Should Magnum do fashion?

Alec Soth continues his campaign to turn the Magnum blog into a true ‘Web 2.0’ site interacting with its users rather than simply feeding them with some of Magnum’s truly fabulous eye-candy by posing the question ” Should Magnum do fashion?”

Of course Magnum photographers have done fashion in the past, and most particularly (as he points out) Magnum have  produced their Fashion Magazine series, with issues shot by a single photographer – previous issues have been by Martin Parr, Bruce Gilden and Soth himself.

The latest – just released – Magnum Fashion Magazine, shot by Lise Sarfati raises the issues more starkly for several reasons. Firstly because of her whole approach to documentary which has dealt more intensely with the people she has photographed than the other photographers, but most importantly because she has made use of those same people as models in her fashion pictures and shot in many of the same locations.

Of course there are those who argue that Magnum lost its true documentary heart some years ago, particularly with the inclusion of Martin Parr, whose approach caused some apoplexy among some more traditional documentary photographers at the time (and I think smoke was seen rising from at least one of my heroes.)

Until now it was always possible for those who had some sympathy with this view to apologise for Magnum and say that even if some of the work lacked the old spirit, at least Magnum was still supporting the serious work of photographers such as Lise Sarfati…

Had we looked at these pictures simply on the web or gallery wall would we have simply seen them as an extension of her earlier work? After all they are marked on Magnum as “Not for use in advertising or retail calendars“, so are they really so different from her other work?

Seen as a whole, I think they are, and I think they cheapen her work. Although taken individually most would fit into her approach, as a set of over 70 images the fashion fiction seems to me to take over, spreading a certain sameness and repetition.  I don’t know if it is the presence of stylists, the expectations of the “models” themselves or the pressure on the photographer to produce in a limited time-scale, but there seems to be a lack of intensity as well as a certain unwelcome gloss in these images.

I also wonder about the relationship between the documentary photographer and the people she is photographing, not just in this case but in general.  For me certainly, I’ve always felt that what I do is justified by the story that I tell; sometimes it may be of direct benefit to those who work with me,  or promote their cause or in some way enlarge people’s understanding or appreciation of the world.  Somehow I can’t fit selling frocks into that relationship.

So should Magnum do fashion? Well, Magnum photographers need to make a living and fashion is one of the safer and better paid ways to do that, so I’ve no problem with them doing a little on the side.  Even do a few weddings if they really have to. But I’d rather Magnum itself didn’t confuse it with their real work.

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