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Storytelling In The News: #116

Role of narrative in fashion photography

April 11, 2004

This morning, the New York Times notes in its discussion of the current Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) show on "Fashioning Fiction," that in the 1990's fashion photography made clothing subservient to narrative. The show is built around the idea that in the 1990's fashion photography became fixated with narrative, with storytelling.

The story however is minimalist, leaving the viewer to complete the narrative. You have to stand in front of them for a while to d figure out a story line — it was her birthday, they got together, they broke up, etc. They are evocative of narrative circumstance rather than telling a story, step by step.

Holly Brubach notes that people used to complain that Balanchine's ballets were too abstract, they lacked story lines, and he used to say, "Boy offers hand, girl takes hand, how much story do you want?" That's what she's reminded of by this exposition. The narrative is vague, but that's not such a bad thing.

Brubach also notes that fashion photography satirizes itself and the whole notion of glamor. "There's a send-up of female perfection, which seems logical given what happened in the 80's — the supermodel obsession and the idea of the sleek goddess that was projected in so many fashion images. We have to remember that there is this dialectic in fashion where it swings back and forth between perfection and ideal beauty and then toward a kind of revulsion with all that. And you see it in different forms here. You see it in Cindy Sherman, photographed with a face that's partially scarred, or you see it in the Nan Goldin or Mario Sorrenti pictures. They're consciously in your face with the idea that these are not supermodels. And then you see the whole idea played out again in more humorous form in the Meisel Italian Vogue shoot satirizing the 50's, which illustrates perfection but taken to such a degree that it becomes absurd and amusing."

Ginia Bellafante notes that the photograph taken in Havana by Philip-Lorca diCorcia (see detail above), of a woman standing by a bar is a direct reference to Edward Hopper's paintings — and with its mood of romanticized disconnection, of alienation, it seems to represent the feel of the whole show.

Bottom line

The theme of the MOMA show also reflects a deeper point -- photographs in general only make sense when we know the story that they embody.

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