky. The model’s glossy long silver grey gloves, her elegant dress, her luxurious grey fur and glittering broche combined with her elegantly coiffured hair, coquettishly thrown aside, the big sunglasses and the clear red lips make a striking contrast to the rough environment, suggesting a natural, unstaged real life scenario from Marrakech where the photo was taken.

No artificial lighting has been used, the photo is taken like a snap shot, making use of the glaring sunlight, at a seemingly quite spontaneously chosen place, with a hand camera. The image is full of dynamic, coming from the model’s relaxed pose and facial expression, the movement of her hair, the unexpected and somehow alienating everyday background, the highlight effects created by the play of the sunlight on the shimmering fabrics. It exhales warmth and glossy glamorous coolness at the same time.

The photographer likes his picture, because it shows some of his main ideas and practices as a fashion photographer: he prefers and almost exclusively uses daylight. As he states: “Our eyes are the best camera.” He avoids the studio and is inspired by simple un-staged daily life spaces where no props are needed, but at the same time likes to create cinematic effects and bring out exciting live characters. He wants his models to relax, to be themselves, act naturally and feel comfortable and equal, while hardly ever retouching their depictions. He loves fashion and the aesthetics of fashion, yet sees it as always connected to people, to human beings, human life. In coherence with the natural behaviour and expressivity of his models he wants the spectator to experience closeness, to feel included and present in the picture.

Through examining the aesthetic and ethical intentions and practices of Magnus Magnusson in connection with his niche fashion magazine Contributor, I have tried to understand contemporary Swedish fashion photography both from a practitioner’s angle and in terms of its aesthetics and ethical implications when it comes to national identity and Swedish fashion at large. I realized that Magnusson as well as Contributor show characteristics that go beyond a certain artistic style, beyond a search for technical perfection and beyond the detachment and strangely inhumane and impersonal aesthetic purification that paralysed my early experiences of fashion photography. The aesthetics of his photographic work, his ideals on his own role as a photographer and the composition and policies of Contributor express and manifest also ethical values, a notion of overarching humanity and a social agenda that recalls a larger Swedish cultural context.

While the photo from Marrakech shows a glamorously dressed model in rough environment as an almost ironic reference to the glossy fashion aesthetics linked to the world of high fashion and high fashion magazines such as Vogue, another example might be taken from an issue of Contributor with the title “Nature as Culture.” One of the three different covers for the printed version of the November issue 2016 shows the Polish model Ola Rudnicka, sitting in a cross-legged yoga position on a green lawn covered with withered autumn leaves and surrounded by the branches of bright green leafy trees. She is photographed in backlight, seemingly at dawn, and the sunbeams highlight her blond feathery hair freely blowing in the light breeze. Her face with its natural makeup shows calm and certainty as she quietly, yet with a straightforward and firm gaze, looks at the spectator. Notions of strength and inner balance are reinforced by the frontal symmetrical position she is photographed in. The wide sweater, in a natural dark red and earthy colour, held together by a waist belt and worn over tight leggings and socks in other shades of red, suggests physical liberty and – though 2016 fashion and worn at yoga practice – has a timeless character. Together with the flower wreath the girl is wearing, it recalls figures linked to Swedish national romanticism such as mystic forest elves and fairy tale characters, painted by the symbolist painter Richard Bergh around 1900. Furthermore it may refer to the anti-fashion clothing style of bohemian artists from the same period, such as the painter and illustrator of fairy tales, Ivar Arosenius in his aesthetic and natural, one might say minimalist garments combined with his personal signature, the flower wreath. Another Swedish national romantic reference can be found in the watercolours of Carl Larsson whose light, skilfully drawn and coloured paintings have gained international recognition not least for the naturalness and intimate feeling with which he depicted his own family.

The connections between Magnusson’s ideas of natural light and natural posing in natural urban or rural environments and the ideas of Swedish national romantic open air painting by artists such as Carl Larsson, Richard Bergh or Bruno Liljefors, that came to my mind, were confirmed in my interview with Magnusson who definitely sees links to the love for Nordic light and naturalism of for example Carl Larsson. “Light is crucial for us here in the North, there is so much of it in summer and almost nothing in winter. I think daylight is a very important aspect in Swedish fashion photography.” Apart from a preference for open air scenarios and daylight, he recognizes himself not least in Larsson’s way of portraying his models in a natural and intimate mode, catching them in movement, in daily life, and bridging the distance between the painter and model through the latter’s direct gaze. Tellingly, Larsson’s watercolours of his family life have been compared to photographic snapshots taking a step away from the idealising and objectifying painterly styles that dominated late 18th century bourgeois society painting.

Similarly, the photos shown above can be interpreted as bridging the distance between the photographer and his model, and between the model and the spectator, by consciously avoiding objectifying photographic compositions and constructions. The photographer emphasizes the importance of expressiveness and agency with his models and may be seen as consciously performing and activating his models as subjects. Comparing his fashion photographs to portraits, he keeps looking for individuality, natural expression and authenticity, not least in their faces. These are often depicted in a frontal centralised position and symmetrical composition that creates a strong notion of direct and equal eye contact. Tellingly, Magnusson’s stylistic inspiration comes from photographers of the German school such as Wolfgang Tillmans and Jürgen Teller, London documentary raw style of Corinne Day and art and fashion photographers such as Nan Goldin – photographers capturing real life in individual faces and personalities.

Turning back to Contributor, the significance of the portrayed fashion model as an individual personality, beyond the objectifying mechanisms of an exploitative model industry, is expressed even in their printed names. The above analysed cover is portraying the model Ola Rudnicka not only through giving her a central and firm position in the image, but even through showing her printed name – the only printed text on the cover apart from the magazine title and its theme title. This brings us to a characterisation of the photographer’s work beyond its aesthetic specificity and to what I would call the social and democratic intentions of Contributor. Already the title of the magazine is highly significant as symbolising its mission, message and policy: the magazine is to be a site where a variety of talented creators equally contribute to a common cause; a fashion magazine to introduce new young talents in fashion design, photography, styling and writing and to introduce deepening perspectives on fashion as an essential cultural phenomenon.

While its digital platform is updated daily and provides a gathering point for new young fashion photographers, predominantly female, displaying an abundance of new photographs and fashion stories, it is also produced in printed shape, as an artifact, to be looked at, held, touched, sensed and used as it may literally be taken apart in order to provide printed art posters and postcards for lovers of fashion photography. It exemplifies what Ane Lynge-Jorlén classifies as the hybrid genre of the art fashion magazine presenting an overlap of art and fashion photography and philosophic essayist texts or interviews reflecting on theoretical aspects of fashion. Yet, far from an unavailable and exclusive object of art and expensive collector’s item, it is achievable for “everybody” and thus opens up the art of fashion photography to a non-wealthy audience with a passion for fashion/image. It is reachable and creates closeness – for any kind of audience, or for me, the analytical scholar, finally realizing that fashion (photographs) are not only dazzling and beautiful, but also and entirely human.

Andrea Kollnitz is an associate professor in art history and senior lecturer in Fashion studies at Stockholm University. Her research and writing is focused on artistic self-fashioning, interactions between art and fashion during modernism and visual fashion representation throughout history – from portraiture and caricatures to fashion photography.