The International Center of Photography, which lies on 43rd & 6th in the middle of Manhattan, New York, is a world class school and museum devoted to photography. On a recent trip I took the opportunity to look around their 3rd Triennial exhibition of photography.
This was one of several visits that I have made to the centre because if they don't have a special exhibition on then they usually have collections of their students work to view... all of which helps me to broaden my horizons, having grown up with a previous generation of photographers.
To quote from their blurb, DRESS CODES is a global survey of today's most exciting photography and video art. It marks the ICP's Year of Fashion, a year of exhibitions that have explored fashion photography in its widest social and cultural contexts.
I took a few notes from the show, particularly from the work that I felt was of note... work that either impressed or distressed me!
Mickelene Thomas had three large lush prints of exotic black women. They had been photographed in apartments decorated in a '60s style with vinyl records, animal print furnishings, big hair and large jewellery. The photographer used overblown colours and awkwardly posed the models with legs akimbo or lying at difficult angles. The compositions were a contemporary exploration of black womanhood by using archetypes from the past. I liked the oversaturated colours and the impressively big glossy prints as they certainly matched the style of the subjects. If it was really an exploration of black womanhood I felt that I had missed the message.
Olga Chernysheva There were four large grainy B&W prints from the series 'On Duty'. The prints were deadpans of Russian Metro workers, mainly women in uniform doing clerical tasks in scruffy booths and offices. Looking like jaded workers, she had shot them all through windows and none of the subjects were making eye contact suggesting that we were looking in on them unobserved. They were well balanced shots portraying the boredom and resigned disinterest of a tedious life of drudgery. A telling set of images from modern Russia contrasting well with the old Soviet Realist propaganda that we were so familiar with during the cold war.
Hank Willis Thomas had a fascinating set of photos from the 60s to current time showing, amongst other things, the changes in fashions over the decades. The images feature African Americans in exaggerated poses of excitement and animation that looked dynamic but strangely confusing. The images were all reproduced from advertising shots with any reference to the products being carefully airbrushed out. It leaves an amazing set of images that has one wondering what on earth was going on in the photographer's mind... very clever.
Lorna Simpson. A collection of very small framed photo booth images of African American women from the 40's to the 70's. The women are dressed up and posing as one might expect from a formal portrait picture. The framed images are mixed up with similarly framed ink blotch drawings supposed to indicate the fragility of memory and represent those people who have been forgotten. I felt that the collection of images were representative of these black women who dressed up in their Sunday best to pose in a photo booth because they probably couldn't afford to have a formal picture taken. This concept gave the display sufficient authenticity in my mind and I felt that the inclusion of the ink blot drawings were an unnecessary confusion.
Pinar Yolacan worked with Afro Brazilian women from a remote island and took quite some effort to dress them in beautiful Portuguese historical dresses. She then added animal products such as cow placentas and organ meats to their clothes. I was initially fooled into thinking that it was some kind of jewellery but on closer inspection discovered that they were partly dressed in offal. The deadpan portraits have a kind of exotic weirdness but I have no explanation for the eccentricity of the photographer. Apart from the technical excellence of the images I have no idea what drove the concept other than to test the patience of the models... perhaps that was the point!
Janaina Tschape has three photographs of a woman in a costume from Goethe's Faust. The model avoids showing her face, she wears a necklace of many inflated condoms and is shot in a castle near the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwold. The condoms are supposed to represent tears and the title of the photograph Lacrimacorpus is a composite of the Latin for tare and body. The photographer wants to evoke history and memory but if that is her aim she has missed me completely.
Richard Learoyd uses a difficult photographic process to produce vast images. He turns an entire room into the camera body and poses his models in the next room with a lens mounted in the wall in between. His images are shot 1:1 and at the scale that you would expect if you turned your bedroom wall into a camera back plate. I guess that his subject matter using this technique becomes rather repetitive as it is limited by the need to photograph whatever is in the next door room! Having said that, the image is quite stunning in its detail and luminescent quality. The depth of field is very narrow so he has posed his model with enormous care to ensure that the areas of interest, hands and face are focussed and the rest of the model fades into blur. Does Learoyd really need to use this gimmick photography to get his images noticed... I'm not sure? I feel that he does this strange type of photography because it sets him aside from other photographers and not just because it produces very detailed, beautiful, one-off images.
Stan Douglas has made a very big and beautiful shot of 30 or so models dressed from the 1950's and set to look as if they are watching horse racing. The image is a good 12 ft across and has a lovely saturated quality that perfectly reproduces the clear and pronounced colours of limited tones that were prevalent in that period. What is strange is the way he manufactured the photograph by shooting each person individually when they were relaxing in between formal shots so that they looked as natural as possible. He then painstakingly constructed the final image from many individual ones. An impressive piece of work and I am in awe of his skill but wonder at his motivation to do this piece.
Valerie Belin is well known for her previous collections of mannequin photographs. In this set of four she shoots models in the same style... the obvious difference being that these are live people but look like mannequins. The set of four photographs are identically posed and shot from the shoulders upwards. The models all have alabaster white skin and striking blue eyes and all look the same way as if the had come from the same mould. They make wonderful individual shots but as set they have a message of syntheticly reproduced similarities that highlights our obsession with the perfection of youth and fashion. Considering the theme of the show, this photographer was the most successful in putting across the message that fashion is a machine that attempts to churn out perfection and robs us of individualism and the ability to age.
Milos de la Torre displayed four photographs called Bulletproof. Four seemingly innocuous shots of shirts and jackets on hangers in front of a simple white wall. They wouldn't need a second glance until the viewer realises that the all carry a discrete shield logo and that they are all very expensive and discrete body armour sold in luxury boutiques in Bogota and Mexico City. Purported to have been worn by Barack Obama during his inauguration, they protect the rich and famous... a telling thought on how fashion can protect those who can pay.
I haven't mentioned all the contributors, just those whose work I felt needed particular comment. I felt a little let down that the show, which purported to examine the issues raised by contemporary fashion, the ways we outwardly construct ourselves and how clothing, style and beauty defines community. The artists have great talent but Dress Code fell short of it's own aims. It didn't really examine the horror rocky show that the modern fashion industry can be and it didn't display it's 'airbrushed warts' and all. Having said that I took a lot from examining the work of the photographers... particularly since there were very few tricks to their photographs. In the main they were simple, classically posed deadpan images that would be easy to reproduce. They obeyed the basic rules of framing and balancing their compositions. It was more the subject matter that they concentrated on, leaving the technical tricks to other.