More often, however, photographers now create a strange after-image of perfection. The women in the Sherman collection are so grotesquely distorted that, paradoxically, they call their opposites to mind. A grungy setting may create a similar after-image. In “Oh de Toilette,” a series from Tank, Simon Leigh makes painterly photographs of inelegant bathrooms in which fine shampoos and talcs and the like have fallen behind radiators or spilled on the floor. Nan Goldin, in a 1985 View, presented shots of ordinary women (at least one of them pregnant) lounging around the moldy Russian baths in lower Manhattan. The spaces in Mario Sorrenti’s photographs are so cluttered, so crowded with the junk of a low-rent pack-rat existence, that clean, elegant clothes become a saving grace and emptiness a poignant dream.
Spontaneous feeling also appears as something elusive but desired. Often, photographers invade the domestic space of the family, usually an emotionally intense arena. But fashion seems to flash-freeze families. The figures in Tina Barney’s “New York Stories,” which appeared in W, could inhabit dioramas in the Museum of Natural History or become wax figures in an art-world Madame Tussaud’s. In Steven Meisel’s “The Good Life,” a campy send-up of ads from the fifties in Vogue Italia, everyone in the family has a Pepsodent smile bright enough to resist decades of Coca-Cola drinking. The wealthy family in Larry Sultan’s “Visiting Tennessee” (a Kate Spade campaign) tours around New York City with a daughter named Tennessee doing its best to become a snapshot. At the Chelsea gallery they visit, monochromatic abstractions hang on the wall.
The heightened drama found in the movies attracts the most intense longing of all. Film noir, which is both highly stylized and filled with crimes of passion, is a particularly important source. In Glen Luchford’s homage, something awful seems about to happen to women who wear Prada in dark places, such as a beauty walking in bluish snow (opposite page). In one image, Luchford shows a pair of legs, which may belong to a dead woman: The sandals look exquisite on a corpse. Ellen von Unwerth, for an Alberta Ferretti campaign, taps the nostalgic memories of Marilyn Monroe and perhaps Jackie Kennedy, both women who led lives that have the mythic quality of the movies.
A special form of storytelling characterizes many of the pictures on view in “Fashioning Fiction.” Something appears to be happening in them, some intriguing plotline that is kept from the viewer. This creates a strange, voyeuristic hunger for what’s in the image. The viewer must look for the plot as well as for the clothes. You buy a dream, a story, an attitude, a mood, and a dress. Strong photographers sense that this hungry, outside-inside voyeurism also reflects a deeper existential craving—that found in a fluxy society filled with people of changing identity who are not certain of their private plotlines. In “Cuba Libre,” in W, Philip-Lorca diCorcia placed a woman in fashionable clothes amid the crumble and decay of Havana. Many of the images, in contrast to the libre of the title, suggest enclosing or imprisoning spaces. We do not know her story, but it seems disturbing. She’s an isolated jewel, a prisoner of style.