That feeling links nearly all the photographers in this new wave, even Liz Collins, whose provocatively sexual images, sometimes involving two women, hint at a special kind of secret the boys don't get but might like to. "The relationship of the model and photographer is quite different today," says Charlotte Cotton, assistant curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum. "There's an effort to try to get at the real character of the model and a sense of individuality, rather than something statuesque. There's a sympathy between them, not the full-on message of sexual frisson. That's not what the twenty-first century is about."
Sorrenti takes such pains to be unprovocative that her pictures have a boldness all their own. She is the latest member of the Sorrenti clan to take aim behind the camera; her mother, Francesca, and older brother Mario are both respected photographers; her younger brother Davide, also a photographer, gained a different kind of fame when he died of a heroin overdose a few years back. But she hasn't followed in any of their footsteps, moving toward developing a candid style of working that has more in common with a fine-art paradigm than with fashion. For one thing, she doesn't use any makeup.
"It's obvious that with a woman shooting a woman the dynamic is completely different," says Sorrenti. "It's not as sexual, but it's a lot more intimate. When it's the same sex, women on women or men on men, you're not projecting anything on them but identifying. With women, I try to find something within them that's close to myself and heighten that beauty, glorify it. And it's not like an expected or preconceived beauty."
But if finding the person in the picture is the Holy Grail, as Nolan puts it, finding the person for the picture is a crucial part of the process in literal terms as well. For these women, you see, the word friends doesn't just mean a goofy sitcom; it's their whole aesthetic.
"I really only use my friends; I wouldn't want to use anyone else. But then, if they come to me, I assume that's what they're looking for," says Carucci, a beautiful Israeli-born fine-art photographer who does only rarefied commercial work. (She adds jokingly, "So I only choose the most beautiful girls for my friends -- if you're not beautiful, I'm not interested in you.") One of Carucci's favorite subjects is her own youthful, chic mother; another specialty is her haunting, super-extreme close-ups of the female body. No airbrushing here; one of the most graphic images features Carucci tweezing a hair from her own nipple. In what became an editorial photo spread, she pressed the brass button from a pair of Calvin Klein jeans into a friend's skin, then took an extreme close-up of the impression, legible right down to the designer's name (now, that's brand identity).
Nolan shares the personal method. "I always work in my own way," says the 30-year-old Londoner. "I think that people come to me for what I do, so I just think, Take it or leave it -- I'm not going to adapt. If someone doesn't interest me, I won't do it. I've been asked to photograph people I'm not interested in, and I've said no. You're just prostituting yourself otherwise.
"If there's no connection, then there's no point, because there's no magic."
She also dislikes the ease of shooting the pretty girl. "It's a real challenge to shoot ordinary people. The other way, it always means that she's pretty, and when people see the picture, they're always looking at a woman who's pretty." No fun there.
"Plus, those images are totally unattainable," she adds, "and I think they have the power to make many women incredibly unhappy, by stopping them from feeling happy about themselves. And you know, I've thought that I feel sorry for men as well now for the same reasons."
Over the years, the fashion industry has looked increasingly to the work and talent of fine-art photographers like Cindy Sherman, Catherine Opie, Sarah Lucas, Nan Goldin, and Hannah Starkey for credibility. "Fashion follows the art world very closely today," says Cotton. "So maybe with the younger women, we want to buy into this, because this is what the art world has sanctioned." More than that, it's the mundane and bohemian lifestyle that these women bring to their pictures that makes their work -- featuring their friends, or models that look like they could be their friends -- so desirable. It doesn't get more real than that.
Of course, the wheel of fashion will turn again, and new women and men will be there to declare all this realness totally unreal -- or, even worse, not modern.
But that's fashion: As Cotton puts it, "To be a really good photographer, you have to avoid all the clichés."