Photography Can Make Liars of Us All
Photography Can Make Liars of Us All
Fashion is glamorous. Of course it is, that’s what all the photographs and magazines tell us. There have been ongoing debates since the dawn of photography of its truthfulness (or rather, it’s apparent ability not to lie), but this is mostly irrelevant and places the scrutiny on the wrong party. Photography can lie; even in the days before Photoshop, there were all sorts of darkroom tricks that could be implemented to remove what wasn’t required. It can also be truthful. I, for one have only seen the paintings of Piet Mondrian through photographs of them. No-one considers those to be false or misleading representations.
So, why all this preoccupation with what photography can or can’t do, but little mention of the photographer? Being a photographer is an act of selection and editing, making decisions about what to show and what to conceal, and the results are different in everyone’s hands. Portraits in particular are about relationships, and that’s where fashion photography comes in. On the face of it, fashion photography is a tool to sell clothes. The model needs to smile to prove they look happy in the clothes and that their life has drastically improved as a result of the purchase and the photographer needs to capture that. It can be pretty, and any number of interchangeable props, backdrops and exotic locations can be employed to make it seem even more alluring.
This is a separate world in itself, where it never rains (unless you’re selling an umbrella or overcoat), no-one looks unhappy or discontent and the models themselves are largely inconsequential, the focus is shifting clothes (regardless of whether certain models become stars in their own right), make no mistake about that.
One portrait of Marilyn Monroe by celebrated portrait photographer Richard Avedon shows this glamorous world of palpable joy, made to look like it was captured at the peak of the best party you’ve ever attended. It is the Monroe, of Some Like It Hot, and the Monroe we picture in our minds eye when we hear her name. However, this world is punctured like the first light streaming through the curtains the morning after that glorious party by this shot, taken at the same sitting, but which shows a vision of her that we’d never seen before.
This seems even more of a revelation with the knowledge that the other shot had been taken within minutes of its counterpart; this is the equivalent of being shown how a magic trick is done and being expected to be amazed when we see it again. Were there always these alternate views to be had of all the famous shots of Monroe? Were the rest of the shots just trained reactions to a camera being placed in front of her?
In regards to the photographer having all the power, the world of the selfie has put the subject firmly in control. In the past, and this is only going back a few years, forty or fifty shots could be taken of someone in a shoot, and the photographer (and probably the editor) would select the one to be published. With selfies, hundreds of pictures could be taken without anyone else ever seeing them, and the way that the person wants to present themselves is the one that is shared. Kim Kardashian herself stated she takes about three hundred photos to get her selfie right. But how many of her millions of fans who thrive to be like her know of this absurd yet determination? What is of this smokescreen? This is another type of smokescreen, as although the picture is working with “truth”, it is only one that the taker of the image wants us to see. What could the outtakes tell us about the person? Not just their personality, but what they don’t like about themselves, and how the shot they chose contrasts with this.
However, the photographer and the camera in Monroe’s photographs are picking up two different truths here, and the fact that Avedon chose to publish both allows us to see a completely different perspective of Monroe- that she is human like the rest of us. That this is such a legendary image only goes to show how shocking something that looks real in the fashion portraiture world really is: if everybody did this, it would be one of a million similar shots. Looking at Monroe in this second image is quite a sombre experience. She seems world-weary for her years, and her frustration at becoming a commodity, another photo shoot, and her dissatisfaction with becoming what she referred to as “a kind of merchandise … a sex symbol becomes an object. I hate being an object” is evident. We feel empathy for her as we see in this image, and going back to the other one it seems like Monroe-as-caricature by comparison. Avedon is allowing us to see through the smokescreen with this alternate view, otherwise we would assume that Monroe was the character we see in all the other famous photographs, perma-smiling and ecstatically ditzy.
This second “smokescreen-less” photograph then, is like a visual metaphor of the emptiness we feel in trying to live up to the unobtainable perfection that most fashion photography shows us. With this in mind, how should we now look at other fashion photography? Do we accept that it is not real, like we are watching actors in a play, and enjoy it for what it is? While this may seem like a damning summary of fashion photography, I should point out that I enjoy it and I’m far from condemning anyone else that does, but maybe it should just be as simple as, when we next flick through a glossy fashion magazine, remind ourselves that it is a catalogue for selling clothes, and if we want to see reality, we are doing the equivalent of striving to find deep drama by watching a shopping channel. We are looking in the wrong place.
Written by Joe Elliot Purtell