“I’m not the UN, I’m ju­st a fa­shion pho­to­gra­pher,” says Mert Alas, who, along wi­th his col­la­bo­ra­tor Mar­cus Pig­gott, is kno­wn for an un­com­pro­mi­sin­gly cha­ri­sma­tic, glos­sy sty­le of ima­ge-ma­king. He’s com­men­ting on the de­mand on fa­shion pho­to­gra­phers to­day to be aware, en­ga­ged, po­li­ti­cal and, pe­rhaps as a re­sult, in­crea­sin­gly cau­tious.

In Oc­to­ber, it will be a year sin­ce al­le­ga­tions again­st Har­vey Wein­stein we­re re­por­ted in the press. Po­st Me Too and Ti­mes Up, fa­shion – whi­ch had its own abu­sers and bra­ve ac­cu­sers – li­ke film, art and po­li­tics, is un­der mo­re scru­ti­ny than ever. That’s good – po­wer­ful com­pa­nies, and po­wer­ful men, should be held re­spon­si­ble for their ac­tions. But fa­shion is in a par­ti­cu­lar­ly com­plex po­si­tion – par­tly be­cau­se fa­shion itself has ne­ver been so fa­shio­na­ble. It’s now a hu­ge part of pop cul­tu­re, wat­ched by mil­lions and com­men­ted on by ma­ny. Whi­le other in­du­stries can ex­press a de­si­re to chan­ge th­rou­gh words – ex­pres­sions of re­mor­se, di­scus­sions of new re­gu­la­tions, an­noun­ce­men­ts of new ap­point­men­ts and sanc­tions – fa­shion is jud­ged lar­ge­ly on­ly on what peo­ple see. Ima­ges ha­ve ne­ver been un­der so mu­ch scru­ti­ny, and that scru­ti­ny is sha­ping the kind of pho­to­gra­phs we see – dic­ta­ting trends, con­tent and mood.

To Alas, de­spi­te all the ma­ny vic­to­ries of this mo­dern ti­mes we li­ve in, when it co­mes to ima­ge­ry, we’re get­ting mo­re clo­sed-min­ded. He and Mar­cus Pig­gott star­ted out in the mid-ni­ne­ties and fa­shion was not the in­du­stry it was to­day. Then, shoo­ts la­sted days, ra­ther than well-or­ga­ni­sed hours, and we­re of­ten con­duc­ted by groups friends for ni­che ti­tles wi­th a DIY, an­ti-com­mer­cial men­ta­li­ty. It would ha­ve been im­pos­si­ble to ima­gi­ne that su­ch ima­ges would ever be su­b­ject to enor­mous le­vels of ana­ly­sis, or could be di­gi­ta­li­sed and re­pu­bli­shed and re-blog­ged by thou­sands, and ta­ken as a de­fi­ni­ti­ve com­ment on so­cie­ty, po­li­tics, wo­men, men, beau­ty, li­fe. To­day, ima­ges are sim­ply mo­re seen. And pho­to­gra­phers are no lon­ger re­gar­ded as ima­ge-ma­kers, but in­crea­sin­gly spo­ke­speo­ple for a set of va­lues. “We used to go for a smal­ler au­dien­ce and we had less pres­su­re,” says Alas. “As the au­dien­ce is so wi­de now, I feel the­re is an ur­ge to plea­se eve­ryo­ne. If you stick to your point of view you can al­ways get a good shot.”

Pho­to­gra­phy, li­ke fa­shion, is in fa­shion – it’s eve­ry­whe­re. So­me li­ke to say we’re all pho­to­gra­phers now, uploa­ding our own per­so­nal pho­to­shoo­ts on­to In­sta­gram. An

ave­ra­ge of 60 mil­lion ima­ges are uploa­ded to the app ea­ch day. Our eyes ha­ve ne­ver been so ac­cu­sto­med to di­ge­sting and di­smis­sing ima­ges. Søl­ve Sund­sbø has seen the re­sul­tant spo­tlight on his in­du­stry grow; “I think it’s ve­ry im­por­tant that pho­to­gra­phy, and fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy, is un­der scru­ti­ny - I don’t think that the­re is any point being de­fen­si­ve about it. But I think what it in­te­re­sting is the lan­gua­ge and un­der­stan­ding that it’s being scru­ti­ni­zed wi­th. When you go to school you learn how to ana­ly­ze writ­ten tex­ts, you look at books, you read poe­try, you ana­ly­ze writ­ten sta­te­men­ts, you ana­ly­ze geo­gra­phy, but the one thing you don’t real­ly get to ana­ly­ze is ima­ges – and if the­re’s one sen­se we use mo­re than any­thing the­se days, and over the la­st 30, 40, 50 years, it’s our sight - we con­su­me ima­ges no­ne stop. But mo­st of us don’t ha­ve a way of un­der­stan­ding ima­ges – we sim­ply ha­ve an old no­tion that a pho­to­gra­ph should tell the tru­th. And that no­tion is the un­der­ly­ing pre­mi­se for mo­st di­scus­sions about pho­to­gra­phy.”

In her se­mi­nal book, “On Pho­to­gra­phy”, Su­san Son­tag wri­tes, “A pho­to­gra­ph pas­ses for in­con­tro­ver­ti­ble proof that a gi­ven thing hap­pe­ned. The pic­tu­re may di­stort; but the­re is al­ways a pre­sump­tion that so­me­thing exists, or did exi­st, whi­ch is li­ke what’s in pic­tu­re.” Lo­ts has chan­ged sin­ce Son­tag wro­te in 1977, but the point she ma­kes is as true as ever. As Sund­sbø says, we look to fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy in sear­ch of so­me kind of rea­li­ty. In­crea­sin­gly, we not on­ly ex­pect that so­me­thing exists whi­ch is li­ke what it is the pic­tu­re, but de­mand that fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy on­ly show thing that could exi­st – hen­ce why we cri­ti­ci­ze ima­ges that do not pre­sent a rea­li­stic bo­dy ima­ge, or sui­ta­bly di­ver­se ca­sting, or a sort of mo­ral sen­si­bi­li­ty that seems in li­ne wi­th the po­li­tics of the mo­ment. Su­ch com­men­ts are, of cour­se, im­por­tant. But they al­so esta­bli­sh gui­de­li­nes and tricks for com­pa­nies to hi­de be­hind – ma­ke a ‘di­ver­se’ cam­pai­gn and ho­pe­ful­ly no one will look be­hind it and ask about the de­mo­gra­phic of your ma­na­ge­ment board, or the wor­king con­di­tions in your fac­to­ries. It is a ve­neer of an ethi­cal in­du­stry. “The­re is a de­gree of ex­pec­ta­tion in the cur­rent mo­ment that eve­ry in­di­vi­dual shoot has to be re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ve in so ma­ny ways, and oc­ca­sio­nal­ly this feels li­ke pres­su­re to put po­li­ti­cal or ideo­lo­gi­cal con­si­de­ra­tions be­fo­re crea­ti­ve ones,” says Alas. “I per­so­nal­ly do ca­st in a di­ver­se way, but this is be­cau­se of my ar­ti­stic point of view. If the­re is a lack of re­pre­sen­ta­tion of dif­fe­rent kinds, may­be we need to see mo­re poin­ts of view ra­ther than to­ken ca­sting choi­ces.”

In an age of Fa­ke News, it is un­der­stan­da­ble that peo­ple want to be able to tru­st the ima­ge­ry they see. But in­crea­sin­gly, ima­ge­ry that is fan­ta­sti­cal or whim­si­cal is seen as out-of-da­te or off-point. Gla­mour can­not th­ri­ve in this mood. May­be that’s ap­pro­pria­te, gi­ven the un­cer­tain­ty and dif­fi­cul­ty of the ti­mes we li­ve in. But it’s al­so hard to see how ima­gi­na­tion can th­ri­ve ei­ther. Prio­ri­ti­sing pho­to­gra­phy as a me­dium that should be de­di­ca­ted on­ly to tru­th tel­ling al­so de­fi­nes the tools of the tra­de as sim­ply it ca­me­ra, re­le­ga­ting it to so­me kind of re­cor­der or no­te-ta­ker. It igno­res the op­por­tu­ni­ty areas that ha­ve co­me wi­th new tech­no­lo­gies li­ke re­tou­ch soft­ware, apps and Pho­to­shop. The­se can be dy­na­mic tools for in­no­va­tion but are di­smis­sed as op­por­tu­ni­ties for tric­ke­ry, de­spi­te the de­si­res of pho­to­gra­phers to use them ar­ti­sti­cal­ly. As Vi­noo­dh Ma­ta­din said, when di­scus­sing his and Inez’ ear­ly ex­pe­ri­men­ts wi­th di­gi­tal ma­ni­pu­la­tion in an in­ter­view for my book on col­la­bo­ra­tion, “Fa­shion To­ge­ther”, in 2015; “It was al­mo­st li­ke you could fi­nal­ly paint in pho­to­gra­phy. We ne­ver star­ted using di­gi­tal ju­st to re­tou­ch peo­ple.”

In this cli­ma­te, the­re has been a mo­ve away from ‘mi­seen-scè­ne’ fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy, and the re­pre­sen­ta­tion of dreams or night­ma­res, to a mo­re do­cu­men­ta­ry-li­ke ap­proa­ch. The­re is a thir­st for so­me­thing ‘real’ or ‘raw’, hen­ce the cur­rent vo­gue for ima­ge­ry that looks na­tu­ral, clean, quiet and al­mo­st en­ti­re­ly un-cho­reo­gra­phed – girls shot by the si­de of the road, or in quo­ti­dian set­tings, as if they we­re ju­st stum­bled upon. But ‘real’ loo­king pho­to­gra­phy is pro­ble­ma­tic too. “The fact that peo­ple al­ways be­lie­ved ima­ges should show the tru­th has al­ways been the streng­th of fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy – it ma­de peo­ple be­lie­ve what they saw in the pic­tu­res,” says Sund­sbø. In other words, it hel­ped sell bags and dres­ses, be­cau­se peo­ple real­ly thought that they could look ju­st li­ke the girl in the pic­tu­re. “But now, peo­ple are star­ting to rea­li­se the ima­ge­ry may­be isn’t as true as they fir­st thought and they al­mo­st seem an­gry about it. One way fa­shion has reac­ted is to go to­wards rea­li­ty – well, ma­king it look mo­re li­ke rea­li­ty. But peo­ple ha­ve to un­der­stand that the rea­li­ty in fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy right now is no mo­re real than a ful­ly fled­ged Hel­mut New­ton Ama­zon wo­man in the Sou­th of Fran­ce.” In­deed, you may see an ima­ge of a ca­re­free loo­king girl, shot in an unex­cep­tio­nal to­wn. But still, that girl is a paid mo­del. Hours will ha­ve been spent on get­ting her to look art­ful­ly un­do­ne, and art di­rec­tors and lo­ca­tion scou­ts wi­th ha­ve spent days hun­ting for ju­st the right spot to ta­ke the ima­ge. Oh, and she’s wea­ring thou­sands of pounds wor­th of clo­thes.

Lu­cy Moo­re is di­rec­tor of the pho­to­gra­phy book­shop Clai­re de Rouen in Lon­don, whi­ch spe­cia­li­ses in fa­shion and de­si­gn and re­gu­lar­ly sup­plies to icons of the in­du­stry. She’s ob­ser­ved the chan­ge in mood in fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy. “I ha­ve de­fi­ni­te­ly no­ti­ced a turn away from an in­te­re­st in the con­struc­ted or ab­strac­ted ima­ge in the shop’s vi­si­tors – in­stead they fo­cus on ar­chi­val so­cial do­cu­men­ta­ry and por­trait pho­to­gra­phy as well as self-re­pre­sen­ta­tion,” she says. “For a ve­ry long-ti­me fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy nee­ded to ge­ne­ra­te de­si­re in a ve­ry small co­te­rie of weal­thy peo­ple – who ac­tual­ly had the means to rea­li­se their dreams. But wi­th the dra­ma­tic turn-of-the-cor­ner in­to a com­mer­cial world whe­re di­gi­tal spa­ce is whe­re the po­wer is won, and whe­re the ma­jo­ri­ty of the users of that spa­ce are young, com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ve and not afraid of spar­ring wi­th their thoughts, may­be aspi­ra­tion is mo­re about for­ming al­lian­ces – being part of a spe­ci­fic group - than about stan­ding out or en­te­ring the ra­ri­fied world of the eli­te in a ve­ry vi­si­ble way.”

As Moo­re ob­ser­ves, mo­st fa­shion is now con­su­med in di­gi­tal spa­ces – fa­shion sho­ws are wat­ching on li­ve streams, clo­thes are bought on e-re­tai­lers and pho­to­shoo­ts and ma­ga­zi­ne co­vers are mo­st wi­de­ly seen on In­sta­gram. Fa­shion ima­ges has thus co­me to re­flect the off-the-cuff, in­ti­ma­te mood on the di­gi­tal spa­ce. That said, it is pe­rhaps iro­nic that the mo­st cri­ti­ci­sm of fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy – as un­re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ve, or bad-ta­ste, or over-edi­ted - oc­curs on so­cial me­dia, whe­re in­crea­sin­gly users own uploads and sel­fies are as ma­ni­pu­la­ted, twea­ked and tu­ned as hi­gh bud­get fa­shion ima­ges. So­cial me­dia al­so has its own ru­les and re­gu­la­tions whi­ch are sha­ping the fu­tu­re of fa­shion ima­ge­ry. It is of­ten de­scri­bed as an area of un­brid­led free­dom and de­mo­cra­cy, but real­ly is ri­fe wi­th cen­sor­ship. “Ima­ge-ma­kers are de­fi­ni­te­ly be­co­ming mo­re da­ring whi­le, ge­ne­ral­ly, plat­forms are far from being ac­cep­ting or wil­ling to fa­ci­li­ta­te this pro­gress,” say Ste­fa­no Co­lom­bi­ni and Al­ber­to Al­ba­ne­se, the duo be­hind Scan­de­bergs, who of­fer ci­ne­ma­tic, nar­ra­ti­ve-dri­ven ima­ges. “In­sta­gram, for in­stan­ce, is hea­vi­ly su­b­jec­ted to cen­sor­ship be­cau­se of the wi­der au­dien­ce it rea­ches dai­ly,” they say. The mo­st no­to­rious exam­ple of this is the bans on fe­ma­le nip­ples, whi­ch is su­re­ly un­der­mi­ning fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy’s long hi­sto­ry of brea­king do­wn ta­boos around nu­di­ty. “Al­so, wi­th ‘en­ga­ge­ment and rea­ch’ being the mo­st im­por­tant mar­ke­ting stra­te­gy poin­ts for brands, ima­ges are in­crea­sin­gly being crea­ted to be ea­sy to read, ra­ther than com­plex ones that would rea­ch a smal­ler au­dien­ce. It is im­por­tant to pre­ser­ve the com­ple­xi­ty of eve­ry ar­ti­st’ vi­sual lan­gua­ge.”

One won­ders how so­me of the mo­re pro­vo­ca­ti­ve, po­li­ti­cal­ly char­ged ima­ges from Vo­gue Ita­lia’s hi­sto­ry, su­ch as Mei­sel’s shoot ex­plo­ring so­cie­ty’s ob­ses­sion wi­th pla­stic sur­ge­ry or vio­len­ce again­st wo­men would fa­re on In­sta­gram in this age of ou­tra­ge. So­cial me­dia al­lo­ws for in­stant com­men­ta­ry – a quick li­ke or di­sli­ke, dic­ta­ted by a ti­ny mo­ve­ment of the thumb and a mil­li­se­cond of thought. “If you do even the smal­le­st mi­sta­ke, your ca­reer might be over,” says Sund­sbø. Mert Alas tries to say bra­ve. “Fa­shion pho­to­gra­phy is a tool for esca­pi­sm, a break from rea­li­ty, a lit­tle dream. I feel li­ke the­re is a fear of being po­li­ti­cal­ly in­cor­rect, and fear crea­tes mo­de­ra­tion. Qui­te frank­ly I ha­te mo­de­ra­tion - I’m a man of ex­cess! - so I still sear­ch for that lit­tle dream and try to por­tray it in our pho­to­gra­phy.”

So, what is next? Will the ta­ste for the ‘real’ di­sap­pear? Will glos­sy gla­mour ever feel right? And will fa­shion ever be able to hand­le sex? That’s de­ba­ta­ble. “I’ve heard men in the fa­shion in­du­stry say they are ‘sca­red’ of ma­king se­xual work. But I ho­pe this doe­sn’t la­st. Hu­mans need to be se­xual,” says Moo­re. Sund­sbø has had edi­tors shy away from sen­sual ima­ge­ry, even in a ca­se whe­re a

fe­ma­le su­b­ject of a por­trait cho­se her own dress, whi­ch hap­pe­ned to be se­mi-trans­pa­rent. So­mewhe­re along the way, so­me peo­ple seem to ha­ve for­got­ten that Me Too wa­sn’t say­ing that sex was bad, it was say­ing that ex­ploi­ta­tion is bad. The an­swer cer­tain­ly isn’t ta­sking fe­ma­le ima­ge-ma­kers wi­th co­ming up wi­th a to­tal­ly new sty­le of ima­ge­ry. It has be­co­me fa­shio­na­ble to talk about a ‘fe­ma­le ga­ze’, whi­ch is al­mo­st be­co­ming an ae­sthe­tic or tro­pe in itself, wi­th its own set of li­mi­ta­tions and re­co­gni­sa­ble tro­pes. “It´s im­por­tant to not fall in­to that ea­sy trap,” says pho­to­gra­pher Ju­lia Het­ta. “What’s im­por­tant is that we real­ly feel we be­lie­ve in the pic­tu­re.”

In the end, the di­ver­si­ty we de­mand to see wi­thin pic­tu­res should be re­flec­ted in the pho­to­gra­phers them­sel­ves and the sty­le of ima­ges we see – they should be sur­pri­sing, unex­pec­ted, am­bi­tious and, the mo­st unat­tai­na­ble goal, new. Sund­sbø re­mains op­ti­mi­stic; “Eve­ry per­son ho­pes that that the next thing you do will be the be­st thing you’ve ever do­ne - whe­ther it’s the next meal that you ha­ve, the next pur­cha­se you ma­ke, or the next per­son you meet. I ha­ve to be­lie­ve that the next pic­tu­re I’ve do will at lea­st be bet­ter than the pic­tu­re I did ye­ster­day - you ha­ve to ha­ve that ho­pe.” •

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