Chic Clothes Make The Person

These photos are quite amazing, but you have got to wonder how many clothes they sell.

That is to say, the Institute for Contemporary Art’s (ICA) new exhibition, “Chic Clicks: Creativity and Commerce in Contemporary Fashion Photography,” has plenty of absolutely stunning pictures featuring models glaring at the camera, gazing misty-eyed into the distance, or being just plain weird—but not really wearing anything you might want to buy. Take Terry Richardson’s “Campaign for Sisley,” where we get to see close up a couple rutting in the hay: The image is interesting, albeit a little revolting, but there’s no way that anyone is going to imagine themselves with the clothes the models are—or are not—wearing.

This conflict, how “fashion photography navigates between two supposedly oppositional forces—creativity and commerce,” as the entrance wall text explains, represents the core of “Chic Clicks.” “Rather than reinforce traditional dichotomies (high vs. low, art vs. commerce),” the exhibit aims to “allow visitors to decide whether such distinctions are still useful or important, considering the multiple ways contemporary art and fashion photography now intersect.” It does this in an unusual way, splitting up the work of its 40 international photographers among its two floors into “Creativity” and “Commerce” sections to allow visitors to see independently the work done for profit and the work done for art’s sake.

It is an exhibition with more a question than a message, because each artist has his own way of adapting his work to different tasks. Some, like Collier Schorr and his revealing photos of awkward adolescents, make no distinction between creating work for its own sake and trying to vend clothes. Others, such as Banu Cennetoglu and his dimension-defying landscapes, seem to be sticking in the models as an afterthought to their previous works. So the gimmick both works and it doesn’t: we indeed get to see a very rare sight, how commisioned and non-commissioned art from the same artist differ—but it’s impossible to make any sweeping conclusions because these photos are created with such individual style.

The exhibit is more about art than fashion—to the point where one can forget this business side of things altogether. The number of pure gems hanging on the walls makes the half-hour trip to the ICA completely worthwhile. It is interesting to see that many of the photographers who consider fashion a sideline interest produce the best work of the “creative” section. Hands down the best pieces of this floor are Cennetoglu’s “Untitled” and David Sim’s “Laura.” The former is a Turkish landscape featuring the stunning dusty orange mountains of central Anatolia—but stare at it long enough and the goalposts and markings of a red dirt soccer field suddenly jump out into view, not unlike the surprise of a Magic Eye. The latter is a simple black-and-white of a sullen girl gazing at the viewer with piercing eyes that follow one around the gallery, Mona Lisa style. Both of them are nothing short of complete photographic experiences.

The “commercial” work can be amazing as well—take Koto Bolofo’s editorial for L’Uomo. More like a photo of an Alvin Ailey practice session than a fashion shoot, the photo captures the grace of four men in black tank tops tumbling over each other in the passion of their basketball game. Takehasi Hamma’s “Louis Vitton, Ginza, Tokyo,” is eye-popping in a much different way. It causes the viewer to focus on the hypnotic architecture of the namesake’s department store while almost burying the elegantly dressed model in the lower right corner. Intensely fun to look at, the shot also succeeds in its basic purpose: It makes us want to buy the featured clothes.

Which, you’ve got to admit, doesn’t happen much. Certainly the photos in the “commercial” section are more aimed at convincing a restless public that the featured designer is “on the edge” and “trendy” rather than inspiring spontaneous shopping frenzies. It’s sort of an Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon: No one is going to be caught dead in the translucent white, yellow chest-belted shirt of Frank Lingnau and Tom Schumacher’s “Notebook 5,” unless of course it’s the “in thing,” in which case it’s absolutely divine and your neighborhood millionare has ten of them. Perhaps this is the way the fashion world has to turn: but it would be much nicer to see less of, say, Cindy Sherman’s grimy, sweaty pieces and more of Bolofo’s streamlined, sexy men dancing their way into our fashion dreams.

chic clicks

Creativity and Commerce in

Contemporary Fashion Photography

Through May 5, 2002

Institute for Contemporary Art, 955 Boylston St.