by by Stephanie Pottinger

In these times, what most people might benefit from is not the industry's useless pandering to their tightened means, but a more nonpartisan celebration of style and swagger itself.

One of three inaugural exhibits in the International Center of Photography's Year of Fashion, "This Is Not a Fashion Photograph" (on view through May 3, 2009) features a swarm of photographs by documentarians and art photographers that showcase striking, though sometimes unsuspecting style. Featuring images from iconic 1930's tabloid photographer Arthur Fellig A.K.A. Weegee among more than 50 others, these photographs offer a populism that the fashion industry has recently scrambled to avow.
Over the past season, as the unemployment rate has climbed to new heights and the news has warned tirelessly that things will not be looking up for quite a while, retailers and tastemakers alike have worked just as tirelessly to renew consumers' faith in the fashion industry. Banners adorning store windows advertised discounts and, at times, came suspiciously close to promising to give you the clothes for free if you set foot in the place. Countless blog posts and magazine headlines offered sympathy. They spoke of diffusion lines from top-notch designers that would hit more populist retailers like Urban Outfitters, Target, H&M and Uniqlo in the coming year, ostensibly making it possible for the broke and laid off to have a little Opening Ceremony and Shipley & Halmos in their lives.
By and large these attempts to take fashion back, to rein it in to the everyman's domain have failed. 75% off most things in Barney's stock still means that you will be shelling out in the triple digits, and the price tags on most of these cheaper designer collections remain unthinkable for most. A Comme des Garcons for H&M dress was priced at an inexplicable $350; with t-shirts for $495, Philip Lim, who New York Magazine not long ago praised for making luxury clothes at reasonable prices, is certainly eons of on-campus wages away from most of our closets. Buyers and fashion editors have once again proven themselves to be gloriously out-of-touch with what exactly a bargain entails and what their customer is looking for.
In these times, what most people might benefit from is not the industry's useless pandering to their tightened means, but a more nonpartisan celebration of style and swagger itself--the kind you can find in the irreverent stance of a high schooler smoking a cigarette on his lunch break, or among a jubilant pack of friends disheveled and streaming out of the bar at closing time in just about any city.
These are the very images that populate the ICP's exhibit. "This Is Not a Fashion Photograph" makes a hopeful guess as to what turn fashion itself, if not the industry that has come to dominate and stifle it, could take in these trying economic times. Glamour is found in street scenes and on people whose clothes do only half the work--their wearers' emotions take care of the rest.
Attempting to blur the line between 20th century documentary and fashion photography, "This Is Not a Fashion Photograph" features works by familiar American photodocumentarians like Bernice Abbott, Helen Levitt, Larry Clark and Bruce Daivdson, but also includes many who have long stood in the shadows. Some giants of African photography like Samuel Fosso and Malick Sidibé are included in the show, along with the likes of Tina Barney and Carrie Mae Weems, whose work reads as art photography masquerading as documentary of family life, or vice versa depending on how you sees it.
The exhibit, which lacks a formal catalog and whose images were culled largely from the museum's collection, is tucked away in a small rear gallery. While the main galleries' walls are plastered from ceiling to floor with tear sheets and gargantuan prints, the photos of "This Is Not a Fashion Photograph" are unassuming: small, uniformly matted and framed. The images are allowed no breathing room--65 prints are clustered together, forming a ring about 1¬Ω feet high that snakes around all three of the gallery's walls. The constriction in the arrangement gives the room a sober feeling, and hardly allows for the preciousness that we might associate with fashion photography to slip in.
The show's press release explains that perhaps in light of the economic downturn, none of these photos would look too out of place on the pages of W or Vogue; fashion photographers have started to look outside of fashion for inspiration. But the fact remains that any given editorial shoot will invariably involve stylists and photographers, teams of assistants for those stylists and photographers, the several showrooms from which garments are borrowed, not to mention a bevy of unpaid interns to liaise among all of these folks and to act as couriers, taxiing garment bags back to the showrooms whence they came.
Each of the images on view in "This Is Not a Fashion Photograph" shows exactly what is lost in that marriage to deliberate, regimented process, direct involvement of brands and the presence of too many cooks in the photographic work. Weege, the man behind one of the show's most evocative images, was a one-man outfit. Working almost exclusively at night, Weegee sped through New York City's streets with his signature 4x5 camera and blinding flashbulb in his own car, which he'd equipped with a police radio (he often arrived at the scenes of deaths and robberies moments before the authorities) and an in-trunk darkroom.
His small print "Hedda Hopper--A Living Caricature" itself evinces the stripped-down and hasty nature of this process and the raw style that is lost on most glossies. Well-known gossip columnist for the LA Times Hedda Hopper occupies the center of the frame. A couple inches of her white fur creeps into the bottom of the frame, but the real drama is in Hopper's face and the hat above it. Gaze directed up and slightly left--her eyebrows two pencil-thin, almost perfectly horizontal lines--Hopper is letting out what seems a wholly convincing scream. The chapeau perched on her head, in the light of Weegee's flash, looks more like a stark white halo with the outstretched wings of a felled bird emerging out of it. The photo registers as a film still.
Our heroine Hopper, though portrayed in realist detail, is in the midst of some fantastical scene, screaming out at the sight of impending danger--a Hitchcockian flock of birds swooping down, or whatever looms outside the frame. But the viewer's eye is constantly drawn back to the hat: the mystery of the brim's texture and just what is going on with that ugly mass erupting from the crown. These enthrall much more than the garments we see on fashion pages. While the copy at the bottom of the magazine page explain away any mystery, defining each garment and attributing it to one clothier, the clothes featured in "This Is Not a Fashion Photograph" excite the viewer and refuse satiation.
All successful fashion photographs, these pictures transport the viewer into a more productive state of longing: one in which the question is not how he will ever be able to afford some unattainable piece of couture or another, but how he can acquire such a level of 'cool.' The cool that comes through in the cock of the head, or a mischievous smirk, that's documented in the decades-old snapshots families store in shoeboxes. It can sometimes be found on those wearing the cheapest, the campiest or most repugnant manner of clothing. Trite as the idea is, these photos suggest that while the diffusion lines and price slashing may still leave couture out of reach, style in its purest form--and the images that capture it--come from real life and the affectations we develop as we live it.t

STEPHANIE POTTINGER B'09 is all style, no drama.