The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Back in the old days, influential magazine editors, art directors and superstar fashion photographers—like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn—worked together to produce lavish photo-shoots and publish eagerly awaited monthly fashion spreads. Look at the fabulous and justly famous “Think Pink” scene from the 1957 movie Funny Face below—in which Kay Thompson plays a fashion magazine editor—and you’ll get a sense of how fashion news and imagery was once concocted. The time, money, industry muscle, and off-the-wall and startling creativity involved were impressive. And on a much-reduced scale, that’s still is the way things are done today, if you’re still paying attention to conventional media outlets for news of what’s “fashion-forward,” as they say on Project Runway.
But to better understand how times and the realities of the fashion business and fashion photography are changing, read Claire Cain Miller’s recent piece for The New York Times that details how online celebrity sites—like Celeb Style and Just Jared (make sure to check out the “Get the Look” tab under celebrities’ pictures) have established themselves as fashion’s new arbiters and, going a step further, have set themselves up to provide personal shopping services and collect fees for those services. The mechanics of the process are interesting. Companies like Pixazza help celebrity blog and style websites to tag fashions in the paparazzi photos they feature and link to retailers who sell the clothes celebs are seen in or, even better, identify places to buy similar, but even more affordable versions of them. So if you see, for example, Reese Witherspoon in a cute little black dress you’d like for yourself, you can click through and connect to a vendor who’ll help you out. It’s a win-win situation for all involved. Consumers find the looks they crave without having a stylist on payroll. The celebrity websites that provide this service collect small commissions for hooking up fashionistas with retailers. People get paid to study and deconstruct paparazzi pictures and then do the necessary comparison-shopping research based on what they see in them, because it turns out that visual recognition software is not up to that task, yet.
Gossip magazines like, US Magazine—whose "Fashion Police" feature regularly points a critical finger at celebrity fashion faux-pas—have become wildly profitable because they publish less-than-flattering pictures that fuel the public’s revenge fantasy that celebrities people are really “just like us.” But, it’s still true that we still want to be more like them, and on that score the Internet’s there to help us, chipping away at the glamour and authority of fashion photography (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and changing the rules, yet again, about how photos are made, used, and change our lives in ways both big and small.
It is always fascinating to see when and how professional image-makers choose to be photographed and seen. Not surprisingly, a number of click! photography changes everything stories explore that theme and pay particular attention to issues raised when women artists find themselves the object of a camera’s gaze. Jacquelyne Serwer, chief curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, contributed a piece to our project that describes how the 19th century American sculptor, Edmonia Lewis, circulated carte-de-visite portraits of herself to attract viewers and to market her work. And, in a newly posted click! story, Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, describes how O’Keeffe at first benefited from, then shrewdly worked against, the controversial photographic portraits Alfred Stieglitz made of her in the early 20th century, and which established her as a public figure.
Throughout her career, O’Keeffe appeared willingly and often in photographic images, which no doubt contributed to her renown and assured her iconic status in American pop culture, at a time when accomplishment, visibility, and celebrity were becoming irrevocably entwined. O’Keeffe died over 20 years ago, and yet today, she’s still a vivid cultural symbol and presence. Only a few months ago, a much publicized Lifetime Channel cable TV movie dramatizing her life, starring Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz, featured scenes depicting the making, exhibition of, and shocked public response to the photographs Barbara Lynes references in her contribution to click!.
If photographs of Edmonia Lewis and Georgia O’Keeffe raise important questions about the reasons women artists allow themselves to be represented, it’s worth noting that while times have changed, certain cultural traditions die hard, and controversies about the ways women artists are pictured continued on throughout the last century. Revisit, for example, the brouhaha surrounding Lynda Benglis’ notorious portrait that appeared in a 1974 ad in Artforum magazine. Look at the Google images that come up when you search for “Nan Goldin self portraits,” or “Cindy Sherman Film Stills," to see what took both art and photography worlds by surprise in the 1980s.
While jingles on soundtracks for Virginia Slims cigarette commercials in the late 1960s (you can see one here) loudly proclaimed “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby” suggesting that liberation had come, the way women are depicted in photographic images remains, to this day, an issue worth looking at and talking about.