Icons of Style at the Getty Museum

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Can fashion be art? More to the point, can the photography of fashion be art? That is the crux of Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911-2011 now at the Getty Museum.

Curator Paul Martineau took on the controversial notion that certain exceptional photographers have so elevated the medium that their work deserves greater respect than it has been accorded. Figures like Baron Adolph de Meyer, Edward Steichen, Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton took pictures of what were considered the revolutionary fashion designs of their times from Poiret to McQueen. But their work was far from simple documentation. Using a progression of lighting, location and technical innovations, they crafted statements about their times, not just pretty young things in costly clothing.

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House of Dior, Christian DiorFrench, 1905–1957Woman’s Dress, “Abandon,” Fall/Winter 1948. Bodice and skirt: wool plain weave (crepe); belt: silk plain weave(crepe). Bodice, L. (center back): 75.9 cm (29 7/8 in.); skirt, L. (center back):76.8 cm (30 1/4 in.); belt, L.: 128.9 cm (50 3/4 in.). Los Angeles Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Laura-Lee W. WoodsPhoto © Museum Associates/LACMA

This ravishing exhibition is installed chronologically so that photographs in each gallery are anchored by a mannequin wearing a dress by a key designer of the period. All are on loan from LACMA. For example, there is a 1948 Christian Dior black suit with the cinched waist and full skirt of his “New Look” and a Richard Avedon photograph of a model wearing such an outfit while walking down the street, seen from the back and turning the heads of passing men.

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Richard Avedon. American, 1923–2004. Renée, the New Look of Dior, Place de la Concorde, Paris, August 1947, negative, 1947; print, 1978 Gelatin silver print. 45.7 x 35.5 cm (18 x 14 in.). The Richard Avedon Foundation, New York. Copyright © The Richard Avedon Foundation

But aren’t these just commercial shots done for magazines like Vogue? Yes and no. In 1922, Edward Steichen became the principle photographer used by the new Condé Nast publications. Therein lies a relevant tale.

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Edward Steichen. American, born Luxembourg, 1879–1973. Gloria Swanson, 1924. Gelatin silver print. 27.8 x 21.6 cm (10 15/16 x 8 1/2 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles© Condé Nast

Pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz and the younger Steichen together opened their 291 gallery in New York to exhibit photography as art, a radical proposition in the early 20th century. Friends and allies, their eventual falling out was the result of Stieglitz’s contempt for Steichen after he began accepting assignments from magazines and advertisers. Stieglitz, however, had access to a wealthy father and wife. Steichen needed to make a living. Yet some of Steichen’s most captivating pictures, including the 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson included in the show, still stand as icons of something beyond style. He was a great force in the integration of modern art’s daring with the presentation of high fashion.

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Man Ray. American, 1890–1976. Model Wearing a Gown by Augustabernard, 1936. Gelatin silver print. 28.9 x 22.7 cm (11 3/8 x 8 15/16 in.). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP

The Surrealists of the 1920s embraced photography as a legitimate, even subversive medium and the surprising and titillating aspects of their ideas migrated onto the glossy pages of magazines. The show includes Man Ray’s 1937 photograph of a model wearing a glimmering draped gown by Vionnet while lounging in a rustic wooden wheelbarrow. Salvador Dali inspired the lobster tail dress by Schiaparelli that Wallace Simpson wears in her portrait by Cecil Beaton. Boundaries between the exclusivity of modern art and mass readership have only dissolved further since then.

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Sheila Metzner. American, born 1939. Uma in Dress by Patou, 1986 Pigment print 62.7 x 41.8 cm (24 11/16 x 16 7/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council © Sheila Metzner

Still, a shadow has lingered over fashion photography despite the fact that notions of art and commerce, fashion and timelessness, originality and appropriation, uniqueness and reproducibility have collapsed in the past few decades. While anyone could add or subtract photographs that deserve to be included, this is the most comprehensive museum exhibition to even explore the subject. Martineau is not claiming that these pictures will change the course of history but that they deserve respect, to be viewed as a genre unto itself. Any number of these photographers have had parallel careers as artists including Dora Marr, Sheila Metzner and Deborah Turbeville, who are among the 13 women included in the show.

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Helmut Newton. Australian, born Germany, 1920–2004 Woman Examining Man, Saint-Tropez 1975, negative, 1975; print, about 1984 From the Private Property Series. Gelatin silver print. 36 x 24 cm (14 3/16 x 9 7/16 in.)The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Helmut Newton Foundation© The Helmut Newton Estate. Image courtesy of Maconochie Photography

In this and other ways, the exhibition reveals the shifts in social structure, views of women and of men, the role of the erotic and, of course, the evolution of fashion from couture to branding. At times, clothing itself recedes almost entirely as in Guy Bourdin’s 1977 picture of high heels barely visible in a convertible as a plane takes off overhead, Herb Ritts’ 1984 photograph of a greasy, muscled mechanic or Glen Luchford’s 1994 Times Square picture of Kate Moss throwing a blurry punch at his lens.

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Glen Luchford. British, born 1968. Kate Moss, Times Square, New York, negative, 1994; print, 2017. Gelatin silver print 50.8 x 61 cm (20 x 24 in.)The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Glen and Tanya Luchford © Glen Luchford

The exhibition as a whole is less about the history of fashion or style and more like a singular overview of the history of photography — from black and white film, artificial lighting and darkroom prowess to the use of color film, naturalism, and technological advances going into the digital age.

Icons of Style is, like the work it presents, an antidote to the expected, a welcome breeze in these overheated times. And if you want to hear about it from the clotheshorse’s mouth, models Beverly Johnson, Cheryl Tiegs and Patricia Velasquez will be speaking at the Getty on Aug.1 at 7 p.m. The show continues to Oct. 21