The magazine of photography and ideas
Fashion Film & the Photographic by Marketa Uhlirova
Marketa Uhlirova on fashion films that push the boundaries of photography.
From Bob Richardson, Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, and Deborah Turbeville to Steven Meisel, Glen Luchford, and others, fashion photographers in the past few decades have often emulated the aesthetics of cinema. They have pictured carefully constructed and dramatically lit scenes that brim with narrative potential or, more directly, quote mise-en-scène drawn from the vast reservoir of the movies. This type of photography is, not surprisingly, described as “cinematic.” But what if we flip this familiar concept of the “cinematic” fashion photograph to make a reverse claim: that some recent fashion film, a newly prominent type of fashion image, has curiously dwelled on the “photographic”? In fact, could it be that the fashion film has, more than any other form of the moving image, a proclivity to reside in, gravitate toward, or at least somehow hover around photography?
This may sound odd because, surely, the initial stimulus of its makers was the opposite—to escape the confines of the photographic medium. Take Erwin Blumenfeld, who, in the late 1950s, began to experiment with film chiefly to extend the scope of his work in fashion photography. His desire was to set into motion the traditionally static form—very much in an echo of the primary impulse of early cinema to “animate photographs”—and outline a new visual language for fashion by introducing movement and time. While the recent fashion filmmakers were spurred on by such motivations, it is worth stressing that, like Blumenfeld, they have also transposed onto film what were essentially photographic problems and conventions, by holding onto processes, structures, and concerns specific to fashion photography.
Although fashion film assimilates a number of diverse film genres and forms, for the most part it evokes short, intense, non-narrative spectacles dedicated to the display and promotion of fashion. It is perhaps best characterized as a rhythmic fusion of visual and aural effects, somewhat similar to the music video. As a form of moving image, it is certainly not new, for it had appeared in different mutations since the beginnings of cinema (consider fashion commercials, newsreel and cine-magazine pieces, or various hybrids of promotional and documentary films). Yet, it had until recently been a form strangely overlooked, even displaced: an unclaimed ground half-lost somewhere between fashion and cinema—two industries with different demands. So it makes sense that when it reemerged from within the fashion community during the aughts, it “arrived” with unprecedented vigor. This rejuvenation has evidently been enabled by the “digital revolution,” especially in the new millennium, which has seen an intensified encounter between new media and technologies on the one hand, and fashion image makers and clients keen to explore them on the other.
Fashion film has shared photography’s clients, settings, budgets, and, progressively, imaging tools. And it has replicated—at least to a degree—its crews and cast. Many of today’s fashion filmmakers have backgrounds in photography but little or no formal knowledge of film or animation techniques and have generally continued with their previous practice of producing editorials and advertising for print magazines. This hybridization between photography and film has increasingly manifested itself through specific projects. Nick Knight and Tell No One’s Dynamic Blooms (AnOther magazine/SHOWstudio, 2011), Pierre Debusschere’s Holy Flowers (Dazed Digital, 2012), or Sølve Sundsbø’s The Ever Changing Face of Beauty (W, 2012), for example, all treat the material generated in a single “shoot” as the basis for a published fashion editorial and an online fashion film, simultaneously and with no obvious hierarchy between them. In the same vein, recent advertising campaigns such as Inez & Vinoodh for Yves Saint Laurent’s Autumn/Winter 2010–11 and Steven Meisel for Lanvin’s Spring/Summer 2013 present a seamless continuity between photography and film. This intermedial coexistence feels very real as it has also found its platforms in museum exhibitions, retail and public spaces, and, above all, online fashion magazines and websites. The most important of these has been Nick Knight and Peter Saville’s SHOWstudio, which has since its conception been very specific about the “studio” as a physical space that can amalgamate various creative practices (photography, filmmaking, and so on), while also being a broadcasting station.
Alongside these material and functional connections, there is another way to consider this close alliance between film and photography. It is through fashion’s vital preoccupation with the pose—something that has in fact been a recurrent source of fascination for the cinema. Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (USA, 1957), and Veˇra Chytilová’s Strop (Ceiling, Czechoslovakia, 1962) are two fiction films about fashion that in their portrayal of photo shoots use the freeze-frame or photographic still to provoke a tension between the models’ pose as a process, a choreography unraveling in time, and a final product—a privileged fashion image. By highlighting the moment of the holding of a pose, both expose its intrinsic paradox whereby one must become an immobilized image prior to the fact. (Both films did so with a different purpose: Funny Face elevates the frozen moment as the ideal image whereas Strop draws attention to its falsity.)
In a similar, if less ideological, manner, a distinct group of early fashion films associated with SHOWstudio explore the deceptive borderline between photographic stillness and filmic illusion of stillness. For example, Shelley Fox 14 (Shelley Fox and SHOWstudio, 2002) and Maison Martin Margiela A/W 2004–05 (Nigel Bennett, 2004) both arrange sets or sequences of still photographs into a temporal experience. Two other early SHOWstudio films, Jean-François Carly’s I Feel (2005) and Knight’s Sleep (2001) approximate photographs in the way their subjects are statically framed and portrayed as ostensibly inactive. Carly’s film shows a string of young male subjects standing in front of a white sheet, facing the camera in a way that is reminiscent of Warhol’s Screen Tests. The screen is split into two, with each pair of portraits showing the same boy, one dressed in his own clothes, the other in Raf Simons. The juxtapositions are accompanied by sparse comments in which the boys state how they feel as their newly fashioned selves, bringing into focus the transformative potential of clothes. In another nod to Warhol, Knight’s Sleep was first staged as a “live photo shoot” portraying nine models while they slept in their hotel rooms. Initially filmed by webcams and streamed via SHOWstudio, the footage of Sleep was subsequently turned into nine short films that speed up the non-action by applying a time-lapse effect. The edited films reintroduce movement, spotlighting the lyrically mutating draperies of the models’ flimsy dresses.
The attachment to the photographic seen in SHOWstudio’s early films also permeates a number of other, different strands of the fashion film: Inez & Vinoodh’s campaign for Yves Saint Laurent Autumn/Winter 2010–11 shows a simple event of a model descending a staircase and walking past the camera, very much in the style of early Lumière films. The model’s descent is not, however, captured as fluid motion but rather as a broken and disjointed sequence of slow-motion shots displaying an array of outfits. Yang Fudong’s campaign First Spring for Prada Spring/Summer 2010 inserts deliberately stilled or decelerated shots into otherwise dynamic street and interior scenes. Steven Klein’s Time Capsule series (2011) are pared-down filmic continuations (in black-and-white) of the very (color) images that make up the photographer’s editorial for W.
Why, then, this insistence on stillness and restricted expression in so many fashion films? Perhaps there is a sense (articulated by many, most famously Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag) that photographs are ultimately more memorable and impactful than moving images. Or perhaps the prolonged static shots allow for a closer study of shapes, colors, textures, and detail, something that industry clients and consumers may like to see. What is certain, though, is that the growing entanglement of the two media has naturally pushed for a new level of aesthetic and conceptual dialogue between them. In this relation, film is not necessarily an extension of photography, but rather, each medium is an extension of the other.
Marketa Uhlirova is director and curator of the Fashion in Film festival and a research fellow at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London. She is the editor, most recently, of Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle (Koenig Books, 2013).