François Truffaut once wrote that there are no good or bad movies, only good or bad directors. That was the upshot of his “politique des auteurs”, his politics or policy of authorship, which was based on the idea that the force of a personal vision could subdue the money-making machinery of the film industry to its own ends—and that anyone whose vision had the force to prevail against that apparatus once could probably not help manifesting it always. Like Hollywood directors, fashion photographers are artisans in the service of a big machine. And likewise, fashion photography has its auteurs—its Avedons, its Bourdins, and so on—whose artistic sensibility is irrepressible. But they are rare; much rarer, in my experience, than their counterparts in the world of celluloid. In general, fashion photographers don’t seem to me to express any compelling desire that would be productively at odds with (without actually frustrating) the utilitarian task their employers have assigned them, that of stoking the passion for consumption. That’s not surprising, but it’s a bit disappointing. And it helps explain why, when I first came upon Jim Lee’s images for the first little time more than four years ago, I experienced a kind of shock. Here was something really rare: imagery made under the aegis of the fashion industry but with content way too hot to be contained by the cool surfaces of desirable apparel or appeased by the anodyne comforts of shopping. Pictures embodying complex, ambivalent metaphors about love, war, identity, conflict. And all done with such a consummate sense of style that they could pass in the fashion world.
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