I haven't spouted off about a pop cultural topic in a while. Indulge me as I indulge my opinions. Or not. It's my blog and I'll opine if I want, knowing full well my opinion is of no significance to anyone, really, and especially not to the parties involved.
The topic is: Disappointment.
The catalyst is: The Annie Leibovitz post-Sandy fashion photographs.
When my brother went to college he left behind a crate of old Rolling
magazines he collected. I devoured them, trying to learn
everything I could about rock and roll. In the process I learned a lot
about photography, too. So I grew up with Annie Leibovitz as a role model. She was a serious photographer, a visionary artist, and she was breaking the gender barrier in what was then a male dominated industry. In my teenaged estimation, she was breaking barriers and opening doors for women, and was a creative visionary to boot. The only thing cooler than being a rock and roll photographer was being a rock and roll guitarist, and I debated that being a photographer could be even cooler than playing in a band because as a photographer you got to see all kinds of bands. As a musician, you're touring and rehearsing and probably not seeing a lot of other bands live.
I even wrote a term paper about women in professionally creative industries and used Annie as a case study. In that term paper I wrote something like, "Annie didn't just work at Rolling Stone
, she wasn't just a photo editor back in the office or a studio photographer working under the safety of a controlled environment, she was a concert photographer. She was out there in the rock and roll trenches photographing all of it, and a lot of it's not pretty or glamorous. The recording industry is dominated by males. It's difficult for even the most talented women to be taken seriously as anything other than a backstage groupie, but Annie broke that barrier and got the well-deserved artistic respect she deserved."
Yes. I was an impressionable teenager and yes I had a girl crush on her. But what I wrote still holds true.
I grew up and grew more aware. I discovered many other photographers, old and new. And still, always, Annie's work impressed me. I don't always care for the subject matter, especially because it's so celebrity and fashion oriented, but when I take a step back and think, "Hmmmm, let's pretend I was tasked with shooting a photo of _________. How would I do it? What would I try to bring out of the subject and how would I light them? How would I convey what I see and what I feel about their work?" And often my response is, "She nailed it. She chose the best options and did what she had to do because it's her job." Perhaps photographing Miley Cyrus is the dumbest job on the planet, ever, but who among us has never had to do something really stupid, meaningless and demeaning for work?
I even found solace in some of Annie's more vacuous subject matter. I used to keep a stash of what I called "motivational resources" in my desk at work. Mainly magazines, clipped articles, books, or music to either inspire me, enlighten me or, most frequently, console me. When I had an especially rough day at work I took a 15 minute mental health break, a sort of psyche cleanse. The rule was that I couldn't just look at Vanity Fair
or read a favorite passage of Hitchhiker's Guide
or listen to Doolittle
. Part of the process, a rule I made for myself, is that I had to dig deeper, go through all the steps that had to happen for that magazine or book or song to end up in my desk drawer.
"I bought the magazine at the drug store where someone's job is to fill the magazine rack. They get paid to place magazines on racks. Someone's job is to drive the truck that delivers the magazines to the drugstores. There are people at distribution centers who keep track of sales figures for those drug stores. They get paid to compute the number of magazines sold at that drug store and project future sales figures based on sales history and demographic data and advertising rates. There people at a printing press who get paid to load stacks of magazines into trucks heading to distribution centers. There are people who run bindery equipment that cuts and glues the printed pages together, sometimes they have to poly-bag the magazine bundled with another magazine or insert. Sometimes that's based on zip code. The bindery people don't know how it's concluded that people in 60XXX zip codes should get an insert for Mag Mile Shopping, they just know it has to get done. There are people who operate the presses that print the pages. It's digital, now, but there's still an art to color correcting inks and making sure it looks "right." They know it looks right because there's a press check where an art director and maybe the photographer stands over the press operator and their boss, the production manager, and painstakingly look at several press proofs and choose which ones they like. A lot of people have a lot of jobs that delivered this magazine that contains this photograph of this stupid celebrity. The celebrity doesn't matter, the photograph doesn't even really matter, but without both, there would be no magazine and a lot of people wouldn't have jobs. Does the photographer ever think about the guy on the truck delivering the magazines? When the photographer is setting up the lighting and composing the shot, are they thinking about the woman whose job is to put magazines (that will feature those photographs) on a rack in a drug store?"
I used to find going through that chain of events strangely motivating and inspiring. I used to think that certain photographers and writers did
think about all those people when they were photographing or writing, and on the days when they were tasked with a stupid assignment and wanted to refuse, they stopped and thought, "Wait a second. I'm part of a process, if the woman in the bindery department can work third shift while raising three children, I can photograph the celebrity of the month or write the story on the pros and cons of soy milk in coffee." I wanted to believe that motivated them not just to keep going, but to find a different angle or lighting, find something innovative or artistic or inspiring or, especially, revealing
in even the most trivial subject matter. Annie always comes through artistically and professionally.
So yes, I carry some serious history and bias about Annie Leibovitz.
Consequently what I am about to say might surprise you.
I don't like Annie Leibovitz's post-Sandy photos in the upcoming issue of Vogue
Are they distasteful? If you look to Vogu
e for news, then yes, they're in very poor taste. But I'll volley back with, "Looking to Vogue
for news is not in the best taste, either, so, touché."
Are they demeaning, degrading and disrespectful to the people affected by Sandy? I'm not one of the people affected by Sandy so I can't answer that. Ditto the professions featured - firefighters, National Guardsmen, power company workers, etc.
Are they silly? Yes.
Putting Sandy aside for a minute, are they good photographs? Not really. At least not when you take Annie's body of work into consideration.
Annie has a way of capturing something more from her subjects. Even the dumbest fashion spread can take on a sense of irony or bemusement or contempt when shot by Annie. She rarely gives us mediocrity. And sadly, to my eye, artistically, that's what these shots are: Mediocre.
They could have been so much more.
I want to believe there's an editor or photo editor who directed the shoots and chose those shots, shushing or talking over Annie's vision, and that there are some poignant, quality photographs of the actual workers taking the main light that didn't get published.
But that doesn't excuse Annie, Ms. Leibovitz. She agreed to take the photos. Maybe it was under duress, but I kinda doubt it because it's now, 2013 (2012 when they were shot) and she's Annie Leibovitz, and I'm guessing she doesn't have to take every assignment presented to her.
tries to be intelligent, tries to pretend that it has an editorially significant point of view on something other than Fashion Week. I find this laughable and misguided. Know thyself. Then write about what you know. I have no doubt there are people out there relying on Vogue
for their news on current events, and maybe some of those people didn't hear about Sandy and the subsequent devastation, so maybe featuring a fashion shoot amidst the recovery process is the only way to reach those people.
But. Wouldn't the bigger favor to those people be to feature a well-written (but easy to read, no big words) article about the continuing tragedy, and feature poignant photos of people affected by Sandy and the brave people who worked through the storm trying to save lives and offer assistance? Photos sans designer clothes and fashion models, that is.
That's not really Vogue's
thing, of course, and it sounds silly to feature that sort of reporting in a fashion magazine.
And therein lies my point. Don't try to be something you're not. Stay true to yourself.
, and their purpose, their reason for being, is to feature expensive fashions hung on vapid, vacuous models who made career choices to wear clothes and get their hair and makeup done for a living. And in that respect those models may very well represent their segment of society's feelings about Sandy: Apart from it, not affected by it, concerned with other things, prettier things, more expensive things that can be purchased. The models in the photographs don't look part
of the scenes in which they're posing, and not just because they're wearing clothes that cost more than the annual salaries of many of the workers posing with them. They look like the stoned bimbos badly air guitaring in Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love
video. The lights are on, but they're not home. I'm willing to bet one of my college diplomas that the models in the photographs care more, and know more, about the clothes they're wearing than what the workers they're posing with actually do for a living.
And maybe that's the riddle within the riddle, maybe the joke's on Vogue
, maybe Annie was showing how meaningless and stupid fashion is. Maybe her point is that Vogue
would go to the extreme of placing fashion models in expensive clothes next to firemen and power company workers just to appear relevant, and wow, aren't they stupid? "Look how stupid Vogue
is, everyone, here's the photographic proof."
But it's still a missed opportunity. For Vogue
and for Annie. If Vogue
felt utterly compelled to do "something" on Sandy, why not feature women whose jobs require them to wear Dickie's brand work clothes in the pages of Vogue
for a feature on Sandy and the people who are rebuilding Long Island? It doesn't get more industrial chic than that. Why not show the beauty of people who live and work there?
Or. Why not just leave the real reporting to real publications?
It's not that Annie doesn't have what it takes to shoot poignant photographs and portraits of the Sandy aftermath. She does have the stuff, the vision, and the sensitivity. And yet, the photos are as dull and empty as the models' vacant gazes, and as flat as their chests. The clothes stand out above all else, and naturally that's the point of the photos. But there is nothing that indicates those are Annie Leibovitz's photos - they could have been shot by anyone with the right camera equipment.
can hold a camera, point it at something and snap the shutter. Even blind people do it
(with poignant results). Given proper equipment and lighting, anyone can shoot a serviceable photograph of just about any subject. But. Where fundamental technique ends, artistry and vision begin, and those are difficult, and often impossible to define aspects of photography.
Photographers often respond to queries about their process with a simple shrug and, "It's just what/how I see." And that's the beauty and fascination of photography. Photography gives us the opportunity to view the world the way other people see it.
And I (desperately) want to believe that Annie Leibovitz doesn't see the aftermath of Sandy the way it's portrayed in her Vogue
Idolizing people is a dangerous game. Holding anyone up as a legend or hero is fraught with emotional complications. Holding them in high regard or esteem because of something they worked hard to accomplish? Yes, of course, credibility equals respect. And we can all use inspiration in the form of a "someone who did it and succeeded" story. But you must also always remember they're human, so they're fallible. If you don't keep that in mind, you're in for disappointment. (Anyone want to hazard a guess at how many signed copies of Not Without My Bike
and yellow rubber wristbands are up for bid on eBay or in the donation bins at Goodwill this week?)
"bothered" me that Annie chooses the high fashion and celebrity worlds as her subject matter because I fear it can trivialize her and her talent. But I've made a lot of compromises in my own career, so who am I to judge?
And then along came Sandy.
And those photographs.
Who's being trivialized? The firemen, power company workers, Coast Guard, National Guardsmen of Long Island.
The Coast Guard and National Guard shots provoke me the most. The story of the shots is people hard at work, responding to an emergency. And there, in the way, are perfectly coiffed girls in strappy 5" heels and flowing evening gowns and miniskirts. The Cost Guard shot features women who look like they're at a party on Sean Combes yacht in St. Tropez, not rushing to a water emergency on a Coast Guard boat off Long Island. Good thing the Coast Guard was there, because the models in the photograph might get hypothermia what with all the cold spray from the water and wearing those flimsy, filmy backless gowns and 5" strappy heels. There are
three models in that photo, in diaphanous white gowns, perhaps alluding to sirens Pisinoe, Aglaope and Thelxiepi. But if that's the case, is the Coast Guard escorting them away, ridding the area of their danger, or is the Coast Guard under their influence and rendered incapable of assisting in emergencies? Perhaps it's just a more simplistic play on the word siren? Whatever the intended artistic vision or story, the reality is that they're not wearing life jackets and they're wearing unsafe footwear for that area of a boat. (I know this because I was a Sea Explorer and took numerous Red Cross Water and Boating Safety classes. Plus it's just common sense.) Perhaps the message is
that fashion gets in the way of real work. If so, I can applaud that, job well done, Annie, because in that case the joke is
. But I fear that's not the case. I would love to choose to believe that, but, I don't like to delude myself.
Even the choice of models could have turned this debacle around, or at least offered an element of awareness. If the real women of the utility companies and Coast Guard are too real for the pages of Vogue
don't think that, but because they didn't go that route with these photos, I presume Vogue's
editorial staff does
) at the very least, instead of the usual stick thin, fragile, anemic looking waifs with size 00 clothes draped over them, why not use more fit, muscular models who could actually lift a case of soup to load onto a truck or throw a life ring far enough to reach someone stranded in the water? Those women could be made up and put in expensive clothing, but at least remove the element of "they're just in the way."
Years ago I attended a swanky do with my then boyfriend. It was a black tie event at a chic gallery of a museum so we were dressed to the nines (or at least to the sevens), and I even got my hair done and had a professional manicure. After the event we couldn't get a cab, so we walked a couple blocks hoping to find a cab further away from the throng of people leaving the event. We cut through a side street and chanced upon a dog who was bleeding and listless. I sacrificed the shawly cape thing I was wearing and we wrapped up the dog, found a cab and went to an emergency vet clinic. When we arrived, they took the dog to an exam room and instructed us to wait in the waiting room. It was 1 AM and the people in the waiting room looked like the people you'd expect to see in the waiting room of an emergency vet clinic at 1 AM. Most were in some sort of pajama-ish attire or sweats, tussled hair, the women either had no makeup or tear-smudged makeup, and they all looked tense, tired and worried. If a photo were snapped at that moment my boyfriend and I would have looked like we had too much to drink at a fancy party and stumbled into the wrong place - like Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan at a soup kitchen, self-unaware and our mere presence achingly snobbish. Even though our intentions were good, our reason for being there was sincere - we were in the throes of an animal emergency, too - the photo would not tell that story. (The dog's story ended well - he was lost during a move and his humans had given flyers to all the animal clinics, yadda yadda yadda, happy ending for everyone.)
So I know, firsthand, these moments can
happen. Emergencies happen without notice and we can end up looking disturbingly out of place just because of the clothing we happened to be wearing when the emergency hit. There are some infamous photos of people at the scene of disasters looking very normal or well-dressed, overdressed, wrongly dressed when juxtaposed against the backdrop of the aftermath of a recent crisis. That juxtaposition of normal life contrasted against life turned upside down tells a griping story: It can happen to anyone, at any time.
Maybe that's the story Annie was going for with these photos. But because the models lack the pained, shocked and worried expressions of people in the throes of a catastrophe, we can probably dismiss that hopeful theory.
Ultimately they're just silly fashion photos for a silly fashion magazine. It's silly to even devote any gray matter to the topic.
And the controversy is brewing up a lot of publicity for Vogu
e, a magazine that, like every other printed publication, is struggling to maintain relevance and ad revenue. And that is probably the real purpose behind the photos. Annie may have been a pawn in the game or an aware strategist in the game, either way there are still several huge missed opportunities for everyone involved with the photos, and especially for the Sandy victims.