Selling Dreams- an exhibition of fashion photography

Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography is an exhibition of photographs at Aberdeen Art Gallery and is a travelling exhibition from the V & A in London.

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The title Selling Dreams comes from Vogue fashion photographer Irving Penn in 1984 when he described that publication as ‘selling dreams, not clothes’ . Many of the photographs are from Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar shoots – not all were published but taken in a series of fashion shots.  The diverse assortment of images spans the twentieth century and creeps into the twenty-first. On display are more than photographs merely promoting clothes for they capture social and artistic trends across those decades.

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The exhibition is promoted by a snap of swinging sixties model Twiggy on a moped. It is entirely different from the studied arrangements of, say Adolf de Myers from the early part of the century.

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Sticking with the sixties for a moment the brash imagery assaults the eye. Here the photography is as much about promoting the sexuality of the model as advertising designer outfits. In that fine sixties tradition women have become commoditised. They look back at us looking at them in a most self-conscious way – young outwardly confident women, bold and brash yet entirely manipulated by the man, usually, behind the camera.

Atypical of the stock images from the ‘60s and ‘70s is Deborah Turberville’s The Bath House(American Vogue 1975) of several models surrounded by shower cubicles which was condemned at the time for what was bizarrely said to be its allusion to the Holocaust gas chambers and an insinuation of lesbianism.

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There’s an arresting picture reminiscent of the sixties but is in fact a Klimt-like image by Steven Meisel (2007 Italian Vogue) in which tattoo collides with jigsaw in a blaze of colour and shape.

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From the intensity of Meisel’s colour range to stark blacks, greys and whites of Edward Steichen (Vogue 1937) beautifully arranged pieces or great subtlety and yet striking. As are Frank Hovet’s magnificent arrangement in which the shadow of a hatted man is cast across a model as she walks so that her upper body, and jacket which is the subject of the shot, and the model’s face are starkly lit.

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A startling photograph of a male fashion model in a camouflage suit pushing a pram through a dangerous area is Steven Klein’s Step into the Future from a 2006 edition of L’uomo Vogue.

Surrealism appears in Baron George Hoyningen-Huen’s picture for British Vogue 1928 seen at the beginning of this blog with mannequin legs visible at the top of the picture and Herbert List’s Schneiderpuppe Female Slave 1. I liked it but did it ‘capture the magical essence inhabiting and animating the world of appearances’ – I’ve no idea as I don’t know what that means.

There’s a pleasant abstract Fashion Study by Peter Rose Pulham from the mid-thirties which contrasts with Edward Steichen’s 1937 photograph for American Vogue of Mrs E E Cummings in which the model is lit from the side throwing half of the picture into deep shade while the other has the light play on the soft texture of her dress with its glittering sequins.

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A Parisian bridge is the backdrop to one of Sokolsky’s bubble series from the French capital and New York. Rather silly it has a model encased in a Perspex bubble – from 1963.

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The following year Jeanloup Sieff created a more interesting composition placing a Chinese family into the foreground while the model is ensconced in a phone booth in the background in full model attitude. It’s kind of anarchic and fun.

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One straight out of The Avengers television series is John French’s 1955 study of a skater and a man with a bowler hat, set in London. It’s very stylised, static and quite funny.

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It’s a mere step into the sixties from this French picture. The posy sixties with its all its artifice caught in the film which runs during the exhibition about Cecil Beaton by fashion photographer David Bailey. I didn’t stick around to watch it as I found the vowels fairly impenetrable and then the strains of There’ll Always Be An England filled the gallery. It was enough to stop anyone in their tracks that and its images of WWII with its brave heroic English airmen who gave their all to save the country – whichever one it was.

The exhibition lasts until 20 April 2013.

Bring earplugs.

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