Selling a Dream

In 1984, fashion photographer Irving Penn (1917-2009) described his job as “selling dreams, not clothes.” The lens-based artist is famous for his work with Vogue, having shot 165 covers for the magazine between August 1943 and August 2009. In 2017, journalist Laird Borrelli-Persson traced his prolific career, characterising him as someone with “the rare ability to capture the spirit of things in a graphic way.” These words, paired with his oeuvre of glamorous high fashion editorials, suggest that “selling dreams” can be romantic and beautiful. However, it’s important to acknowledge the commercial intentions behind many of these pieces as well as how they influence our idea of beauty. Who shapes the lifestyles we should aspire towards? And, why? In recent years, image-makers have been building on the longstanding allure of fashion photography to include a vision of utopia for people who have often been omitted from the glossy covers. In 2018, Tyler Mitchell (b. 1995) became the first Black lensman to shoot the front page of Vogue and Nadine Ijewere (b. 1992) became the first Black woman to do so the following year. Their portrayals of Black joy and diverse subjects show us that abundance, beauty and glamour is for everyone.  

Now, visitors will get to trace the evolution of the industry in Chronorama: Photographic Treasures of the 20th Century. Helmut Newton Foundation presents a time capsule of luxurious imagery between 1910 and the 1970s through 250 prints from the leading figures behind the camera, such as Penn, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Evelyn Hofer and Deborah Turbeville. Many of these come from a recent acquisition of François Pinault’s collection of images that span architecture, fashion, photojournalism, portraiture and still life. There are also early illustrations from the legendary Condé Nast Archive, which is an opportunity for visitors to see work from Conde Nast’s iconic magazines. Chronorama highlights the impact that changes in western culture have had on publications – such as Vogue and Vanity Fair – over the years.

Entering the gallery transports today’s viewer to the 20th century. Lens-based artists show us the world of staged photoshoots and evolving fashion trends as well as the wider influence of culture, lifestyle and world events. The exhibition is organised by decade and begins from 1910. This was one year after Condé Nast acquired Vogue magazine and transformed it into a leading platform. In those early days, photographs were still relatively rare, so abundant drawings by renowned illustrators of the era also adorn the exhibition walls. The dynamics between the two mediums underwent a seismic shift as photography rose to prominence in the ensuing decade. Once this became the norm, black-and-white photography long remained the standard and the earliest colour image on display dates comes from Penn in 1952.

Chronorama is a sweeping compendium of vintage prints from the magazines of their time. We see actress Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) posed in front of an orchid in Cecil Beaton’s (1904-1980) striking portrait. In another shot, we only see the back of model Lisa Taylor’s (b. 1951) head as she holds the telephone receiver to her ear, her styled hair falling in neatly arranged strands down the back of her head. Twiggy (b. 1949) perches on top of a TV that broadcasts a still of face – wearing the same expression as the real version. A touch of surrealism influences many of these visuals, from disembodied figures to doubled faces.

Besides fashion, CHRONORAMA places people at the heart of its captivating chronicle. On display are luminaries across the realms of music, art, sports and politics. For instance, we see actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961) posed in Edward Steichen’s (1879-19730) eye-catching portrait. Her head rests peacefully on a glass table next to a chrysanthemum bloom – the mirror-like surface showing us her reflection. Wong was the first Chinese American Hollywood filmstar, with a career that spanned sixty movies across Europe and the USA. Katie Gee Salisbury, author of the biography Anna May Wong: Not Your China Doll, notes that the star was frequently photographed by numerous artists, such as Dora Kallmus, Paul Tanqueray, Man Ray and Carl van Vechten. It’s important to acknowledge that these glittering depictions highlight only the glamour, which ignores the rampant racism and stereotyping she battled throughout her career.

Chronorama is a treasure trove of images that take us to the glossier versions of these decades. It’s a visual feast of monochromatic elegance. Fashion photographs invite us to escape into a dream world where everything seems perfect. On one hand, such utopian visions are important because they inspire us to prioritise what makes us happy. They are especially vital when it comes to showing people from marginalised communities, who have often been misrepresented or omitted entirely. It’s tempting to be whisked away by the “dream” but this often hides the more complex realities of exclusion and discrimination. In this way, Chronorama also prompts another question: what does the glamour conceal?

Helmut Newton Stiftung, Chronorama: Photographic Treasures of the 20th Century | Until 20 May

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Helmut Newton Patti Hansen in Yves Saint Laurent, Promenade des Anglais, Nice 1976 © Helmut Newton Foundation, courtesy Condé Nast.
  2. Bert Stern Twiggy wearing a mod minidress by Louis Féraud and leather shoes by François Villon, Vogue, 1967 © Condé Nast.
  3. Cecil Beaton Actress Marlene Dietrich, Vanity Fair, 1932 © Condé Nast.
  4. Helmut Newton Patti Hansen in Yves Saint Laurent, Promenade des Anglais, Nice 1976 © Helmut Newton Foundation, courtesy Condé Nast.
  5. Helmut Newton Model Lisa Taylor, Vogue, 1975 © Helmut Newton Foundation, courtesy Condé Nast.
  6. Edward Steichen Actress Anna May Wong, Vanity Fair, 1930 © Condé Nast.