Photography’s Road From Edgy to Excess

Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin revolutionized fashion photography from the late 1960s through the ’70s with sexy pictures that were kinky and edgy. They rejected genteel proprieties and posed women with full-frontal nudity, in lesbian seductions, as victims of murder, in bondage restraints and as killers of hapless men. They were implying narratives, much as Richard Avedon had done earlier, but the new back stories were far more transgressive. The photographs shocked and scandalized. In 1975, the Times art critic Hilton Kramer found Newton’s pictures to be “so clamorous and unsavory” that “the interest in fashion is indistinguishable from an interest in murder, pornography and terror.”

Compared to what followed, however, these provocative photographs seem mild. Although they traffic in imagery of death and lust, the photos of Newton and Bourdin convey their message with a wink and a hint, in the way that Alfred Hitchcock staged the lovers in “North by Northwest” embracing in a train compartment just before the train thunders into a tunnel. They leave room for the viewer’s imagination.

Guy Bourdin’s photograph for a Charles Jourdan shoe advertisement. He staged what appears to be a fatal car accident — hinting, not showing. Credit…The Guy Bourdin Estate, via Louise Alexander Gallery

The exhibition “David LaChapelle: Make Believe” at Fotografiska New York, a private photography museum, through Jan. 8, and the just-published voluminous monograph “Steven Klein,” from Phaidon, display in fascinating detail how two fashion and magazine photographers in the ’90s took the legacy of Newton and Bourdin and ran with it, pushing beyond edginess into excess. Although Klein paid homage to Newton by depicting the improvised shrine at the site of the German photographer’s fatal car crash in West Hollywood in 2004, he owes a more obvious debt to Bourdin.

Blood is Klein’s favorite fluid. For Bourdin, too, blood was an essential ingredient, but he used it sparingly, as a chef would employ cloves or chili. As an example, for a 1980 calendar Bourdin photographed a nude woman prone, with her head alongside a red puddle that resembles blood and clearly isn’t. But Klein revels in realistic-looking blood. His sanguinary photographs usually feature men, some of them well known (Brad Pitt, Justin Timberlake, Riccardo Tisci, Benjamin Walker). In addition to self-inflicted injuries, such as a spiked hand or a scarred, still bloody chest, the most horrible ones — which aim to be shocking and are merely repellent — depict men with cut throats. A tribute to the skill of the special-effects makeup artist, they are in remarkably bad taste. If the depicted victims are women, there is less blood, more menace: typically, a man’s hand pressed against her throat or mouth. Appropriately, his most consistent muse has been Madonna, who shares his love of overkill and immodesty.

Steven Klein, “Nicole Kidman #08.” If Klein’s depicted victims are women, there is less blood, more menace.Credit…Steven Klein

But when Klein exercises a little self-restraint, he can make good pictures. A black-and-white portrait from 2011 of a veiled Kate Moss in lace elbow gloves and laced-up leggings, sitting in a small chamber papered with an intricate Moorish pattern, reads like a witty homage to Edward Steichen’s classic 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson, with the veil run amok. An informal shot of Moss and Naomi Campbell, smoking in the Meatpacking district, is the quintessence of cool. And a mask of Pitt’s face drenched in blood-red paint against a black background is far more effective than the snuff porn of fake slit throats. Klein benefits from a brake. In the ’90s, he was working for glossy magazines, especially Vogue, constructing elaborate sets at a time when money flowed freely and creative directors indulged the most outlandish whims. He strove to outdo Bourdin, not realizing that more is not always better.

Steven Klein, “Brad Pitt #36.” The photographer revels in blood.Credit…Steven Klein

LaChapelle matured in the same environment of superabundance. As a young gay man in New York in the ’80s, he started his photography career when the AIDS epidemic was engulfing his community in terror and loss. His earliest photographs at Fotografiska, which has for the first time devoted all of its exhibition space to one artist, date from 1984: “Good News for Modern Man,” numbered 1 to 3, depict in soft-focus, warm-toned black-and-white, a bare-breasted woman reaching up toward a beam of light. In 1985, he made a poignant portrait of a man standing in a sheer shroud, illuminated against a black background. You could easily believe these pictures had been produced in the late 19th century — and, while that is not necessarily a compliment, they are my favorite photographs in the show. But as early as 1985, LaChapelle was dressing up scantily clad cute guys with feathered wings as archangels. He had already embraced the kitsch that has characterized his work ever since.

David LaChapelle, “Good News for Modern Man 2” (1984). In his earliest work, LaChapelle was channeling sentimental Victorian photographers.Credit…David LaChapelle

LaChapelle represents a reprise of sentimental narrative photography, typically religious in theme, often homoerotic, which flourished in the 19th century until modernism squashed it. Straining to hoist the new medium of photography into the artistic pantheon, a number of Victorians constructed elaborate tableaux that were modeled on paintings or literary classics. Julia Margaret Cameron, better appreciated now as a superb portraitist, dressed up her husband as King Lear and posed him with three real-life sisters. More ambitiously, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, in an 1857 combination print composed of multiple negatives and peopled by a cast of two dozen models (many of them seminude), portrayed a Hogarthian choice between virtue and vice in “The Two Ways of Life.”

LaChapelle’s closest predecessor is F. Holland Day, a wealthy Bostonian who posed in 1898 as a bare-chested Christ with a crown of thorns in “The Seven Words,” a series of photographs that, while they scamper on the edge of camp, are surprisingly affecting in a way that LaChapelle’s religious-themed photographs are not. Day starved himself and let his beard grow in preparation for the role. LaChapelle’s Christs could be surfers.

LaChapelle, “The Holy Family With St. Francis” (2019). In Hawaii, the photographer’s flamboyant instincts have been amplified by the floriferous landscape.Credit…David LaChapelle

Moving to Maui in 2006, where the floriferous landscape encourages his most flamboyant inclinations, LaChapelle has staged biblical scenes in jungle settings. A Black Virgin holds a white Christ child, observed with risible reverence by a muscular Joseph and a pensive St. Francis, who carries a French book of Michelangelo paintings, in a tableau titled “The Holy Family With St. Francis,” 2019. I suppose this alludes to Michelangelo’s tondo of the Holy Family, but the chasm in taste between the two works is at least as wide as Rejlander’s gulf between vice and virtue. Two other photographs are remixes of classics by Sandro Botticelli.

One can learn from this. It is far more prudent for a photographer for glossy magazines to allude modestly to film noir, as Bourdin did, than to Renaissance masterpieces.

There are two Pietà images in the exhibition. A longhaired blond Jesus figure cradles a Michael Jackson impersonator in a Hawaiian forest in 2009 (the year Jackson died), and Courtney Love (perhaps as far a cry from the Virgin as the lissome fellow impersonating Jesus) holds a Kurt Cobain look-alike, more than a decade after his suicide, who is wearing only frayed briefs and bears a stigmata-bleeding wrist and a forearm bruised with what appear to be heroin tracks. The editorial intent is so obvious that a viewer feels clobbered.

LaChapelle, “American Jesus: Hold Me, Carry Me Boldly” (2009). A Jesus figure cradles a Michael Jackson impersonator the year Jackson died.Credit…David LaChapelle

Klein likewise makes explicit what is better left half-said. The cover image of his book is a shot of a woman’s lower legs in red stiletto heels on the scratched oxblood-colored hood of a car. Adorning one of her bruised and discolored ankles is the green tattoo of a compass. The picture riffs on an extraordinary 1947 photo of a young woman, dubbed “the most beautiful suicide,” who jumped off the observation deck of the Empire State Building and landed on a limousine, dead but without any visible signs of trauma. Andy Warhol used the Life photograph for his silk-screen print, “Suicide (Fallen Body),” 1962.

But it made me think not of Warhol but of Bourdin, whose long-running campaign from 1967 to 1981 for Charles Jourdan shoes is one of the landmarks of fashion photography. Both Bourdin and Newton have been criticized for pictures that are said to glorify violence against women. I don’t see it that way. Their fantasies fetishize women, as does so much fashion photography, but in elegant images that derive mainly from witty Hollywood movies.

A 1975 advertisement by Bourdin for Charles Jourdan shoes radiates ambiguous horror. Credit…The Guy Bourdin Estate, via Louise Alexander Gallery

Employing film-noir stylization, Bourdin produced an ad in 1975 that staged a fatal car accident, with a chalk outline of a female body, wet stains like blood, and two pink shoes scattered on the road. The woman doesn’t appear. Even more abstract is a picture of two electrical outlets in a bare white room with two green power cords. The cord on the left is plugged in, with a red wedge sandal alongside it. The one on the right is not connected, and a liquid that appears to be blood is dripping from the socket. Green, red and white: the same color palette as the Klein photo of the bruised ankles in stiletto heels. Yet how different they are. What goes unsaid speaks volumes.

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