“Looking at photography” is, a collection of 100 images and 100 short essays published by Damiani Editore and selected by Stephen Frailey. Twice a month we will publish an essay excerpted from his book. Today : Steven Meisel
As a seasonal endeavor, fashion photography, like fashion itself, reinvents itself by necessity, sifting the untold and mercurial cultural and economic components that influence the effort to sell clothes. Collective taste is capricious: moving at lightning speed, departing without warning, returning under stealth cover.
The best fashion photography encapsulates all that is engrossing in a single cultural moment, and understands style not as a superficial endeavor but a badge of identity and shield of self regard.
Steven Meisel is the most prolific American fashion photographer of his time, dwarfing his contemporaries. In the world of style where the attribute of “taste maker” is used with abandon, Meisel has the ability to anticipate and assimilate what will briskly become relevant and modern, a fusion of observation, imagination, and instinct, managing the vagaries of fashion by out pacing them.
Thus also, the plurality and visual diversity of the work—the shuffling of pictorial reference from an inexhaustible historical provenance— is in service to the interest of this future. The photograph’s shrewd eclecticism is their vitality, their narrative is of the moment. Pop music, nineteenth century painting, porn, performance, vintage bdsm photographs, surveillance cameras, photojournalism: the roulette of references do not feel academic and patisched but invigorated. The work takes singular pleasure in fashion’s history.
The narratives that Meisel produces are often situated in the ranks of style and excess among the very privileged, yet address pivotal cultural issues: the fluidity of gender and identity, body modification, addiction, security apparatus, racial inclusion. Here, famously, the fashion narrative “Makeover Madness” that occupied 80 pages of Vogue Italia in 2002 of models submitting themselves to all forms of body intervention while gowned in couture, lampoons fashion’s vanity and superficiality; the boredom of narcissism.
Conventional wisdom holds that a fashion photographer invent a signature style and its maintenance can be confining. Meisel’s consistency is in his ambition, and in the totemic elegance of the women, honoring their nobility no matter what their predicament.
Looking at Photography by Stephen Frailey
Published by Damiani