It has been well established since the pioneering work of Edward Louis Bernays, nephew of Austrian psychologist Lucian Freud, that sex sells. Indeed, Bernays’s combination of Le Bon and Trotter’s “crowd theory” with his uncle’s own work on unconscious sexuality gave birth to modern advertising, as we know it. Instead of focusing on the practical utility of an item, customers were encouraged to view an object in relation to how it may or may not impact their chances of finding a partner – tapping into our most bestial needs. No industry has embraced this message with as much fervour as fashion, with each house vying to demonstrate how their clothing can best project sexual accomplishment, availability or suitability on the part of their wearer. However, as fashion attempts to propel its message further, through the media of photography and film, how are perceptions of its models and its clients established? By examining several photographs, we are able to see a mixed message in which both power and submission is encoded into the images themselves.
This first image, taken by Helmut Newton in 1981, is an attempted diptych replication. Indeed, apart from the change of planted foot in the second model from the left, the postures have been reproduced accurately in the latter image, clothing the naked models. There are several things that make this image significant in regards to its attitudes towards women – external and internal to the image itself. The first point to note is Newton’s reputation as a photographer: an unflinching attitude towards female nudity in his work has seen labels of misogyny directed at him. The question of whether this external reference is significant in how we approach the image is an interesting one that in turn raises questions of intention and execution. However, it is with an inkling towards such a reputation that we should then examine the photograph – although it would be a mistake to allow it to entirely influence our perception of the work.
The first thing we recognise when looking at this diptych is the order of the images. Placed together as they are here, the models are not being stripped but clothed by the Newton; it is an essential feminine essence that is being captured by the photographer, encased in cloth rather than voyeuristically exposed. The stances too are not those of victims but of dominant individuals: hands on hips, arms crossed, striding purposefully towards the camera rather than shying from it. The entire project is, in fact, a denial of pornographic stereotypes – the photograph is stripped of its eroticism, the uncompromising reveal serving to remove the titillation associated with erotic photography. However, whilst the photograph certainly projects an image of female power, we would be wise not to forget that the direction is still male; Newton is the puppet-master controlling the action onstage. Ultimately, it is still a male perspective that is capturing this image.
This second photograph, taken of Malgosia Bela for Daniele & Iango, is far more eroticised than the previous. The lighting of the image places emphasis on her breasts and inner thighs through the shadowing caused by the upper-right hand light source. What should be noted in this image is the contradictions in posture: on the one hand, we have the dropped shoulders and protruding chest that suggests a masculine control; whilst, on the other hand, we see the tilted head with neck clearly on display, a physiological signal indicating feminine submission. I should note here, that the terms masculine and feminine are used as an identifiable convention and need not be affixed to the genders of male and female – as such, my suggestion of ‘masculine control’ does not strip this figure of her female gender. A complaint against the use of such terms must be directed against the culture from which the terms are drawn and not the author who exists within it.
However, what is more important with this image is the placement of the products that are being advertised: the bracelets and bag are not accidentally located across the model’s pubic region. What we must unpick is whether the photographer has placed the accessories there in an attempt to force the direction of the viewer to that area, or if, instead, they have been placed there knowing that the viewer is likely to gaze there, thus giving the product the greatest exposure. Regardless of causation, the bag is implicitly associated with the woman’s sexuality, eroticising the product. And yet, this should not be seen as a submissive gesture to male objectification; Malgosia Bela is the one controlling our vision. Certainly the titillation of having her full nudity denied is greater than the previous image; however, it is empowering because of that fact not in spite of it.
The final image is of model Valentine Fillol-Cordier and serves as the most ambiguous image as regards to the status of the model in relation to the viewer. Her posture is softer, more feminine than the previous images, with the slightly parted lips of her mouth drawing the viewer in with erotic seduction. It is the most overtly sexual of the three photographs; and yet, of the trio, there is the least nudity in this one. This is, perhaps, confirmation that it is through the withholding rather than revealing of the body that we are most enticed. As with Bela, Fillol-Cordier is in utter control here, her obscured left hand controlling the curtain’s cover. Of all three images, it is the eyes in this one that are the most striking. The obscuring fall of her hair becomes a mirror to the curtain, offering as fleeting a vision of her right eye as the curtain does of her pubis. The luxuriant juxtaposition of the curtain’s velvet texture on her smooth skin does elevate this image towards the erotic; however, its function is not to arouse so much as to seduce. Fillol-Cordier is there to advertise a lifestyle not merely a product; in this case it is one of sensuality.
W. J. Humphries