Conforming Images: De-formed and De-formity: Object and Subject Elegant clothes hangers and human depth
(Blogger Emma Rosenthal is studying portrait photography this semester. This entry was from a class assignment)
I typed “fashion photography” into the search bar on Google images and noted the incredible amount of deformity that is created, idealized, under the rubric of fashion: extremes of thinness, contortions, color, abuse, heroine chic. These aren’t the de-formities of the children, targeted by school yard bullies, the subjects of derision of late night cable comedians of short busses, helmets, the people of the margins, and while circus freak shows no longer exist (somewhat replaced by reality television) these images all seemed shot in that genre with the same staging and freakery. These are the de-formities of an industry that demands more and more narrowly defined physical conformity to unattainable standards of beauty: youth, thinness to the extremes of starvation, bondage, fantasy and height.
The assignment required that I choose one example of fashion photography, and a second image that was exemplary of portraiture and write a two paragraph response as to how the two images differ. For the former, I selected as an extreme example of these selected de-formations, an image by fashion photographer, Miles Aldridge of a blind(fold)ed model, otherwise naked, on eight inch heels forcing her onto her toes, walking with a cane (one of the few ambulatory devices that seems to carry with it an element of elegance rather than ridicule), an ambulatory device, none the less, utilized within an industry that has little use for people who have real de-formities, ambulatory dis-abilities and other non-conforming physical manifestations. It has always seemed strange to me, the dis-abling impact on women of the constraints of fashion and the illusion of weakness of chivalrous conventions, able bodies that don’t open their own doors, force their feet into contortions, grow fingernails to lengths that eliminate the use of one’s hands, feign the inability to lift the smallest package, while those who truly have those incapacities are ushered to the margins. The former, going to great expense and discomfort to create illusion and win undue amounts of attention, the latter, accused constantly of faking their conditions in an attempt to get attention. How is it that the extremes of femininity extol and exalt these selective extremes of deformity while simultaneously enforcing similarly extreme conforming criteria of beauty and fashion, and how could otherwise able bodied women be drawn to externally imposed social standards of beauty in the name of fashion while enforcing a corporal elite that brutally excludes most of society from the narrow defines of social acceptability and physical beauty?
The models in fashion images have no identity of their own. Their body of work and their value is determined by their ability to wear other people’s clothes and strike a pose that will inspire consumption. The body in this environment is one more commodity. Very few models are not fully consumed by the age of 25. The highly stylized use of color and form, and the emphasis on the promotion of a product reduce the person to her value within the market place. As artist Yifat Shaik commented, “They are hangers.” (personal conversation 9/1/10). Elegant hangers.
To juxtapose this image, I typed into a Google search: “”HARRIET McBRYDE JOHNSON ” an attorney and human/dis-ability rights activist who wrote extensively on the rights of people with dis-abilities. When she died two years ago, she left behind a body of work challenging the apartheid imposed on physical nonconformity. Due to a neurological condition, her body is visibly an example of what conventionally is considered deformity. I chose one of the images of the search; a New York Times photograph by Katy Grannan, of Johnson sitting in her wheelchair, outside; behind her, an ivy covered wall. The Caption: “Life Force Johnson, near her parents’ home in Charleston, S.C.”. She is wearing a large brightly colored shawl, presumably her own, draping her shoulders, chin resting on her hand, the other hand, resting on her knee. Her legs are crossed. She is bent over and appears to be twisted. She is dressed in black. Her petit feet in black Chinese slippers, as she looks directly, seriously and with confidence, into the camera. Unlike the dehumanizing de-formed portrayal of the idealized model in the fashion shot, this example of portraiture demonstrates a very real person, fully integrated into the complexities of the human experience, her clothing, pose, glare all speak of her own values, choices, preferences and depth. The portrait tells us about her, who she is. She is not the commodity. The photograph is the commodity. In the fashion image, the model is the tool to attract us, compel us toward the product. In portraiture, the portrait is the tool to compel us closer to the actual person. Fashion photography is about image, object and product. Portraiture is about the individual subject, her humanity and depth, compelling us to want to know her more. The fashion model is an elegant clothes hook. In portraiture the person is subject. The story is hers.