Exhibition poster for Miami basel 2008
It may be fashion, but is it art?
Last week, one of the world's most prestigious art fairs devoted an entire section to the glossy, airbrushed world of fashion photography. As demand for such imagery soars, Rhiannon Harries asks, does a Galliano shoot really belong in a gallery?
The girl lies supine in the water. Her wrists are upturned and her long hair swirls around her pale face as the folds of her voluminous white dress billow in the currents. The resemblance she bears to Millais's Ophelia is obvious, but this is a photograph, not a painting and - wait a minute! - is that Roberto Cavalli she's wearing?
The image, by Alix Malka, is one of more than 200 currently on display as part of Art Photo Expo, the photographic arm of Art Basel Miami, the glitzy annual American art fair spawned by the more traditional Swiss event. Drawn from editorial shoots, personal projects and - as in the case of Malka's work - advertising campaigns, they have been brought together under the umbrella of In Fashion Photo, a subsidiary of the main show.
Representing the glossier end of contemporary fashion photography, the pictures range from the familiar glamour of Ellen von Unwerth's black and white portrait of Naomi Campbell to the ultra-flamboyant theatricality of Simon Procter's giant tableau featuring John Galliano and a crowd of Dior-clad models. Unapologetically embracing the digital wonders of airbrushing and Photoshop, colours are hyper-real and scale is grand, all of which ought to guarantee their appeal for South Beach's modish art-buying public as they select the perfect prints to bring a bit of high fashion to the white walls of their chic, minimalist homes.
Patrick Remy, this year's guest curator of In Fashion Photo, believes that commercial purpose is irrelevant "If you picked a photo from the exhibition at random and you knew nothing about its origin, you wouldn't be able to tell whether it was an advertisement, a magazine shoot or simply a personal project," he says. "Sponsored art is nothing new - just look at Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. A good artist will simply find a way of using his brief to show something new about the world."
"On the other hand, you have artists like Edward Steichen, who was always appreciated as a serious portraitist and landscape photographer, but whose contribution to fashion had always been underplayed until last year when that aspect of his work was finally shown at an exhibition in Paris on an equal footing with the rest."
Looking at the particular selection of pictures on offer in Miami, it seems hard to argue with the artistry involved in their creation - the elaborate staging of Simon Procter, the infinitesimally nuanced colour of Miles Aldridge - but their liberal employment of cutting-edge digital techniques in the pursuit of beauty raises a whole new debate about their status as art photography. Gerry Badger suggests that this kind of photography needs to prove itself in a different respect: "The old question was 'it may be photography but is it art?'. These days you have to ask, 'it may be art, but is it photography?'".
An old project from Dazed & Confused shoot