It's one of those curious things. In a fashion industry increasingly dominated by women -- from the editrices who have always ruled to the woman designers who are stealing more of the pie away from their male colleagues every day -- it's only photographers who have largely remained men.
"The David Bailey model dies hard," observes Val Williams, curator of the Hasselblad Center in Gothenburg, Sweden. He refers, of course, to the legendary photographer who came out of nowhere (read: a working-class background) in the sixties to become the first fashion photographer as star, sex symbol, and soul of Swinging London.
But while the Bailey legacy has been celebrated with a recent book, Birth of the Cool, and the photographer himself has shot a rare ad campaign for Bergdorf Goodman, the Bailey model is getting punched full of holes.
There's a new cadre of fashion photographers, all of them women and, refreshingly, all of them with nothing but a camera to grind. These photographers -- Elaine Constantine, Elinor Carucci, Ellen Nolan, Vanina Sorrenti, Liz Collins, and Justine Parsons -- are less concerned with addressing the welter of female stereotypes before them than with just doing, or shooting, their own visions. And so they do, for the coolest-kid magazines in fashion: Italian Vogue, French Vogue, Surface, W, The Face, Harper's Bazaar.
"I don't go around thinking, I'm a woman," says Constantine, a Manchester-born 34-year-old who has been the most successful of the names mentioned. "People are on this woman tip, but I'm a person."
Most notably, her photographs of apple-cheeked, euphoric teenage girls have delivered a potent death chop to the vogue for the wan, sallow, and sullen.
And while Constantine says she'd be dismayed at a predictable picture of, say, a woman draped over a sports car, she adds, "I'm put off by any kind of visual stereotype; more truthfully, I'm outraged at the amount of boring imagery around."
Constantine, nibbling at a club sandwich in the Gramercy Park Hotel dining room, credits the photographer Corinne Day with finally breaking the constraints that hampered women as photographers: "Corinne used less sexy imagery, less obvious imagery, and I think there's a lot of women who are into less sexy imagery, on both sides of the camera." In fact, when it comes to blatantly sexy imagery, Constantine confesses that she would be at a bit of a loss: "It would have to be completely ironic, and I hate irony in pictures."
Why has it taken so long for women to get cast in this role in significant numbers?
"It's only in this generation that so many women have become important, because, I think, the old prejudices about the photographer's relationship with the model has finally gone," says Williams. "Bailey's relationship with the models, that Blow-Up, Austin Powers thing. Even with Helmut Newton, when those girls were having a really great time, there was something underlying, an exploitative edge. It's funny -- a lot of male fashion photographers have been gay, but that's always been kept under wraps because that wasn't seen to be the proper relationship."
Make no mistake, there's still plenty of sex out there, what with bombshells Gisele Bundchen and Carmen Kass cast as this year's must-have models -- and with racy Mario Testino well on his way to being crowned as Vogue's premier photographer. Why? Because sex sells clothes. Don't believe me? You can ask Tom Ford at the next Gucci Group shareholder meeting.
But although sex still sells, it's not the only thing that sells. What's compelling -- sexy, to use the word of the day -- about these young women's work is that it often bears the stamp of a communiqué. It's an inside joke, or, say, a message in code, an inter-office memo, a secret outsiders wouldn't understand.
Sure, there's sex; there's even some T&A. But the camera is no longer wielded phallus-style (yeah, baby, yeah!), and it's much less of an apparatus, as the semiotics set would say: more cigarette than strap-on.
It certainly was not ever thus; two of the most important fashion photographers of the past 30 years, Deborah Turbeville and Ellen von Unwerth, made sexuality in some way a central pillar of their work, often by transferring sexual authority to their subjects. Turbeville's languid sybarites lived for the cosmopolitan pleasures (and clothes) of the late seventies. In the late eighties and early nineties, Von Unwerth took the Betty Grable-Varga Girl pin-up of World War II and transformed her into a postfeminist, stilettoed glamazon (with her own damn nose cones, thank you very much).
The tide began to turn with the fine-art photographer turned sharpshooter-of-the-new-Bazaar Inez Van Lamsweerde, whose pictures brilliantly blurred the lines between retail reverie and sex. And today's girls, or women, or whatever you want to call them since neither word seems quite appropriate, aren't as interested in playing the sex card, or, at the very least, not in using it as a trump. "I don't look at them in a sexual way," says Nolan, referring to how she sees her models. "But you can look at them in a sensual way. I see them as individuals, the same way I see men as people. So when I shoot women, it's important for me to find the person, to find her presence in the picture."
For Constantine, the newly embraced practice of finding models who look like individuals (only more photogenic, perhaps) helped her achieve her signature look of unfamiliar faces caught in ecstasy, and helped her realize her philosophy: "I want to present people so that you can empathize with them, so that you can believe the fantasy." But she has also discovered the perils of fashion-magazine dictates, recalling a job where she was given a list of models she could use. "One thing that confuses me about this is why you should have to use the really big models," she says. Since she prefers to use models with whom she feels some visual kinship, such demands are tough. "You can't expect everyone to be your best friend," she says. "And when someone sees my pictures, I want them to think, What a great life! I don't want them just to see Maggie Rizer in a camel sweater."