“Timeless Beauty”, currently on view at CO Berlin, is a survey of over a hundred years of fashion photography produced for Condé Nast’s publishing house. Original prints going as far back as 1909 were dug out of the archives and are shown here for the first time together, in chronological order. The publishing house has a history of hiring young, promising photographers, who often continued working there decades to come, alongside their own developing careers. As the magazine grew, it served its community of photographers not only for steady income, but as a space for experimentation with the human form and with the most advanced available technology. The exhibition therefore includes the commercial oeuvre of artists such as Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Man Ray, Diane Arbus and Corinne Day, and many others. The exhibition argues for Condé Nast’s photographers’ importance, and for fashion photography’s artistic relevance in general, as a reflection of the spirit of its time.
This “spirit of the time” is constantly changing, and the exhibition’s images of beauty are anything but timeless. Shifts and revolutions in tastes and styles, both in clothes and photography, change as you walk from room to room. The installation is arranged by decade, so that each space depicts a different image of the clothing and makeup style, but also of the contemporary ideal image of womanhood. Poses and environments change as the image of beauty transforms from reserved and delicate, through modern, independent, glamorous, everyday, bizarre, to the sexually powerful, even naked, and all the way to the androgynous image of sexuality we are used to in today’s fashion spreads.
The interesting aspect of “Timeless Beauty” is not really this nostalgic march of styles, however, but its presentation of the Condé Nast archive, and of Vogue magazine, as patrons of photography, its collection of published fashion spreads now a collection of original art prints. Some images are strong, experimental, surprising, but the exhibition ignores their original function, which was always to sell clothes. The stylistic innovations we see were, after all, motivated by the magazine’s necessity of convincing consumers they needed the latest fashions. The exhibition definitely shows that photographers benefited, through the century, from this system, as a platform for experimentation and as funding for their other projects. But even from the distance of time, and in the environment of high art, the images still function as advertisements: for the shoes, materials, ideals, and women of the past.
Blog entry by Adela Yawitz in Berlin; Monday, Sept 10, 2012.