In Fashion Photography, When Does Freedom of Expression Become "Porno Chic"?
The Moment: Among the fashion photographers who became famous during a startling era of 1970s image making that was characterized by stark voyeurism and sometimes shockingly violent subject matter, Chris von Wangenheim, who died in a car crash in 1981 at the age of 39, surely remains the least well known. Guy Bourdin was the subject of a popular exhibition earlier this year at London’s Somerset House, and Helmut Newton (for whom von Wangenheim once worked as an assistant) has been the subject of numerous books.
But a new book that covers von Wangenheim’s brief career, called Gloss, by Roger and Mauricio Padilha ($85; rizzoliusa.com), is reviving interest in his work, which, in the words the authors, “reflected the fashionable underworld that continues to fascinate us today.”
And shock us, as well.
Some of the images, with their suggestion of bondage or sexual violence, drew criticism of misogyny even in their day, as Time magazine noted in a 1977 article entitled “Really Socking It to Women.” In that article, the photographer responded by saying, “The violence is in the culture, so why shouldn’t it be in our pictures?”
Why It’s a Wow: Controversial and challenging, the images still resonate with provocative designers and photographers like Tom Ford and Steven Klein, whose work for Alexander Wang advertising campaigns is often linked to von Wangenheim. Marc Jacobs, another fan, is hosting the fashion week launch party for the book. While it is often tempting to turn away from these pictures, or look at them with disgust (I’ll admit some of them activate my inner prude reflex), they retain a visual potency and political incorrectness that was indeed a powerful tool.
But to what end justifies its means?
“Chris was responding to the environment around him,” Roger Padilha says. “There are a lot of societal issues from the '70s that are in the photography, whether it’s the violence in New York, the women’s lib movement, or the de-stigmatization of pornography with the release of Deep Throat. It is a time capsule of what the culture was thinking in the '70s.”
Given the more recent media focus on controversial depictions of women in contemporary fashion photography (as well as accusations of lurid behavior against photographer Terry Richardson), it presents a typical fashion paradox that the originators of a movement that came to be known as “porno chic” would again be having a moment.
This is a question that the Padilha brothers have considered as well, citing the current uproar in New York City over desnudas, the body-painted topless women who parade around Times Square seeking tips, as well as the phenomenon of online shaming in the era of social media.
“There is so much policing going on in society, whether in the streets of New York, or in publications,” Padilha says. “If you say anything controversial on Instagram, you have to apologize for it. Looking back at this, when photographers got to do what they wanted to, when magazines published these images and stood behind their artists without apologizing, it’s refreshing. We are supposed to be progressing, but these images are 40 years old. If they had been published today for the first time, can you imagine the amount of mail and tweets talking about a woman being mauled by a dog? It would be insane.”
Case in point, a picture they posted online this week of Christie Brinkley with her leg in the grip of a Doberman’s teeth (pictured, below) drew complaints. “Someone commented, ‘I got bit by a dog and this isn’t funny or glamorous,’” Roger Padilha says. “There is something about that time to me that is romantic because people were able to do a lot of things artistically, without fear of getting censored or shamed.”
Have they not heard of Donald Trump?
Learn More: If you have a high tolerance for provocation and extreme nudity in the name of freedom of expression, you can find more of von Wangenheim’s work at the Gloss book site.