The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Love It! Where Can I Buy It?
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.