Where is fashion photography now? Bambi and bodies in the background

Image: Jamie Hawkesworth, “Boarding”, Hot & Cool 7, 2015

Writer Dean Kissick begins with a photograph by Terence Donovan and quickly realises that since the 1960s fashion photography has taken some unusual turns. Reading the medium at an oblique angle, it appears to have more in common with Walt Disney’s Bambi than one might think. Autumn has arrived, our acclaimed retrospective exhibition of Donovan’s work is coming to a close, and bodies have blurred into the background…

picture1

Terence Donovan, Twiggy, Woman’s Mirror, 27 August 1966.

When Terence Donovan made this image of Twiggy for Woman’s Mirror, published on 27th August 1966, she was sixteen and about to become incredibly famous. Once, when I spoke to his friend and fellow East Ender David Bailey – who was born in 1938 in Leytonstone – Donovan was born in 1936 in Stepney – and together they changed fashion photography – he told me how he remembered watching Bambi (1942) as a child during the Blitz, and how that particular cinema was later blown up by a German V2 rocket in 1944. In many ways Twiggy was a living, teenage Bambi – massive doe eyes, thin and awkward limbs that bent the wrong way – photographed over and over by Bailey and Donovan, and that made me wonder how much of modern fashion’s fetishisation of youthful innocence might be connected to that movie, and in turn Walt Disney’s conception of beauty.

Anyway, Twiggy soon became the icon of Swinging Sixties London, but in many ways that decade really began with the Profumo Affair of 1961: the brief dalliance between John Profumo, a married man and Secretary of State for War in the Conservative government, and Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old would-be model and exotic dancer in Soho, which quickly escalated into an intoxicating thriller involving sinister society osteopaths and Russian spies, knife fights in nightclubs, shots fired at Marylebone mews houses, newspaper hysteria and the fall of the government in 1964. A long-repressed sexuality was suddenly evident in political scandal, the world of modelling, rock’n’roll and fashion photography, and that’s what this picture represents to me. It visualises the unleashing of a city’s – a nation’s – psyche; a wave of desire, lust and consumerism, and the beginning of “modern Britain”.

Although a rather conventional image, fashion photography hasn’t moved that far since, and the fantasy lifestyle we’re still sold on our high streets (on the huge billboards that fill the windows of Regent’s Street as the latest flagship store is installed behind, often having just relocated from slightly smaller premises hundreds of metres away) is not only impossible to achieve, but also just increasingly tired and boring, emptied of imagination. However, there are exceptions – sometimes in the most unusual places.

picture2

Jamie Hawkesworth, Loewe accessories lookbook, spring/summer 2015.

This – photographed by Jamie Hawkesworth, styled by Benjamin Bruno, art directed by M/M Paris for the spring/summer 2015 accessories lookbook of Loewe – the luxury fashion house now directed by J.W. Anderson – is something different. Two boys, just kids really, are wrapped in landscapes made in collaboration with textile designer John Allen (the “Falling Leaves” beach towel and silk shawl and “Cornish Harbour” beach towel and silk shawl, respectively) and styled, strangely, rather like Camila Batmanghelidjh, the disgraced former executive of the charity Kids Company. This image is composed precisely: young bodies obscured and figurative sceneries twisted beyond recognition, everything made abstract and sculptural. People and fabrics melded into one, colours and forms instead of personalities. As a designer J.W. Anderson rose (and rose and rose) to prominence on a platform of weirdness – and this is a very weird image.

 picture3

Jamie Hawkesworth, “Boarding”, Hot & Cool 7, 2015

In another photo by Hawkesworth, a study in light that has stuck pleasurably inside of me since I first saw it in Hot & Cool 7 (it reminds me of my own time at a private school, in Oxford, with its own visually jarring twentieth century stained glass) a student sat in chapel has sun shining through a stained glass window onto his back, as though his black blazer was itself a photographic paper catching the colours. As such Hawkesworth’s picture represents another image outside of its frame, and this made me wonder what exactly is this other image? His story in the magazine, “Boarding”, documents boarders at Oundle School and Christ’s Hospital, and from this boy’s uniform this is certainly Oundle School not Christ’s Hospital (I know the latter uniform because that school had a ring of weed dealers who supplied all of the intercollegiate student halls in Bloomsbury when I first moved to London to study history of art), and so the image outside of the frame might be one of three sets of twentieth century windows: the Seven Ages of Man windows by Hugh Easton completed in 1950; the Piper windows by Patrick Reyntiens completed in 1956 or the Mark Angus windows completed in 2005. From the arrangement of colours that fall warmly upon his back, I think they are coming from one of Angus’s windows. Another of his windows, of patriotic Saint George slaying the dragon, appears on the cover of the magazine.

picture4

Terence Donovan, “Les Manteaux Arts Modernes”, French Elle, September 1965.

Where is fashion photography now? In our opening image Twiggy is flattened against the Union Jack, following its form – a living abstraction of Britishness and angular geometry. In our second image, by Jamie Hawkesworth, two boys are wrapped in Cornish landscapes with the same kinds of colours and shapes that appear in the third photograph, beaming onto a schoolboy through some stained Northamptonshire glass. Above is another Terence Donovan image, from French Elle in September 1965, in which a model disappears into her surroundings. Her face is cast in shadow and she appears like a mannequin hung from the ceiling on strings (actually holding the lamps) amongst bold geometric forms of light and darkness. Behind her the room is flattened into a Vorticist abstraction, and she becomes part of the interior architecture of the Maison de l’O.R.T.F, a 500-metre circumference donut-shaped building opened in 1964 on the banks of the river Seine, as a headquarters for Radio France. She blends into and embodies the dream of modernism; a hard-edged, luxurious future “for all”.

Much later, in 1984, Terence Donovan would direct the video for Malcolm McLaren’s soaring “Madame Butterfly”, an extended bathhouse scene of bodies again disappearing into backgrounds – hard to make out in all the steam – that captures the soft romanticism of the Eighties and once again symbolises the decade in which it was made. A voice sings: “He thinks I’m just still sweet sixteen, I guess I’ll tease him gently”…

Malcolm McLaren, Madame Butterfly, Dir. Terence Donovan, 1984.

 Dean Kissick

Dean Kissick is a Japanese-American writer based in Los Angeles, where he’s working on his novel. He contributes regularly to Spike Art, Somesuch Stories, i-D, GQ, and Artforum. @deankissick

 

 

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s