Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography is the second exhibition being held at the Mcmanus Galleries in partnership with the V&A.The exhibition charts the evolution of fashion photography, from its humble beginnings in the early 1900s, through its 1960s heyday, to its changing status and significance in an image- saturated 21st century. Included are works by iconic photographers David Bailey, Irving Penn and Edward Steichen alongside more contemporary photographs by Tim Walker, Corrine Day and Rankin.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, with small collections of photographs broadly displaying the styles and sensibilities of the era in which they were taken. The simplicity of such an arrangement, though, is not undermined; for wandering between the alcoves of the gallery, the changing trends and values of the last century seem to move along with us. We see, for example, how the optimistic 1960s, depicted by an iconic photograph of Twiggy ripping excitedly down the street on a bike, gives way to the strange and serious aesthetic of the 1970s. In one particularly striking photograph (Helmut Newton, 1971), a woman is shot voyeuristically through a night-vision lens; her face is blank and she has the ‘pale eyes of a zombie’. Throughout the show, we are confronted by these profoundly varying representations of fashion and culture- a reminder perhaps of just how affected one can be by the other.
The photographs themselves range from the intuitive to the precise and are, at times, exquisitely realised. The surrealist-influenced work from the 1920s and 30s is particularly arresting. Its rather unambiguous title aside, Ilse Bing’s Hats, Hats, Hats (1934)is, for example, so strange and objectless that we can hardly imagine it being used to sell anything. Art versus commerce, then, is an underlying but important debate. Included is a quote from the photographer Irving Penn who suggests that fashion photography must be about ‘more than selling clothes’. This is contrasted sharply with the words of former Vogue editor Edna Woolman Chase,who snipes ‘Concentrate completely on showing the dress, light it for this purpose, and, if it can’t be done with art, then art be damned!’ A stroll back round the exhibition ties the titles of the photographs, which seemed so harmlessly artful at first, to their maketing function: Fashion by Valentino or, in the case of the woman with the ‘pale zombie eyes’, Fashion by Givenchy. The title of the exhibition reminds us that, despite the artistic intent of the photographers, these are images produced principally for commercial purposes.
Selling Dreams is a reminder too of the idealisation of women and the intoxicating success and power of the beauty industry; despite the broken taboos and the changing tides of trend and culture, the unblemished beauty of the models remains constant. Are the mini-skirted models of the 1960s really, as we are told, liberated women? Is Rankin’s take on the issue of anorexia in models, which depicts a flawless woman eating a chocolate bar, really a deterrent?
This exhibition is a must-see for any fashion or photography lover. With its cultural commentaries and broad artistic influences, Selling Dreams is a treat for those who might dismiss fashion photography as mere advertising. Seeing 100 years of fashion photographs together also provides an opportunity to question how artistic an image can truly be, no matter how beautiful, if it’s primary objective is to sell.
Lisa Scrimgeour & Kevin Smith