An Unmanageable Object and a Moment Apart

Writer Eugenie Shinkle casts her critical eye across the state of the fashion photograph in the work of Viviane Sassen and Edward Steichen, currently on show at The Photographers’ Gallery.

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Viviane Sassen installation view at The Photographers’ Gallery © Kate Elliott

The day I sat down to write this post, a fashion shoot was taking place in the street outside The Photographers’ Gallery Café. The model marched back and forth in front of the windows, shoulders thrown back and legs scissoring in a loose-limbed catwalk strut. She slipped in and out of character, shedding her composure only to reclaim it moments later as she prepared once again to become a picture. Her image, available immediately on the tiny screen of the digital camera, was destined, as most fashion photographs are, for an obsolescence that would come almost as quickly.

The first thing you see when you enter Vivianne Sassen’s installation is yourself, reflected in a tall mirror. A loop of projected images washes over the floor and up the wall, illuminating the space. In the corner, a small screen displays a short animated sequence of a model posing twitchily, flipping from one crabbed, insect-like pose to the next. Behind a partition, slides of Sassen’s fashion work move in slow procession across the wall. It’s difficult to tell where one image ends and the next begins. Nothing is still.

It’s tempting – and easy, and certainly not inappropriate – to set Sassen’s work in the context of fashion photography’s increasing fascination with the moving image. But it also speaks to broader issues around the subject’s changing relationship to the camera, and to the production and afterlife of the photographic image. Sassen’s elaborate exhibition schema is not a design conceit, but a sharp reminder of the way that we are increasingly present to ourselves as images. It suggests that the work of self-representation is no longer carried out by a single, archetypal image, but by a stream of constantly renewed images. And this compulsion to continually produce and reproduce the subject-as-photograph has unsettled expectations that a representation of the self need necessarily reveal anything essential or enduring.

This transient, jubilant rendering of the body as an object has, until fairly recently, been the prerogative of the fashion photograph. It’s no secret that fashion photography has a penchant for rendering the female form as a collection of discrete, and often fetishized body parts. It has also been rightly accused of dissolving the body into a euphoric procession of signifying surfaces. But the sort of fragmentation and unsettling that I’m interested in here is no longer necessarily exclusive to fashion photography, and it has to do not just with the way that the body comes to act as a sign or an object of desire, but with the way that it is contained – or not – by the time and space of the image. The juxtaposition of Sassen’s fashion work with that of Edward Steichen, working almost a century earlier, throws this set of circumstances into sharp relief.

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Edward Steichen installation view at The Photographers’ Gallery © Kate Elliott

Edward Steichen began his career as a fashion photographer in the early years of the twentieth century. His sitters were society’s elite: movie stars, aristocrats, young women of good breeding. These were modern, worldly women, enjoying an unprecedented freedom, but demonstrating the poise and elegance of bearing that befitted their social standing. Steichen worked with a large-format camera – a slow technology – and his sitters had to compose themselves for an often-lengthy stint in front of the lens. Dignity was their imperative.

If freedom of movement for the newly emancipated woman was a key concern for the modern fashion designers whose garments Steichen photographed, this is less apparent in his images. The technology that he used required the sitter to behave like a sculpture in order to become a picture, and Steichen treated the female form accordingly, like a column of marble. Occasionally, a hand or a gracefully pointed toe was permitted to float, swan-like, towards the edge of the picture, but limbs rarely strayed far from the body.

If Steichen’s subjects have the self-possession of classical sculpture, his images are equally remarkable for the precision with which they enclose the subject in the space of the picture. Photographic space fits his subjects as closely as the clothes they wear, accommodating and flattering the outline of the body. Steichen’s fashion images are all crisp outlines and razor-sharp profiles, skin-garment-picture cohering in a single, perfectly groomed continuum.

The statuesque character of his images sits squarely within the context of photographic modernism. Steichen shared the modernist preoccupation with form and tonal range, with sharply delineated volumes and strong graphic outlines. He subjected photographic space to a sculptural schema that was, as John Szarkowski wrote in 1989, ‘so simply rendered that the main structure of the picture will survive even a Xerox copy’. Steichen’s fashion photographs were the outcome of a dialogue between two and three dimensions, between the body as sculpture and the body as image.

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Viviane Sassen installation view at The Photographers’ Gallery © Kate Elliott

Sassen appears, at least superficially, to be doing something similar. She coaxes her models into angular, uncomfortable poses, disturbing their outlines by means of shadows, mirrors, and startling camera angles. Bodies are folded in half and compressed, arms dangling, heads and faces obscured; they are artificially extended, drawn out into objects or shadows or other bodies. Random limbs reach in from outside the frame. The poise and self-containment that typified Steichen’s sitters is mostly absent in Sassen’s work. Her subjects often look like they fell into the photograph by accident, or are trying frantically to escape it.

Sassen’s debt to the modernist image is evident in the way she uses the model’s body as a vehicle for volume, line, and colour. But where Steichen’s fashion photographs crossed over into portraiture, Sassen is, by her own admission, less interested in the connection between body and identity. This lack of interest in the persona of her sitters can be problematic, and Sassen has been roundly castigated by writer and critic Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa for the way that she presents bodies – particularly black bodies – as ‘manageable objects in a series of still lives’.

But Sassen’s unwillingness to explore the identity of her sitters, to offer up some kind of truth about them – her images present only edgy, inarticulate bodies – can also be understood in the wider context of a shift in expectations of what a photograph of a person can and should do. Sassen approaches the body as an unmanageable object – the accessory of a subject whose relationship with both the camera and the image is more fugitive and anarchic than it was for Steichen or his sitters.

Glib descriptions of Sassen as an unreconstructed modernist overlook something more fundamental about her practice: its clear awareness of the way that the time and space of the modernist photograph has been disturbed and disrupted by subjects whose relationship to these parameters has changed – subjects for whom ‘image’ is less a noun than it is a verb and a way of being. If photographic modernism was preoccupied with the space of the image, Sassen’s work reflects an increasing fascination with the time of the image – not simply the moment of its creation, but its instantaneous appearance, and its fleeting and diffuse afterlife. In refusing to allow the image to settle, to assume a physical form, Sassen’s installation is utterly of its time, the embodiment of a historical moment when popular photography approaches the condition – the accelerated production and immediate obsolescence – of the fashion image.

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Edward Steichen installation view at The Photographers’ Gallery © Kate Elliott

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes described the photographic portrait as a ‘closed field of forces’: ‘the one I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.’ This is the dynamic that animates Steichen’s fashion photographs. But where Barthes saw only the failure of the photograph to coincide with the self – to produce an authentic representation of the sitter – Steichen treated the photograph as a site where time and space could be, if not controlled, then certainly temporarily contained in order to produce a coherent expression of self. And the production of this self – its transformation from a subject into an object for the camera – was a solemn occasion, a moment apart. We look in on Steichen’s fashion photographs from the outside.

Sassen’s installation, on the other hand, almost obliges the visitor to take a selfie – to participate in the restless procession of images that describes the contemporary subject. And if the field of forces that constitutes the portrait photograph is now wide open, it has also become strangely one-dimensional, Barthes’ four image-repertoires collapsing into a single, insubstantial loop. What Barthes perceived as a transformation from subject to object has become a permanent condition – the privilege of a subject whose very substance is the possibility of re-presenting the self anew, over and over again, with neither commitment nor consequence.

– Eugenie Shinkle

Eugenie Shinkle is Reader in Photography at Westminster University. She writes and lectures widely on fashion media, affect, and embodiment. She is the editor of Fashion as Photograph (2008), and is presently completing a book on fashion photography for Bloomsbury Press.

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