Icons of Style is a big show, room after room filled with a hundred years’ worth of pictures. It is the work of eighty great photographers, their work displayed in glorious profusion. The Getty Center, Los Angeles treasure house perched high up on a hill has put together a spectacular exhibition, a work begun almost a decade ago. It is the curatorial vision of Paul Martineau who drew from the Getty’s large collection, then searched the world for three years to secure additional defining examples of the trends and styles that shaped a hundred years’ worth of fashion conversation. Not content with pictures, the show also features costumes from the collection of LACMA prominently displayed. The results are an exhibition that gives these pictures the breathing room and prominence the work deserves.
The walls are filled with Herb Ritts, Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen, Man Ray, names familiar to most but then there are others, Baron Adolph De Meyer, George Hoyningen-Huene, Lusha Nelson, Dora Marr, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, names neglected or perhaps not as well known. It’s likely that even if you know fashion there are many fine works by less remembered lights waiting to be discovered.
The great masters of photography are here and facing their cameras the most beautiful people of their age, everyone perfectly garbed and coifed, all posed in the most extravagant locations and photographed in the most perfect light. These images are masterworks of concentration and intention. If they were not intended for the pages of fashion magazines they might well have been seen as art in the moment of their creation.
I think the question of their “artness” is settled now even if that was not always the case. The distraction of original intent put aside for an appreciation of the work. There is inspiration here and knowledge of the schools from which they draw. If there is a question it is only the method by which they have been made.
Advertising photography is a collaborative art born in commerce. So what we see here comes from a commercial intention. Clearly it drives the creation and shapes the talents of all the people that share in the fabrication of these images. Nonetheless, it is also clear that in each case a single eye, a single voice has shaped the outcome, making these pictures more than committee work done for money. These are original images by talented artists and a pleasure to behold.
It’s wonderful to trace the evolution of fashion and its representation over a hundred years. If you go from Baron Adolph de Meyer’s Baroness de Meyer in a hat by Reboux, a picture made in 1929 to Scott Schuman’s Mercer Street, New York, August 25, 2011, it becomes clear these photographs aren’t just about the clothes. They also played a role in defining people’s attitudes towards sexuality and what was proper at the time. Walking through the exhibit or leafing through the book you can see the moments when the conversation shifted; when someone said no, not like this anymore, something new instead and clothing and poses and pictures did their best to represent the change that had come.
I can go on; these are fun pictures to talk about but far better would be for you to experience them with your own eyes. If you live in Los Angeles, go now while you can. If you can’t get to the exhibition, buy the book, take it to a quiet place, open it and savor these images. They are the work of fine artists, collected from a hundred years’ worth of efforts. They show a century of change reflected in what we understand is beauty. They bear careful thought and study and they will reward you for your time.
One last thought, If social concerns are in the front of your mind as they often are in mine these days, this show might feel a little like an outing to Versailles before the fall. But in the long arc of history this too was important to people, even in troubled times, humans being the complex things they are.
ICONS OF STYLE – A CENTURY OF FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY, 1911 – 2011
June 26 – October 21, 2018
Getty Center, Los Angeles