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Review of Face of Fashion exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery London 2007

Face of Fashion is a high profile exhibition showing at the National Portrait Gallery from 15 February to 27 May 2007. Face of Fashion aims to gather together a definitive selection of contemporary fashion photographers and present a 'snapshot' of contemporary fashion portraiture, celebrating its innovation and diversity. Much of the work is from the last few years, but some goes back to the early 90s. Some of the material is, however controversial and will provoke mixed reactions. What was my reaction?

Fashion photography, like film, is driven by the cult of celebrity. A photographer may be highly regarded not necessarily because of the quality of the photographs but how famous the people are whom he photographs. I've heard the term 'He's a leading photographer, he's photographed David Beckham'.

Is a fashion photo good simply because it has Kate Moss in it, or some other high profile celebrity?

And is a fashion photograph good because it has been chosen for the front cover of some glossy magazine? Or maybe not chosen?

How do these contemporary fashion photos differ from the classic images of Beaton, Lichfield, Snowdon, Bailey and others?

Would this exhibition motivate someone to take up photography?

These were the questions going through my mind as I walked to the Wolfson Gallery at the rear of the NPG and presented my ticket, which cost me eight pounds.

The most striking first impression was the photo of Kate Moss tied up in a rope and nothing else. This was one of 15 images by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, who work as a pair and are based in London and Ibiza.

The nudity and air of fetish was eye-opening, but that's one of the characteristics of contemporary fashion photography, the desire to shock.

Whenever I go to an exhibition I like to circle around and get an overview first.

The exhibition is laid out in the long, windowless Wolfson Gallery with partitions placed at 45 degrees to the wall, creating triangular spaces. This technique increases the available display area, necessary for some of the very large format photos. The installation design was by award-winning architect David Adjaye.

Walking on through the exhibition, I saw more black and white unclothed photos of Kate Moss, large format 'hyper-real' photos by Mario Sorenti, a row of 20 A4 sized framed black and white portraits by Paolo Roversi and at the far end, the most shocking images on exhibit, hidden behind the end partition, the large format image of Justin Timberlake with a bloody nose, and the one of Kevin Federline with prosthetic throat cut. These were among 7 large format images by Steven Klein.

I have to say I wasn't impressed with this latter image, a prime example of what I regard as the 'cheap thrills' used to try and attract attention and controversy.

As a 'veteran' of the Middle East - I taught English in the Gulf - I am hypersensitive to the horrific things that go on in conflict zones. A prosthetic bloodied throat simply doesn't impress me. It's fake, it's tacky, I just don't want to see it.

I was similarly unimpressed with the image of Justin Timberlake with bloodied nose - being also a veteran of Manchester on a Saturday night in the 90s, I don't find that sort of thing fashionable or glamorous. It's interesting that this image was intended to be chosen for the cover of Homme on 12 September 2001, but reportedly due to the events of the previous day it remained unpublished.

Talking of the Middle East, some Moslem women in headscarves came into the exhbition - what must they have made of some of the images on display here?

We often forget just how far we in the post-war industrialised world have pushed back the bounds of acceptibility in recent decades, though this applies to some areas and not others.

Other shocking / unclothed Images included the traumatic image of Shannon Plumb tied up in rubber bands by Mario Sorrenti, and the intimate photos of Kate Moss by Corinne Day.

The infamous waif-like portrait of Kate Moss in skimpy pink t shirt and knickers takes pride of place. This is the one that launched the 'heroin chic' trend that made her famous.

So what about the less controversial pictures on display? The images of Paolo Roversi, all shot on black and white 10x 8 polaroid, hark back to fashion images the past, going back even to the earliest origins of photography in the mid-19th century.

The one of Natalia Vodianova with the big eyes is the most striking, but the portrait of John Galliano, used on the exhibition banner, was I think the most memorable. As for the sexiest, I liked image of the brooding Vanessa Paradis with plunging neckline, done in Julia Margaret Cameron style

Shooting exclusively on 10x8 polaroid, Roversi's images are uniform in size and format but extremely varied in the way they portray the sitter. Just opposite are the 25 photographs by Mario Sorrenti which range from medium sized to large and very large in both monochrome and colour.

Undoubtetly the most high impact images were the large format portaits of John Frusciante, Matthew Barney and Jasper Johns. All of his images are technically superb and show a variety of styles and methods of experimentaiton.

The intimate portraits of former model Corinne Day present a grunge-influenced world of half derelict rooms with peeling wallpaper and Tracey Emin-style cigarette butts and beer cans on the floor.

Her portraits of her friends Rosemary Ferguson and Georgina provide an intimate glimpse of the model in a domestic setting. The one of Kate Moss in pink top and knickers with Christmas lights has become an iconic image. Those of her lying naked on the bed and putting on clothes suggest a carefree attitude towards privacy, and a close bond between photographer and subject.

And there you have another difference between traditional and contemporary fashion photography. Up till around the 50's, published images were generally formal, carefully posed and 'decent', (though not necessarily the unpublished ones).

In recent times the motto is 'anything goes', spontaneity is king and technical perfection is no longer a requirement.

That certainly doesn't mean that techincal prowess has gone out the window. On the contrary, many images in the exhibition are highly technically accomplished, it's just that nowadays they don't have to be.

Trying to decide which was my favourite photographer, I'd have to go back to the twosome Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot because they have technical sophistication, but are also spontaneous, and show a wide variety of styles, from classic to contemporary. They explore different facets of various celebrities, often improvising and never knowing quite how a shoot will end up. The image of Natalie Portman in the weird hat stands out for me.

So would this exhibition persuade me to get back into photography, as the V&A's 'Fashion photography since the Second World War' did in 1991? I'm not sure. What motivated me about those images was the visual fascination of lost eras from the past, which contemporary images don't have.

Does the Faces of Fashion exhibition succeed in presenting a true snapshot of contemporary fashion photography? I'm not sure about that either - is it possible to do that with only five photographers and a total of, I make it 92 images?

In the introduction to the exhibition it is stated that fashion photography has never been more influential, but I disagree. I just don't think fashion photography has the same level of influence as it had in the 60's, the era of David Bailey and Twiggy. In today's world with its deluge of media channels, trends can come and go without impinging on what the mass of the population see. How many of them regularly buy copies of W or i-D magazine, and if you went out onto Charing Cross Rd, how many would know the names Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott or Corinne Day, as people still know David Bailey or Norman Parkinson?

Which is perhaps a reason for people to go and see the 'Faces of Fashion' exhibition, as it's certainly educational but not in the conventional sense. If you want to be shocked, amazed, turned off and/or possibly turned on, and maybe a little bit inspired, then it's worth paying the 8 to see it. Just being able to study magazine images blown up to large format as well as exhibition quality prints is definitely a treat for anyone with a serious interest in photography.

For certain communities, and for younger viewers, this exhibition is probably not recommended.

The Faces of Fashion exhibition runs from 15 February to 27 May 2007. It is sponsored by Gap and Taylor Wessing.

More information at www.npg.org.uk/fashion

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-03-28

Aidan O'RourkeAidan O'Rourke has been active in photography and online media since 1995. He has documented the development of the local area in his Eyewitness website (1997-2005) and as a contributor to books, publications and the Manchester Evening News. He runs his Eyewitness photography walks in Manchester, Liverpool and other locations. He offers one-to-one tuition in Photography and Languages. He is a high-level speaker of German and can offer photography walks and tours through the medium of German. Visit www.aidan.co.uk

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