Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Fashion, dance and individuality

Photographer: Tony Free

I was reflecting the other day on the parallels between fashion and dance and how the two have been influencing each other. I love fashion and love dance, so I tend to think quite a lot about them.

Last year when Black Swan came out, ballet wear was all the rage. Ballerina pumps and swan dresses were to be seen everywhere and bridal gowns seemed to have come out a ballet company wardrobe.

The love affair between fashion and dance goes way back and it seems to be constantly renewing itself.

In her book The Lure of Perfection: Fashion and Ballet 1780-1830 (2005) Judith Chazin Bennahum traces the influence between the attire of this period and the costumes developed for ballet and shows how from more cumbersome clothing women literally danced their way to freedom.

In the 19th century when Romanticism was in full swing there appeared on stage pastel colours, flowing skirts and bare shins. In the early 20th century Diaghilev's Ballet Russes dancers wore designs by the one and only Coco Chanel for the dance Le train bleu. Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of La Maison Chanel since 1983, continued this love affair with ballet and most recently, in 2011, designed the costumes for the English National Ballet.

The Martha Graham Company last year announced that the dancers would be wearing Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta in the new touring productions.

Photographer: Tony Free

And of course it goes the other way round: couturier Stephane Rolland lists Martha Graham as one of his muses and his show for the Fall /Winter 2011 Haute Couture in Paris clearly indicated his inspiration, with clothes that seemed to have been sculpted and were intensely dramatic, in true Graham style.
But it is not only the clothes and the costumes that seem to mirror each other. Fashion and dance have a way of influencing body image and show similarity in their practices of exclusion.
Ballet companies screen their dancers in terms of height and body type, whereas the big fashion houses choose to be represented by women (and men) with a specific look, height and body type. The claim that "clothes do not sit well on a build other than tall and slim" is echoed by the similar claim that "ballet does not sit well on bodies that are not long and slim". Even Graham, whose technique was not balletic, was very particular about her company dancers' body type. True, in dance long and slim does not mean that height is a requirement, it means that the legs should be long in relation to the torso. This however still makes the ballet body removed from the reality of everyday bodies.

We see then that on one hand fashion is for everyone - from the catwalk it goes into the high street and everyone is encouraged to consume it. On the other it remains quite exclusive, not only in terms of how affordable the unique sartorial creations are but also in terms of the kind of body that is expected to wear such designs.

Photographer: Tony Free

Similarly it could be said that on one hand dance is inclusive - certainly everyone can learn and be trained - but when it comes to performing apart from technical ability the issue of body type still surfaces.

In more recent years dance has changed. Ballet remains the most conservative of all in terms of its dancers, but contemporary dancers tend to be of non-traditional body build. Other criteria have developed, in some styles athleticism is prized more than in others and this has also meant a change in the way dancers, either male or female, look.

Fashion too is changing. Model agencies are reflecting such changes in terms of who they take on. But the catwalk is still dominated by young, tall and slim models.

Thus it was most encouraging to see that London College of Fashion recently recruited non-standard non-industry models to wear their graduates designs at shows. The rationale for this move was that LCF graduates really want individuality and this was the quality they were looking for in their models. Their designs are still for the young end of the market but they feel that they should be worn by bodies, by people who would stand out for their individuality. "It is an issue of identity" said staff at LCF casting.

Photographer: Caroline Michael (from the Rapunzel shoot)

As a model I have been involved in a couple of projects by LCF students, the most recent one a fashion shoot by Caroline Michael who received a MA in Fashion Photography from the college in December 2011.

I have not made it to the LCF catwalk yet, but who knows what the future might bring?

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Nude, pregnant and on the runway

Photographer: Charlie Staniforth

As I mentioned in my earlier post, on Tuesday I modelled for Robyn Coles Millinery as part of London Fashion Week. Robyn chose unconventional models, who would walk naked on the runway, wearing only her hats - most of the models were art models, such as myself . One of the models was Sophia Cahill, former Miss Wales and a glamour model, heavily pregnant with her second child.
The show certainly made people take notice. Nudity is always news , even more so if one of the nude models is pregnant.
Robyn admitted she did it to attract attention to the hats. We got our photos splashed on the web and in all papers within hours.  Some people were sarcastic, some people applauded Robyn. I did not expect to see my self in the Metro yesterday morning, I was sitting on a train and someone was reading about it and my picture was there. It felt weird, but he could not possibly recognise me so I did not say or do anything.
Model: Sophia Cahill Photographer: Charlie Staniforth
But the most surprising reaction was from an Italian fashion blog  with a post that was vitriolic and so very bigoted, it made me feel ashamed of being Italian. I will not translate it in full but it was a gratuitous attack on nudity. Pregnancy was viewed as if it were an illness, as if pregnant women's bodies were horrendous. It just made little sense to me. Robyn, by the way,  was mistaken for a man - it shows the bloggers had done little research.
I think Sophia was beautiful and I am really glad her picture can be seen everywhere. She looked radiant on the catwalk.

Photographer: Charlie Staniforth

As for me, fifty plus with grey hair to my waist, my inspiration is the beautiful Yasmina Rossi who at 55 sports similar hair - and who has also posed nude. I feel good about my body and about myself and I love Robyn's hats. This was the reason why I accepted to be in her show.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with nudity, it is time we should really question these anti-nudity attitudes. The nude has a great tradition in art. The rounded belly, inspired by pregnancy, was regarded as a sign of beauty by Renaissance artists.  I would have thought these Italian bloggers would have some knowledge of such matters, coming as they do from a country that is steeped in  art.
But hold on, the "Berlusconi generation" is rather bigoted and to my great chagrin, incredibly ignorant...

Note. Apparently you can see a videoclip of the event here! Enjoy
(All photos unless specified are modelled by Alex B.)

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Naked on the catwalk

Self portrait 2011 photo reprocessed by DG

I am not a fashion model, but I seem to be doing quite a few catwalk shows, at least one every year for the past four years. Some are for charity, some are part of London Fashion Week, like the one I will be doing on Tues 21st Feb, showing off Robyn Coles Millinery creations. This is a show with a difference, because all the models will be naked. There will be no runway, we will walk around a studio barefooted, wearing little make up, hair out of the way, wearing only Robyn's hats and being photographed. You are welcome to join us, the show is at White Rabbit Studios 471-473 The Arches Dereham Place Shoreditch London EC2A 3HJ at 1 pm. I would love to see some of my readers there!
Robyn has chosen unconventional models, including a pregnant woman, and insists on a very natural look, minimal make up, no heels, hair in ponytails - personally I always  find it bizarre when my long white hair has to be taken out of the way or covered. It is what makes me. But I am a docile model and do whatever the stylist/designer asks me to do.
This is not the first time fashion embraces nudity. In 2010 Charlie Le Mindu, also a milliner, had naked models on the runway. They were in heels and with accessories and they were standard 5'9" + models, not size zero, but definitely slim and very long legged.
Nudity does not really appear so often on the catwalk but editorial photography has occasionally embraced it.

To be honest there can be nothing as un-erotic as nudity in a fashion show context. Even if the models are going to wear clothes, backstage in the changing rooms you see as much naked flesh as you like as people change outfits and honestly cannot be bothered. You might see topless models engaged in a phone conversation while waiting to be made up.
It is however true that fashion has often treated nudity as sexual or sensual, which of course nudity can be. But on this occasion nudity is a statement on naturel-ness, a celebration of the human form, the female form in particular, in all its glory, and of course a celebration of Robyn's designs. Let me know what you think.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Simulacrum, simulacra and Valentine's Day

Photographer and model: me

I titled this blog in homage to Baudrillard and his theory of the hyperreal - "the real does not efface itself in favour of the imaginary; it effaces itself in favour of the more real than the real: the hyperreal".

In another post I returned to this idea in connection with reproductions of an original photo and briefly referenced Walter Benjamin and his famous The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Today I would like to dwell a little on the concept of simulacrum, Baudrillard's take on reality.We do live in a culture of simulation and hyperrealism.

The simulacrum is a copy of reality that becomes a truth of its own (the hyperreal) - God is a simulacrum, according to Baudrillard. There is a degree of negativity and even a sense of loss in this idea of the simulacrum as viewed by Baudrillard and other philosophers before him, including Plato. In unrequited love, the love object becomes a simulacrum, a presence that is no longer grounded in reality, a representation of the loved one as perceived by the lover, which has taken leave of reality and yet has a melancholic truth all of its own. So there is also a link between simulacrum and melancholia, which Julia Kristeva has explored in her Black Sun: depression and melancholia, when she talks of "the hypersign around and with the depressive word".

But for me it is Deleuze that has the final word, as he invests the simulacrum with a positive meaning.

"The simulacrum is not a degraded copy. It harbours a positive power which denies the original and the copy, the model and the reproduction. At least two divergent series are internalized in the simulacrum— neither can be assigned as the original, neither as the copy.... There is no longer any privileged point of view except that of the object common to all points of view. There is no possible hierarchy, no second, no third.... The same and the similar no longer have an essence except as simulated, that is as expressing the functioning of the simulacrum"

You can see how significant this is in art and in photography. Think here of Frida Kahlo's self portraits. Cindy Sherman's photographic self portraits have been described as 'simulacra of the feminine'. Photorealism - or painting from a photograph i.e. a copy of a copy of the real is also a good example of simulacrum. And of course caricatures, as satires, are simulacra - they do have a truth of their own, independent from their 'model', with real traits conflating with imaginary and exaggerated ones.

Photographer: Neil Huxtable

As a model, I see my images as simulacra. I also have a few of me in which I can be seen as a doppelganger (mirror image). Generally they are images WITHOUT an original - think about it, there is no original. For that is what photography is: the representation is a simulacrum because the referent is lost as soon as the photograph is taken - pace all those who ardently believe that photography faithfully reproduces an external reality and a truth outside themselves.

This blog too is a simulacrum, in terms of my self identity and how it relates to my own sense of self. Hence the title The Real Does Not Efface Itself.

Happy Valentine's Day: another simulacrum.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Is there an end to grudge bearing ?

Photographer: me Model: Susie

A recent post in What We Saw Today addressed the issue of grudge bearing. We are all a bit guilty of it to some extent. But some people make it their life ambition, if you can call it that, to never forgive anyone for what they perceive as an affront, real or imagined -  more often imagined, as it were.
We all do and say things at times which are either inappropriate or uttered in anger. But most of us try to let go of that anger. It no longer amazes me but it sometimes amuses me to see the lengths people go to in order to save their egos. And that involves long term grudge bearing.
For example, to keep it within the confines of deviantArt,  which UL referred to, where I too am currently administrator/moderator of two groups, one for medium format photography, the other one for fine art photography, I know of at least a couple of people who have removed all their work from the groups' collections and even, in one case, deleted a Daily Deviation of theirs, so that it would not be included in any future feature of the group, after I 'made the mistake' of using the thumbnail in a group piece I wrote  - a case of cutting off one's nose!  I know of people who wrote rude notes to the moderator DEMANDING (the caps are necessary here, as they were virtually shouting) to know why their masterpiece was rejected. I know of someone who though continuing, on paper,  to be a contributor of one of the groups, since I joined that group as admin has stopped giving his work  - I would have to vote on it and that  would be an insult.  I am waiting to see how long for this character will continue to list our group as one of his! Not that it bothers me. It bothers him that I should be involved.

Begrudgers are unhealthy people, who respond with incivility when you try to be civil to them.
I would say to UL, as a belated comment to her insightful post, and partly in response to the last lines of Karl's comment, which really struck a chord with me, that the best way not to surrender to the negativity of grudge bearing is to talk about it and make your peace with the person, then move on. For some people the only solution is to bury their head into the sand and pretend the other person does not exist, never addressing the issue. But that does nothing. Attempting to make your peace with the person often may fall on deaf ears but is good for you, a way to show to  yourself that you can let go without bad feelings. After that the other person can rot in his/her putridity and you can feel free and clean as if you had just had a shower.
Thanks UL for the post, I only read it today, am trying to catch up!

(All photos modelled by Alex B. unless otherwise stated)

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Saatchi, art and taste

 Model: Susie Photographer: me
My break was short. I thought I would have no time left for blogging but I managed to make some for it. I got messages from a few people saying they really liked the blog and wished me luck and hoped I'd come back soon. How could I let them down?
As I am writing this I am mulling over some ideas stimulated by a recent visit to the Saatchi Gallery. The gallery belongs to Charles Saatchi and has been around for several years now but I had never been there until I got an opportunity last Monday. I was bowled over by the location. It's in the heart of Chelsea, at the Duke of York former HQ, the rooms are really spacious and kept totally uncluttered, with only the artworks on their white walls, with natural light streaming in from the celings.
The gallery hosts exhibitions of contemporary art from the entire globe and one permanent installation by Richard Wilson, a room flooded in oil which plays havoc with your  spatial perception.
The most interesting thing about the gallery is that the art works are personally selected by Mr Saatchi, even though he does have a board of curators to advise. This is unusual.
Visiting the gallery gives you a sense of entering someone's home. As one of my companions remarked, it was like going to visit a friend who had just moved into a spacious new home and had only had the time to hang the paintings on the wall, no furniture yet.
Model: Susie. Photographer: me
Mr Saatchi has a say on who is an artist and who is not by simply choosing to exhibit someone rather than another. He looks for people who are not so well known and by virtue of being exhibited in the gallery the unknown artist becomes famous almost overnight. His/her art work can command high fees, because it has been exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery. Once the exhibition is over it will sell.  It's the kind of art work that doesn't really fit into someone's living room, unless their home is palatial. They are for corporate clients and public spaces.
 The same art work would not be regarded as excellent if it were exhibited, say,  in a church hall rather than the Saatchi Gallery. And people like Mr Saatchi. through their patronage, inevitably  have a say on what is or isn't perceived as art in the contemporary world. It's therefore very much a case of the context establishing artistic excellence and the criteria by which an art work is evaluated. Somehow those criteria remain aleatory and are constantly constituted and reconstituted, reformed by contextual factors, among which are socio-economic structures.

 A few days ago some Facebook friends  resurrected and circulated an old story about a busking violinist in a New York subway, whom no one seemed to be paying attention to. It turned out that he was a very famous virtuoso  musician, playing a complex piece by Bach on a violin worth thousands of dollars. A few days before busking he had played in a famous theatre, absolutely packed, in a concert for which the audience had paid at least a hundred dollars per seat. My FB friends bemoaned the insensitivity of the passers by, unable to recognise 'beauty'. I am not at all surprised by their behaviour. There were no pointers that the music the man was playing was high art. There were no frames of reference. Crass though this may sound, for many people the artistic yardstic is monetary - if it is worth a lot of money it must be art. But if that is the case it is because of the socio-economic context in which art is produced and reproduced.We live in a capitalist society.
Therefore I find the endless debates on what is or is not art and statements such "I only do it for the art" somewhat bemusing. Sure, let's talk about Beauty and Art and Passion.  It is not until the Saatchis of this world choose to include your work in their collections - and sell it - that your work can be called art. No matter how talented you may be.