Beyond the still image
Photo VOGUE Festival 2018
Exhibition: – 9 Dec 2018
Piazza Duomo 12
Mon, 14:30-19:30, Tue-Sun 9:30-19:30
Staged in the evocative galleries of the Prince’s Apartment at Palazzo Reale, Beyond the Still Image is the first museum exhibition to explore the unique vision of celebrated fashion photographer and filmmaker, Sølve Sundsbø. An immersive sequence of iconic and previously unseen photographs, videos and site-specific installations invites viewers to deepen their understanding of Sundsbø’s distinctive practice; one that is defined by cutting-edge technology and bold challenges to the two-dimensional nature of photography.
If photography can never be considered a faithful recording of reality, this is especially true of Sølve Sundsbø, whose experimental practice has advanced innovative approaches to image-making and expanded the discourse around fashion photography beyond conventional thinking. A review of Sundsbø’s editorial collaborations with Vogue Italia as well as i-D, V, Dazed and The New York Times Magazine reveals the extent to which he has impacted the language of contemporary fashion photography. Sundsbø’s sophisticated use of lighting and non-traditional techniques, including X-rays and 3D scanning have produced complex, hyper-realistic compositions, reflecting a vigorous embrace of technology, scientific progress and its myriad possibilities.
It is evident what led Sundsbø to favour fashion photography over other photographic genres. It’s plurality of approaches and techniques inspire infinite forms of expression. Uninhibited and free from preconceived notions, Sundsbø reveals its boundless potential. Experimentation, investigation, magic: everything is allowed. The only subtle and discreet limitation is good taste. This is due to the fact that exceptional fashion photography belongs to the realm of art. Clothes are merely props, like all other elements of the image. The narrow objective of selling them does not account for the totality of fashion photography’s historical origin, which did not identify functionality as its only criterion, but rather regarded the image as a “surplus of art”, over and above the mere function of the products.
Please allow me a digression. Fashion photography is very diverse: the motives, styles and artistic movements coexisting within the genre are almost limitless. However, oddly enough, rather than emphasize the heterogeneous nature of fashion photography, the advent of social media has given rise to claims, often with a hint of extremism, that the genre promotes unattainable standards of beauty, pointing to the excesses
of post-production. This outlook favours a “realistic”, documentary-like aesthetic, natural light, minimal use of Photoshop and a return to film, betraying a certain degree of naiveté, if only in the presumption that “natural photography” does indeed exist.
Of course, the dominant aesthetic of a certain period often results from a reaction to the aesthetics and excesses of a previous period. This is to be expected. Accordingly, the desire for faithful depictions of the female body in fashion photography is perhaps, and rightly so, a reaction to the celebration of unreal and stereotypical ideals of beauty that are anything but realistic. The fact that today there is a desire to see real, authentic bodies, with their supposed flaws and signs of age – characteristics no longer considered to be imperfections – is undoubtedly an important and positive shift. However, I believe it would be a mistake if such yearning for “truth” deprived fashion photography of its illusory potential. Invoking anti-technology radicalism to condemn idealization of the body threatens the very use of technology in photography, and, by that same route, threatens to curtail the oneiric power of fashion photography.
It is critical not to conflate what is in fact a political struggle over the female body – a struggle to define acceptable standards of aesthetic and physiological representation – with censorship of fashion photography’s artistic potential.
Body ideality, which is the focus of this conflict, is not “everything” in fashion photography. Fashion photography’s potential to make the impossible look plausible has little to do with the representation of more realistic bodies. It is, instead, about art and dreams. After all, according to Irving Penn, fashion photography is about “selling dreams, not clothes.”
The subject is delicate, as the debate is not exclusive to fashion photography. It is a conversation which pervades our collective experience and all artistic practice.
Art can be a representation of history and truth intended to convey a message – often a critique of the present time. This art might be read like a book, condemned to coincide with its “realistic” plot. Or, the ambiguity of art’s symbols and the freedom of the act may stand – as in Carmelo Bene’s theatre or Francis Bacon’s paintings – as the foundation of art’s struggle against the primacy of figurative expression. The latter does not profess to be a literal representation of life and historic events, but rather a visceral sensation that prevails over tangible messages and meaning. This art is liberated from strictures of logic and recaptures the autonomy art lost long ago, at least since Aristotle’s Poetics, which considered Greek tragedy – the highest form of art in Ancient Greece – “a book to be read,” in which understanding and meaning is derived only from those elements which can be seen on the surface.
But let’s return to Sølve Sundsbø. The history of fashion photography is written by its protagonists: the masters of the lens. Among them are practitioners who identify with documentary aesthetics as well as those who are manufacturers of dreams, or even nightmares. They are masters of the imagination, such as Cecil Beaton, Tim Walker, Steven Klein and, not least, Sundsbø himself.
In Sundsbø’s world, a woman’s face dematerializes and is reborn, composed of flowers or rays of light. Fire takes on human form, creeping through woods in the night. An elegant silhouette melts into precious metal. A majestic Lara Stone marches toward the viewer, her body suspended in a state of metamorphosis with nature. Garments come alive, faces are pixelated: anything is possible in Sundsbø’s awe-inspiring world. His photographs, like his videos, reject any rigid system of adherence to reality. They are a gateway to an enchanting dimension where the fusion of imagination and reality is a catalyst for infinite outcomes. Sundsbø’s technical superiority casts a spell so convincing that we believe every element of his images appeared as such before his lens.
If one wished, it would be possible to compare Sundsbø’s still images to poetry and his moving images to compositions in verse – poetry in motion. They are poetic movements freed from the urgency of information and the imperative of representing true life and its stories. As in Bacon’s paintings and Bene’s theater, there is no obligation to the figurative; no burden of realism.
Sundsbø’s photographs and videos are not closed. They do not prescribe any singular interpretation. They are open, inviting his audience to reflect in free association and to find subjective meaning on the basis of who they are and the experiences that have shaped their individual and subconscious perspectives.
This is work that liberates us from the curse of the literal. Its enigmatic symbols and interpretive qualities are so potent that all links to history and its representation are broken, links with life become frayed. We are exposed to the most delicate and impalpable of experiences: an escape from from the familiar, which only art can inspire.
In conclusion, although the aesthetic debate which seeks to contain the excesses to post-production as a means to move fashion photography closer to reality – if only with regard to the female body – is both valid and understandable, we should remember that documentary photography is characterized by its own conditions of possibility. It, too, is defined by freedom of the artist’s vision, without deference to any single interpretation. This is none other than the profound criterion of art (and dreams). Otherwise, a good book will suffice.