Head Over Heels With Photography And Fashion

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For any museum exhibition to be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times, it would be an honor, but to have a glowing review extended to three pages, plus a dozen images accompanying it, is almost unheard of. Until last Sunday.

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Christina Dior, Woman's Two-Piece Dress, Fall/Winter 1948. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Photo by Edward Goldman.

The new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, “Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911-2011,” with its almost 200 photos, magazine covers, ad campaigns, and garments, is not just an homage to fashion itself but also an extremely eloquent and persuasive case for elevating the art of fashion photography. To quote The New York Times, “the bastard stepchild of the fine art world is finally getting its birthright.”

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Richard Avedon, Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Photo by Edward Goldman.

Let me start with the iconic image by Richard Avedon of the highest-paid model of the 1950s, Dovima, wearing a Dior dress and standing between two elephants. For me, this is the Mona Lisa of fashion photography. And it definitely shouldn’t be a surprise that in 2010, this Avedon photo sold for over $1 million at Christie’s.

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Left: Horst P. Horst, The Mainbocher Corset, Paris, 1939. Courtesy: Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Right: Lillian Bassman, Charles James Dress, Carmen, New York, 1960. Courtesy: Richard and Allison Roeder. Photo by Edward Goldman.

Paul Martineau, associate curator of photographs at the Getty Museum, has done a remarkable job organizing this exhibition, covering a century-long history of fashion, including 89 photographers—famous as well as lesser known—among them, 15 women and two African-Americans.

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Left: Norman Parkinson, The New Mayfair Edwardians (Peter Coats, William Ackroyd, Mark Gilbey), 1950. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Right: Irving Penn, Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives Penn), 1950. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Photos by Edward Goldman.

I had the privilege of seeing this exhibition last night, and let me tell you, I drooled over it.

It probably has to do something with the fact that my father was a women’s tailor, so our house was full of fashion magazines. As a child, even before I learned to read, I was flipping through these pages filled with fairy-tale-like images.

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Left: Sarah Moon, Sveta for Hussein Chalayan, 2000. © Sarah Moon. Right: David Sims, Yohji Yamamoto, 1995. © David Sims. Photos courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

To quote Mr. Martineu, “There is a hierarchy in art forms that has come down over the ages, and museums are very slow to change.” And indeed, it took museums decades before they stopped looking down on fashion photography. The best photos in this show hold your attention not because they show gorgeous models wearing absolutely stunning gowns, but because of their innovative composition and subtle use of color. Iconic images by great artists such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn could and should be shown alongside the best 20 th century artworks. Period.

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Left: William Claxton, Peggy Moffitt in Rudi Gernreich Topless Swimsuit, 1964. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Right: Bruce Weber, Tom Hintnaus for Clavin Kelin, Santorini, Greece, 1982. Courtesy: Bruce Weber and Nan Bush. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Photos by Edward Goldman.

And, of course, fashion photography deals with sex…Plenty of sex. Here is the divine Peggy Moffitt in a topless swimsuit photographed by her husband William Claxton—the image that shocked the world when it appeared in 1964. And if you happened to be in Times Square in 1982, you might remember the eyebrow-raising billboard of a Calvin Klein underwear model, which “broke new ground making male sexuality commercially appealing.”

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Glen Luchford, Kate Moss, 1994. © Glen Luchford. The J. Paul Getty Museum.

A photo of Kate Moss by Glen Luchford shows her delivering a punch into your face. The action takes place in the 90s, when Times Square was still a rather seedy, dangerous place to traverse. It’s an image that encapsulates fashion, art, and documentary. If there were anything I would add to this exhibition, it might be a few iconic photos of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Funny Face. That would be a dream come true…



Kathleen Yore