Facing the camera: a reflection on fashion and its images

The Disappearance of My Mother (2019) by Barrese is a documentary about Benedetta Barzini, model, actress, lecturer and political activist, best known as a supermodel – or top model, as they used to say back then - of the 1960s.  Barrese's film has been given mixed reviews, but it has also received special mentions and prizes. 

Barzini was the first Italian model on the cover of American Vogue and began her modelling career when the legendary editor Diana Vreeland saw one of her pictures and decided to fly the teenager from Rome to New York for a photoshoot. Barzini ended up staying several years in the States, photographed by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn and mingling with the likes of Andy Warhol. From the outside, it looks like a fairy tale life. 

However, it was not how Barzini perceived it; she talks of being alienated from her image and has hinted at exploitation. She was a vulnerable young woman with a history of complex family relationships, recovering from anorexia. The stress of modelling when the industry was most exploitative and not accountable to anyone for its excesses added to her anxieties and insecurities. Modelling can be punitive on the body and soul of a young woman. Barzini perceived being photographed as violence to her inner self.  Now, at age 78, she bears the scars and has developed an antipathy to images, not only of herself, that at times is hard to fathom. 

It begs the question of why she has continued to model, albeit from time to time. I am personally not convinced it is only for money, as she claims; modelling is not all that lucrative at the end of the day. 
Barzini's top model friend Lauren Hutton, whom we also see in the movie, reiterates that she too only continues to model for money. Statements such as this, unchecked,  perpetuate the myth of modelling as a ticket to fame and riches. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Franca: Chaos and Creation (2016),  by Francesco Carrozzini, is also about a formidable mother, his own,  Franca Sozzani, the former editor of Italian Vogue, who died of lung cancer in 2016, three months before the movie's final cut. All have described Sozzani as a true force of nature and an editor whose vision was years ahead of everyone else. "Dream big, you cannot be stingy on dreams" was what she taught her son. She was tough and fully committed and had an uncanny ability to choose what worked best. Vogue Italia was always more than a fashion magazine. Under Sozzani's careful eye, its editorials were meant to stimulate and reflect on important issues; the clothes were always almost incidental. Carrozzini's film is a moving tribute to an extraordinary woman, for whom fashion images were intended as a form of communication, conveying a range of emotions. As she said in an interview, "I found myself at the helm of Vogue Italia and wanted everyone to read it. Nobody speaks Italian outside Italy, so I had to rely on the visuals to put my point and my commentaries across".

Barrese and Carrozzini are somewhat dissimilar as directors. Nevertheless, in both movies, the tenderness and the turbulent side of the relationship the two men have with their mother are very palpable.  It is what connects the two efforts, which are otherwise quite distinct. As some critics have pointed out, both movies are a son's love letter to his mother. 

Barzini for Simone Rocha 2017

In Barrese's movie, mother and son have their roles immediately defined from the outset. Barzini is intransigent, her condemnation of images as a violation of the self is uncompromising, and repeatedly, she asserts her refusal to be seen and her desire to disappear - not a suicide as such, even though there are undercurrents of death and decay. Barrese is the somewhat peevish little boy that follows her and constantly points the camera at her: she chastises him for it all the time but then lets him, out of her motherly love. 

There is much swearing - Barzini never fails to reiterate her unwillingness to be the movie's subject. There are moments when she truly shines as we see her as a tutor, explaining fashion imagery to her students. She sometimes makes sweeping statements – physical beauty is not a virtue, she claims. Wait…what does she mean by beauty? We know that beauty is a construct and fashion images bear this out.  Every time a model is on a shoot, everyone will say, 'Oh my god, you look amazing, you are so beautiful’ after she is all made up and styled. It's not the model they are admiring, but the work they have done on her as a team, the transformation they have achieved.  It will be as far removed from the model's authentic self as possible. Modelling is silent acting. One gets into a character, then steps out of it when putting on one's clothes, and removes the makeup. 

Barzini, the model, was never Barzini, the woman. Perhaps in the 1960s, the construct was not evident; perhaps Barzini, back then, naïvely believed modelling was equal to a true representation of the self, only to be disappointed when she realised it was not. 

I enjoyed Barrese's movie, though it is not easy to watch because Barzini takes her iconoclasm to an extreme, something that feels too much like a heavy-handed construct. Barrese manages to insert extraordinary lyrical moments when one can feel the love and admiration he has for his mother. The movie is worth watching just for this unadulterated sense of beauty and good. I just wish Barrese had decided not to take such a back seat and confronted Barzini on the significance and power of images. As a filmmaker, he ought to have done it. 

Sozzani and Carrozzini, photo: Bruce Weber

Carrozzini's movie is wildly different and captivating from the get-go. Sozzani is portrayed in a very nuanced way. There are images in the film that are very disturbing, but they represent Sozzani's talent and charismatic editing. There are moments when Sozzani tells Carrozzini to stop filming; he is invading her privacy. But the movie brings out her sense of humour, wit, ability to think quickly, and decisiveness. It also does an excellent job highlighting Sozzani's ideas about images and their power to reach out to people. 

 Images do matter, even though we may be, as Barzini points out, saturated with them. They have the power to transcend language barriers, as Sozzani was quick to note and act as an aid to historical and personal memory. I am reminded here of the poignant words by C. S. Lewis in his A Grief Observed, a book about the pain of losing his beloved wife H. 

"I have no photograph of her that's any good. I cannot even see her face distinctly in my imagination…We have seen the faces of those we know best so variously, from so many angles, in so many lights, with so many expressions — waking, sleeping, laughing, crying, eating, talking, thinking — that all the impressions crowd into our memory together and cancel out into a mere blur…".

It is what photography excels at: out of a relationship between photographer and subject, some incisive portraits are born, in which photographs appear to address the future viewer. It is precisely what both Barrese and Carrozzini achieve as filmmakers, by portraying, with sincerity and integrity, these two women who share a similarly intense relationship with the images they have created, albeit in differing roles. Their appreciation of fashion imagery, and more generally, of images in society does not coincide.  But their sons, both of whom work professionally with images, invite us to reconsider, and do so persuasively, the role of fashion images in our contemporary world.