French Fashion Photo Exhibit Displays Genre’s Diversity

Fashion photography has come a long way since its birth in the 1950s. The poised portraits of Cecil Beaton’s generation have given way to a new and altogether more vibrant aesthetic that brings photography, design and conceptual art together.

These new images seek to show how fashion relates to real life—to the streets that clothes are worn in, the racks they hang on, the personalities of the people who wear them.

The contemporary face of fashion photography is the subject of this month’s exhibition at the French Cultural Center. Entitled “Visions,” the new show presents a multi-colored, multi-ethnic world of gloss, glamour and arty ideas that often seem a million kilometers away from the reality of Phnom Penh.

The collection of nearly 30 images were all created by French artists as part of advertising campaigns or fashion magazine editorials. The photos came to the center as part of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Association for Artistic Initiatives, which sends exhibitions on a tour of French Cultural Centers around the world. “Visions” was last exhibited in Thailand; when the photos come down in Phnom Penh they will be sent to the Philippines.

For visitors already familiar with the shift from conventional fashion plates to the concept of fashion photography as a broader, more experimental genre, “Visions” will be a refreshing, thought-provoking exhibit.

But for many Cambodian people, the concept of fashion as an art form—let alone the refined, conceptual fashion photography presented here—is completely new. Many of the photographs will be striking in their own right, without any knowledge of the cultural progression behind them. Some of them, though, may appear just plain weird.

One image features 24 female models clad in identical white clothes standing in grid formation, dwarfed by a vast concrete overpass and a colorless stretch of wasteland. The sky is gray, the clothes are hardly visible: It’s fashion photography, 2003-style, and it may take a while for local audiences to get used to it.

“I don’t think people are ready to approach this yet,” said a spokesman for the center’s Cultural Department. “It’s a problem for us,” he admitted.

On the opening morning of “Visions” last week, a trickle of bemused-looking viewers drifted through the exhibit. Some laughed at the photos; some looked impressed, but all seemed interested in evidence of styles and attitudes from the other side of the world.

“[The photos are] beautiful, but strange,” said 22-year-old student Ven Thang.

“It’s not strange, it’s good,” said Kun Bopha Chhun, a 24-year-old French teacher.

“Some people, especially young people, like this style,” she said, standing before an image of a bleach-blonde model dressed in black and white, crouching super-imposed above a black and white aerial city-scape. “My generation want to take more natural photos,” she said. “I think these are very interesting.”

The images are presented using a new printing technique in which the photographs act as a backing to a thick sheet of perspex. The quality of the reproductions alone makes the trip to “Visions” worthwhile.

Four photos by Daniel Stier entitled “Les Effractions,” or “The Burglaries,” show a series of petty crimes being committed on a British industrial estate. Rubbish floating in a canal, broken glass and green, English grass form the backdrop to staged vehicle theft and break-ins, all of which are captured by a crisp, hyper-real technique.

New methods of photographic development and printing form part of the exhibit’s focus. “We have some people from the printing community coming to see the show,” the gallery spokesman said. “That’s what I like about this project—it unites people from different fields: Design, photography, printing and fashion.”

The center plans to run a fashion workshop later this year to introduce art students to the concept of modern design and production, and to fill the current gap in creative Cambodian fashion. “There are very few people working in fashion in Cambodia—I know of just one designer,” the center’s spokesman said. “Visions” marks the first step in the center’s attempts to change that.

Most of all, though, “Visions” is a show about image, about how clothes and photography work together to define modern cultures.

The curator of the exhibition in France, Frank Perrin, writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, “If the fashion image is becoming a model for image-makers of all kinds, it’s because of the incredible freedom it manifests, breaking ex­isting barriers and creating friction between genres.”

It’s hard to say where genres begin and end in this show; from fashion photography to graphic design, illustration to photo-documentary, portraiture to paparazzi shots, “Visions” represents a new diversity in modern visual art.

Image-making has become a genre in itself, and “Visions” displays that art-form at its best. Far more than just pictures of clothes, the exhibit shows how fashion photography defines modern culture.

It’ a far cry from modern Cambodia, but in bringing these images to Phnom Penh, the center’s spokesman said, “Visions” may inspire young people to set about forming and defining their own contemporary Cambodian culture.



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