C'Mon C'Mon Get Snappy


The quirky fashion photography of the late Nineties gave fashion magazines something to smile about again after the trauma of heroin chic. But did 'happy chic' wreck its chances of being taken seriously? Dene October

 Italian Vogue August 1996 Steven Meisel, model Kylie Bax of WOMEN

American Vogue 1996 Steven Meisel 

Egoiste No.11, 1989 Richard Avedon, model Isabelle Adjani


John Fairchild 1966 on Avedon: 'He distorts women and distorts the clothes to make a great fashion photograph. I think women are horrified to see these freaks across the pages of their magazines. It discourages them from buying clothes'


   John Cowan, Flying High, 1966

 Kristen McMenamy, London 1996 Juergen Teller


Juergen Teller on Kristen McMenamy: ‘I chose Kristen because I am fed up with the glorification of the model. You see her in so many magazines looking glamorous and polished but she’s not like that’




French Vogue, April 1967 Bob Richardson




Richard Billingham 1996 Ray’s a Laugh





Dazed & Confused double page spread, issue 26 1996 Liz Collins



When Clinique invited Steven Meisel to shoot their 1996 advertising campaign for Happy, they sat him down, showed him some of his own work in a recent edition of American Vogue, and told him, ‘We want that!’ What Clinique had observed in Meisel’s deliriously happy models was the beginning of an optimistic mood. For the previous six years, fashion photography had been, at its most groundbreaking, obsessed with the bleak realities of unemployment and urban decline. Suddenly, the depression was lifting: models were out of their gloomy bedsits and – bathed in ethereal light – chasing one another around municipal parks. Suddenly they were leaping puddles instead of lying face down in them, and pulling loopy faces instead of dour expressions. Suddenly it was chic to be ‘up’ instead of ‘shooting up’. ‘C’mon get happy!’ Clinique’s billboards implored, reflecting what the country itself had been feeling. London was swinging to a sixties beat – its artists revered, its bands chirping syrupy pop songs about parklife, its confident film industry going upbeat with movies like Shooting Fish – and a New Labour landslide had swept new optimism across the green and pleasant land. Even fashion editors of mainstream magazines must have been breathing a collective sigh of relief. Maybe now their creative teams and clients could agree on how fashion should be photographed.


Ever since photography usurped illustration in fashion magazines, photographers have struggled against their master leashes, insisting, as Richard Avedon did, that ‘fashion photography must be about something.’ Fashion editors haven’t always found it easy to agree. Securing advertising revenue has often meant ensuring that the product, and not the mis en scene, is the focus of attention.


The dour realism of the late eighties had been slow to catch on. Exemplified by heroin chic, it entered the mainstream only in the mid-nineties. Magazines like Frank and Arena, however, were already snapping up the new positivism. Happiness, after all, sells clothes. It isn’t controversial.


‘It’s not as big a threat,’ says Charlotte Cotton, curator of the V&A’s Photography Gallery. According to Cotton, we’ve seen it all before. ‘There was a lot of jumping puddles in the sixties,’ she explains, ‘and it’s not a surprise it’s back now.’ The new style also borrows from sixties photographers like John Cowan who had models apparently leaping out of skyscrapers; Ronald Traeger who depicted the throwaway exuberance of swinging London and Michael Cooper who captured the drug-induced highs.


‘It’s not as groundbreaking as ‘grunge photography’,’ claims Cotton. But according to Paulo Sutch, who then contributed to respected magazines like Dazed & Confused and France’s Self Service, ‘These were exciting times for fashion photography. Something new was happening.’ Sutch was one of the key figures of dirty realism, a term he balks at. ‘People are too eager to pigeonhole things. I am a socialist, and, for me, photography should be subversive.’


Dirty realism – or grunge photography or gritty realism – shocked the fashion world with its bleak vision of rundown tower blocks, slouching and forlorn models with lank hair, glazed eyes and blotchy skin. ‘It was a reaction to the greed philosophy of the eighties,’ says Sutch. ‘The eighties dream was all about power and displaying your wealth. The reality for ordinary people was much different. It was more bored and broke in bedsitland.’


Dirty realism, Sutch insists, wasn’t a closed shop. While Juergen Teller slipped beneath the surface of the impossible eighties gloss, David Sims attacked the pretentiousness of fashion itself. While Teller charged superwaif Kate Moss with raw Polaroid sexuality, Sims used large models like Claire Cornell to question notions of beauty.


But Charlotte Cotton doubts it was truly subversive. ‘In the beginning, it was a kick in the teeth for fashion but it quickly became a consumer symbol. Fashion picked it up. Suddenly magazines were happy to use quirky models or write model’s own clothes. It was durable only as a lifestyle statement.’


Nor was anti-fashion particularly new. Gosta Peterson, working for Mademoiselle in the sixties, chose scrawny and fat girls over conventional models. For William Klein, fashion was always secondary to the idea: his ‘sarcastic’ film, in which all the clothes were made from aluminium sheeting, had its audience of Paris fashion-ites genuinely delighted. Richard Avedon – who is often quite ludicrously dismissed as belonging to the ‘Vogue school’ of fashion photography, but was part of the radical ‘New American Vision’ of the post-war era – depicted the death of fashion with his 1989 shoot of Isabelle Adjani for Egoiste. For the final scene, set in a graveyard, Avedon wrapped Adjani in his own weather-beaten coat, thus refusing the intrusion of fashion even as a prop. Anti-fashion had become fashionable.


Just as dirty realism lost some of its bite when mainstream magazines tried to imitate the Dazed & Confused look, so most copyists have failed to notice the irony behind the happy, smiley people of the new realism. Meisel’s work for American Vogue was never intended as an antidote to miserabalism. Meisel’s was a Prozac happiness, a doolally inversion of the very imperative that fed the Clinique campaign, the same narrow focus that leads editors to declare, as did Harper’s Bazaar in the seventies, ‘We don’t want moody pictures anymore, we want girls jumping and laughing.’


According to Sutch, groundbreaking fashion photography was the preserve of the smaller independent magazines like Dazed & Confused and Purple Fashion. ‘It was a labour of love,’ he confesses, stressing the chasm between commercial fashion photography and its poorer, though more creative, cousin. For Sutch, the difference between the two is one of trust. Irving Penn’s work for the designer Issey Miyake is a rare example of the photographer being given total trust to interpret what he sees: Penn even got to select the garments himself. Most photographers have to work within the perimeters set by whoever signs the cheque. Bob Richardson, for example, was allowed an unusually high level of autonomy while working for British Vogue in the sixties, but was ultimately censored when his depictions of drug culture were considered too ‘decadent’.


Sutch reckons that it was trust which allowed the smaller independents to stretch the boundaries of fashion photography and to take on board what was happening with photography in a broader sense. According to Mark Haworth-Booth, author of Photography: An Independent Art (V&A Publications), a pioneering spirit had re-entered photography, one which was arguably closer to the invention of the camera 150 years back than to any decade in between. ‘Photography is now used for anything its artists wish to represent,’ he says, ‘and artists may represent anything.’ Haworth-Booth also believes that photography has benefited from ‘imaginative and literate commentators’ who have written more photographic history ‘in the last 25 years than in the previous 125.’


Style journalist Waldemar Januszczak also believes something new had happened. ‘The simple truth is that most of the fascinating and vital exhibitions I had seen had been photography-based. Photography could be the new painting.’


The key theme was, apparently, intimacy. ‘British fashion photography in the 1990s meshed with a knowing irony and informal realism,’ says Haworth-Booth who cites Richard Billingham’s intimate profiles of his own dysfunctional family as an important element. Januszczak points out the ‘unposed, unshadowy, untutored, Instamatic straightforwardness of his images. Blown up to poster size, they make a dramatic virtue of their own amateurishness.’


Januszczak reckons the same could be said of the Japanese photographer Hiromix, who posed for her own camera in her underwear. ‘In both cases, the wielder of the camera is the participant in the drama, not a recorder of it, and this gives the work its conceptual intensity. This is what makes it art.’


Paulo Sutch describes what was happening as ‘snappy’ rather than happy. It amounts, he reckons, to a democratising of photography that harks back to the American photojournalism of the thirties, largely the result of camera technology being cheap and processing available locally. Back then, it meant magazines and papers publishing the work of amateurs who were on the spot with their cameras when an incident occurred. It also meant pictures of ordinary people in ordinary surroundings. Today, according to Januszczak, the availability of digital technology has similar importance. ‘The result has been a freeing up of photography, and the enfranchisement of all sorts of fascinating artistic imaginations that might otherwise have struggled to select the right aperture.’


The new technology has allowed images of working class intimacy to challenge the hegemony of fashion as glamour. But realism also found another use for the technology. According to Januszczak, it enabled ‘photo-artists’ like Hiroshi Sugimoto to take ‘extremely lifelike dioramas’ of ‘gorilla-packed views of the jungle’ or ‘infamous mass-murderers’.


Nineties fashion photography appeared to muddle these elements: the snappiness of neo-photojournalism and the hyperreality of photo-art. In Purple Fashion some of the close-ups are so close-up they could be details of larger pictures. The model’s skin takes on almost surreal importance: for Prada, Glen Luchford shot his model with bags under her eyes; in the Japanese magazine Mr, freckles and blemishes are painted on, while, on the May cover of Self Service, skin tones are stripped away and re-added. According to Charlotte Cotton there’s also a ‘much more cinematic feel’ to the images. ‘They have a much stronger narrative feel and make use of outside views.’


But if fashion photography had meshed with photography in a wider sense, it was not for long. Mainstream magazines, like Clinique, tend to pick up the most superficial side to it: the doolally and irony-free happiness. Cotton reckons they stay well clear of the more experimental and subversive side. ‘Glamour had come back,’ she says by way of reminding about the fashion context for the images. ‘The big glamour statement of the 90s was Nick Knight going under contract with British Vogue. We’ve gone back to the Helmut Newton style of glamour; there’s a very seventies feel to it.’


Like the corpse-riddled photos of dirty realism, glamour fashion photography may not have been dead at all, merely doing a passable impression. Fashion editors prefer it: it appeases the industry. And even the street, birthplace of the snappy style, seemed ultimately to prefer buying into glamorous dreams than appearing in urban nightmares. When Method Man was emcee at the ordinarily unpretentious New York catwalks towards the decade end, it was clear that high fashion suddenly belonged to the street. While designer lucre poured onto the runways, Method Man stood guard. Was it the big brands he fixed with a chauvinistic stare, or the quirkily unquirky, Babewatch models who took to the floor? Hard to tell. Either way, it was a rap.