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From Fashion to Pornography : The Viewer Confronts Himself in Current Photography

From 1999 to 2008, the famous clothing brand Sisley hired Terry Richardson, the so-called soft porn photographer, to shoot its new advertising campaigns. The result of this meeting of porn and fashion was rather unexpected... The boundaries between porn and fashion pictures have become porous ever since the work of such photographers : glamour has become a part of decadence and decadence a part of the sublime.

 Lucille Toth-Colombié

From Fashion to Pornography : The Viewer Confronts Himself in Current Photography

Note : The viewer here is generic, neither masculine nor feminine by definition.

From 1999 to 2008, the famous clothing brand Sisley hired Terry Richardson, the so-called soft porn photographer, to shoot its new advertising campaigns. Richardson, hitherto known for his trashy and pornographic aesthetic, was solicited by the fashion industry to construct a new model of the human body and thereby a new way to consider clothes. The result of this meeting of porn and fashion was rather unexpected : in a first image, a model wearing Sisley underpants is masturbating in front of Richardson’s camera (http://s11.radikal.ru/i183/0908/bf/a5b0b7356381.jpg) ; in a second image, a girl is sticking out her tongue to receive cow’s milk in her mouth - even though she is not naked, the clothes that she is supposedly advertising are hardly noticeable (http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_E2Ed7lgEABs/R_plkbXN4eI/AAAAAAAAC-s/iYJiELSqrdQ/s400/Terry+Richardson+-+Sisley+-Farm+-+2001.jpg) ; and in another image, a girl is wearing no bottoms and is kneeling on her hands and knees (http://www.andamosarmados.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/terry_richardson_sisley001.jpg). These are just a few among many other such advertisements. Sisley was not the only brand interested in Richardson’s work : Tom Ford, Supreme, Lee and many more wanted his authentic wild style to promote their products.
David Lachapelle, another American photographer (this time, in the vein of « porn chic »), was hired in 2003 by the very famous Italian coffee brand Lavazza to create its new campaign. The result did not really please Lavazza’s managers. Lachapelle shot two girls, both wearing pink latex masks with brilliant red lipstick and pretending to kiss each other. A very small cup of Lavazza coffee is situated where their tongues meet. Lavazza’s managers decided that the image was too sexual and then, instead of two girls, only kept one (http://medias.photo.fr/medias-factory/m/cms/article/photo/6/5/2/2/256/logo.jpg). Like Richardson being published in Rolling Stone Magazine, GQ, Vogue and Bazaar, Lachapelle’s work is coveted by many luxury brands as well as by magazines that want him to shoot their covers (PHOTO, Interview, Rolling Stone Magazine, among others).
Lachapelle and Richardson are both photographers of-the-moment. On the one hand, the former is known for his trashy, pornographic and wild aesthetic ; on the other hand, the latter is known for his glamorous and aesthetically pleasing photos. They are the products of a movement which has grown very popular over the past twenty years : porn chic (or soft porn). In the case of porn chic, we witness an aesthetic revolution as well as a transgression of rules of genres. This aesthetic first emerged in the United States, as a trend mixing two genres that used to be quite separate (porn and fashion), in defiance of norms and expectations. Porn chic, then, is the encounter between glamour and the obscene, a union of fashion and pornography.
The boundaries between porn and fashion pictures have thus become porous. I say “porous” because, ever since the work of these photographers, glamour has become a part of decadence and decadence a part of the sublime. In two different ways, they provoke the viewer’s gaze as they mix up categories and genres. Here we see how both pornography and fashion converge, so that the former is popularized while the latter is sexualized. Advertising posters no longer serve a merely commercial ideal, but are also used for aesthetic, ideological and artistic purposes. As for pornography, it had to wait for the emergence of a critical discourse that attributes to it a new status in popular media. Such a discourse not only interrogates the very purpose of pornography, but also raises questions about the directors within this « sex industry » (i.e. the pornographers). The concerns of this criticism are no longer merely pornography’s consumers and their sexually deviant practices. Thus pornography, which was long considered to be in opposition to fashion, has seen its decadence, its raw and trashy aesthetics, become a model, the new norm in terms of advertisement.
With these porno-fashion pictures, the way that we perceive bodies has evolved alongside our tolerance for viewing a mash-up of these two kinds of images. I would like to ask then : what does the viewer take away from this confrontation with popularized obscenity ? And how does the spectator consider his own body in the light of contemporary artists’ reworking of the puritanical images that we still have of bodies in general ? When “beauty” (fashion) is more pornographic and pornography becomes another form of beauty, how does one find one’s place within this new aesthetic and rethink one’s body ? Should we still be disgusted by pornography and should we still condemn it ?

When fashion betrays its own body

A piece of clothing is an obvious commodity, whether it is a suit or a grass skirt. Men regularly dress their bodies, either to protect themselves either from the weather or from the exterior gaze. Garments, then, have become a statement of identity. Fashion, on the other hand, is used for a seductive purpose. A few years ago, in advertising, the “sexiness” of clothing represented its greatest selling point. Fashion remains a special vector which not only nourishes itself from the aura of the body but from what is known in French as its visu as well (the surface). The fashion-body is a garment and the garment is a symbol, a “signe qui marque le corps” (Baudrillard, 1976 : 155). With these words, Baudrillard takes up the question of erotic accessories, the “mise en sexe” not only of bodies but of the images behind bodies. We are these pictures that we see. We dream ourselves as such in any case. As Théophile Gautier wrote in his text De la mode :
Elles font bien de préférer ces jupes amples, étoffées, puissantes, largement étalées à l’oeil, aux étroits fourreaux où s’engaînaient leurs grand-mères et leurs mères. De cette abondance de plis, qui vont s’évasant comme la fustanelle d’un derviche tourneur, la taille sort élégante et mince ; le haut du corps se détache avantageusement, toute la personne pyramide d’une manière gracieuse. Cette masse de riches étoffes fait comme un piédestal au buste et à la tête, seules parties importantes, maintenant que la nudité n’est plus admise. (Gautier, 1858)

We see in Gautier’s description the importance of showing oneself as sexually attractive. Because “nudity is no longer authorized” (my translation), as he writes, women had to dress so that their nakedness was not forgotten. Even when dressed, bodies still attracted the gaze and garments hinted at what was underneath.
Today, promotional campaigns push further what was not yet authorized in Gautier’s time. One hundred and fifty years after him, Lee, the jeans manufacturer, hired Terry Richardson for its controversial ‘Lolita’ advertisement campaign for the spring-summer 2006 line. Pictures selected for this promotion were clearly marked by Richardson’s aesthetics, featuring the standard clichés of soft porn aesthetic : lollipops being sucked, breasts half-exposed, legs spread... (http://www.theage.com.au/ffximage/2006/10/04/lee_wideweb__470x319,0.jpg) Here, the model is clearly sexual and even mimes a sexual act. But I would go even further and say that in one of Lee’s pictures, the model is in a position that 3/4 of porn consumers look for when purchasing pornography : on hands and knees, she evokes the act of anal sex (http://media.photobucket.com/image/terry%20richardson%20lee/artasgoodasdrugs/number9/lee4_25.jpg). This evocation is ironic considering that sodomy is still measured among the most extreme sexual activities and is condemned in a number of states in the United States and in countries around the world : the Catholic Church still considers sodomy as a form of deviance and a perversion. Visit any porn website and you will see that anal sex is the pornographic sex of the moment, the ubiquitous sexual act. Even lesbian videos find a means to show anal penetration. The position of the Lee model clearly refers to the mise-en-scène of anal and extreme sex in current pornography. The model, even if she is dressed, still suggests nudity and the world of “triple x.” The photographer’s presence in the photo (we see his legs in the mirror) further heightens this pornographic ambiance. This second character seen in the mirror, this voyeur, us, spectator of a so-called non-pornography, is directly implicated in the image.
I am not saying that Lee’s consumers are porn connoisseurs. Au contraire ! I would say Lee attracts the consumers who, because they do not dare visit forbidden websites, turn to new fashion advertisements and to these “trashy” artists whose works have become trendy to admire and who, in any case, are not doing anything wrong because, after all, “they are artists !” The picture is then a trap. We believe we are dealing with publicity for clothes, but the image actually plunges us into the history of Western pornography, a history in which we participate without effort or desire. This history influences our sexuality.
For his part, David Lachapelle uses the codes of porn as well, but through a totally different aesthetic. Pornography, whose most famous image is perhaps that of a plumber, sweating in his boiler suit, who has come to help the poor housewife in distress, has had its own aesthetic for a long time. In one of his pictures, Lachapelle depicts a set clearly inspired by porn : a kitchen, leopard underpants, a woman in a sexual position, high heels... (http://phototrend.fr/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/david_lachapelle_12.jpg) Because of the nakedness of bodies in porn, accessories are emphasized. Porn fetishizes accessories and clothes just as it fetishizes bodies. Nothing is left to chance in porn ; nothing is left to chance in Lachapelle’s work. Lachapelle uses a “clean” aesthetic to show a dirty purpose.
In another picture, Lachapelle photographs the top model Naomi Campbell. He voluntarily sexualizes her, making her body a pornographic object. Here the model (model of perfection) is pornified. Naomi Campbell is naked, perfect : perfect make-up, perfect lighting, perfect body (http://www.staleywise.com/collection/lachapelle/naomi_cambell_b.jpg). Just as in porn’s aesthetic, Lachapelle’s aesthetic is one of cleanliness : his bodies are always “clean.” I use this term in its 17th century meaning, when whiteness of clothes meant a perfect hygiene of the body : “La netteté du linge est celle de toute la personne,” writes Georges Vigarello in Le propre et le sale (Vigarello, 1985 : 75). “Netteté” here means the whiteness of the clothes, purity and control of an exteriority. Vigarello goes on : “Quant à l’habit, mode et propreté finissent au XVIIe siècle par se confondre” (Vigarello, 1985 : 93). That is to say that the genuine hygiene of the body does not matter. What matters is to look clean, to appear to be in good shape and “in control.” In porn, we find the same dynamic : bodies have to look clean, hairless, “nets,” “propres,” spectacular. They have to look controlled. We have to pretend to master our body, to master our sexuality, and then to master our own representation ; as in Lachapelle’s pictures, where bodies are clean, perfect and without any story. Lachapelle creates a fantasy while Richardson creates a dirty reality.
How then can Richardson’s pictures still be considered more pornographic than Lachapelle’s ? Why is Terry Richardson still considered a pornographer whereas David Lachapelle is considered a photographer ?

L'unité réelle minima ce n'est ni le mot ni l'idée ou le concept, ni le signifiant, mais l'agencement. Claire & Gilles
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