Our Cameras, Our Selves

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.”

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.”

Our Cameras, Our Selves