Might as well grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up, this is going to take a while. I'm going to start this with a little story about a comedy record I have by Stan Frieburg. Now no one here is old enough to remember Stan Frieburg, but he was a comedian and one of the great ad writers of all time. Anyway, he's doing this parody of the song, "The Great Pretender". In it as the singer breaks, the piano accompaniment was just a single key tapped repeatedly (really, they did this in the fifties), "Oh, I'm the great pretender...plink, plink, plink...pretending that you're still around". But the piano player hates it, and keeps breaking into jazz riffs, of course ruining the session. Finally the singer stops everything and demands the guy play the plink, plink, plink. When the piano player threatens to leave, the singer closes with, "If you don't play that plink, plink, plink jazz, you ain't gonna get paaaaaaaaaid tonight!"
"Plink, plink, plink."
People here have accidentally touched on some very interesting issues inside the world of fashion, photography, modeling and the magazine business, so I thought I'd bore you with my views on all of this. (One of the nice things about getting on is that you get to bore people, and it doesn't bother you.)
First we will start with the fun stuff, Paris, Testino, and Vanity Fair. Paris is beautiful, particularly when shot from the right angles (her face straight on is tough, but then you very rarely saw a picture of Claudia Schiffer shot straight on either). She's got a model's figure, great legs, and even some curves up top (and it would appear it's all her, which is nice). She's also learned how to work as a model, she demonstrates some craft, not common and certainly not common for someone who is simply famous for being famous. If you've seen the video and noted Jim's reference to the "1-2-3" count, note that when she opens her eyes into the bright sun, she doesn't wrinkle her forehead. Trust me as someone with blue eyes, that isn't easy, it takes a lot of concentration. I know any number of models who have worked a lot who can't do that. Little things, she's obviously got a good sense of how to use her body (note the her leg position when she's laying down, both legs bent, one appropriately more than the other, and she's pointing with her toes). And finally, she knows exactly what brought her to the dance, and she can't wait to bust a move! When this girl turns the heat up, even Republicans stop thinking oral sex means talking about it.
But in the end, she's not a model, she's a celebrity. And that brings us to Testino. Anyone who thinks for a moment that Mario hasn't forgotten more about real fashion photography than the entire internet actually knows about it is just kidding themselves. Here's a guy from Peru going to law school in London and shooting model portfolios for Â£25. Hardly a kid with a lot of connections. He works his way up the ladder with work that stands out enough to get an agent and eventually a couple of good ad campaigns which mark him as the real deal. And does all of this during the glory years of fashion (80's through the early 90's) when the competition at the top was brutal. Yes, he's educated and good looking (always a good thing), but unlike any number of his peers, he didn't burn himself out on drugs and alcohol. And like very few of his peers, he made the transition from shooting real fashion (where art and craft actually mattered), to Glashion (Maxim, et al), and finally celebrity fever (where no question about it, his personality and good looks work in his favor). Shooting celebrities is all about who you are (or who you were), and celebrity pandering is where fashion and fashion magazines have fallen. Does he phone it in some days? Sure, why not, it's a pay check. But let's face it, shooting some over the hill movie star for the cover of Vogue because a studio's got a bazillion dollars riding on "Charlie's Angels Do Jurassic Park , Part 8" and they're willing to pay Vogue a million bucks for the cover (don't think that hasn't happened) is hardly why he picked up a camera in the first place. Real fashion models, real editorials, real campaigns where skill and an artist's heart mattered? Rare as hen's teeth these days, at least at the bigger name mags (who have the bucks to pay a decent day rate). Paris Hilton? Why not. Sure, she insists on the blue M&M's, but she's a hot enough celebrity to get them (which is why they got Testino, or Demarchelier, or Ritts (who's still dead), or Meisel, or (fill in the blank) instead of some hot young real fashion photographer, who's name you don't know...yet). At least Paris hasn't had to have her face lifted so far she can't close her eyes anymore. It must have seemed like a great assignment to Testino, not to have to work with someone who's makeup smells of formaldehyde. And the check cleared.
Think of this way, arguably the greatest American novel of the twentieth century was "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. You never read it, and unfortunately not enough people did to make Fitzgerald rich. But it did make him a celebrity. So he got to go to Hollywood and write truly dreadful screenplays for which he was paid a lot (lot) of money. No wonder madness and alcohol seemed like such a good idea. If only he could have photographed celebrities.
Plink, plink, plink.
Now, the true villain of this piece enters, stage left. Vanity Fair (Vogue, Bazaar, fill in the blank). The bigs. Where in the old days you had to really have talent. Art meets commerce, the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me. Beautiful young fresh faces gracing the covers, dressed to kill, made up by Da Vinci, and bathed in Rembrandt light. The shots done in exotic locations, exquisite mansions, the fashion stories rich in history and fairy tale elegance. The photographer had to have the skill, organzational expertise, and experience to pull all of this together. But you could feel the end coming, by the late eighties the markets were starting to collapse under the weight of deficits piled so high they seemed insurmountable. I remember sitting in my office in '88 or '89 when it was announced that the largest ad agency in Washington was closing it's doors in spite of high profits that year. They said advertisers were renewing their accounts at such a slow rate that the following year was going to be unprofitable, better to go out on top. Foolishness, I thought. But sure enough the large independent department stores all over the country were being bought out with cheap dollars by big conglomerates. It got so bad that Chicago, once the second market for fashion, simply went away, all the big department store accounts moved to New York. It's still a big commercial market, but fashion, fogedabodit. The train rumbled on by sheer momentum, but by '94-'95 fashion as the centerpiece of American culture was finished. Linda, Christy, Cindy, Naomi, and Claudia, in '92 they would have been headliners on Leno or Letterman ("And tonight, Linda Evangelista!" Clap, clap, clap!) Can you name a fashion model under 25? Do you ever see one on Leno? Letterman?
The answer for the magazines is the crack pipe of circulation, celebrities. And where once they might have had to pay a model to shoot the cover (not much, but they did pay), now they have Hollywood begging (with cash in hand) to put this month's pre-release movie star on the cover. (Pay attention to how often the cover of Vogue features a celebrity who is opening a movie that same month or shortly there after). Movie stars aren't famous because of the clothes, they are famous because of acting. Fashion is a stepchild in this arena, a begger at the table hoping for crumbs. Celebrities are not models, they are not thrilled they are getting photographed for the magazines. It's not what they do, it's what they have to do because the studio's need to keep them out there. They demand, the magazine has to deliver. "You want me on the cover? Fine, here's what I want. First, the blue M&M's. Not the red ones. Who's shooting me? No, no, no, I want (demand) the guy that shot (fill in the blank)." That's what Testino was dealing with, he did his job, he's a celeb shooting a celeb, it ain't art, but it is a paycheck. He earned it years ago, building a "name" that puts him on that shoot. And now, "he's the guy that shot Paris Hilton for the cover of Vanity Fair, that's the guy you better get for me!" Round and round we go.
Plink, plink, plink.
Now, I have actually seen the cover of Vanity Fair featuring Paris
(anyone else?). They know what crap they are doing, and they are making fun of it. In fact, I doubt once Paris actually looks at the cover she will be so pleased. This comment has nothing to do with the picture, and by the way, the cover shot is not from that silly little video, in fact when I saw the picture on the newsstand, I thought it was just a dumb studio shot. On closer look, it may have been done in a room where they were shooting the other shots we saw on the video. Of course, Paris has her top off (dance with who brung ya, babe!). But more importantly catch the little joke on the upper left of the cover. ("Ah Paris, we will always have that video.") Talk about making fun of your cover model!
What I really think is the cycle is turning again (fashion is always a cycle). It's become a joke turned into a parody, so stupid it can't support itself much longer. Pay attention to some of the younger bucks shooting, some of them show up here from time to time. Guys with talent, and they care, they are working at their craft, and some of them have a real eye. It's tough, digital is making everyone better (and I don't mean just the x's and o's), people experiment, why not, digits are free, and even glamour shooters get bored. The new breed will have to be spectacular to stand out, with far more art than we have ever seen. In the last few years I've seen really bad photographers get better, a lot better, a few a lot, lot better. That never used to happen. And some of those guys will break through, and we can say, we knew them when.....
Good night, I have to shoot a stripper in a club tonight at 1 AM for a client. It's a fashion shoot. Really.
Plink, plink, plink.
Couture Model Management
900 West Avenue, Suite 423
Miami Beach, Florida 33139