Debunked: the “Muse” Mythology in the World of Fashion Photography

“Sing to me of the man, Muse…” begins Homer, invoking the great creative powers of the Muse to help him tell the epic tale of Odysseus. And no wonder – it’s a tough task to tell a story of such monumental proportions. So, naturally, the Greeks attributed their creative genius to a troupe of art-embodying female goddesses. It’s a concept that I can definitely get behind. The creation of art has long been connected to a divine female entity – and still is. From the longstanding literary epic, to fashion editorials gracing the pages of French Vogue, the feminine figure continues to serve as a ready-made source of inspiration for the modern artist. But, today, and especially in the world of art and fashion photography alike, the dynamics seem to have changed. In today’s world of struggling models and dominant fashion photographers, the woman that inspires is hardly divine. Rather, it is the male artist with the power to transform the woman into art. Here, the line between art and objectification for consumerist purposes often becomes blurred. As a result, moral lines, too, become hard to distinguish, and many models end up getting taken advantage of, often in the guise of being the photographer’s “muse.”

 

Examples of this phenomenon can even be found at the advent of photography. Alfred Stieglitz, known widely as one of the major founders of photography, had one of the most famous muses in art history: the modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe’s nude body, photographed by Stieglitz in unprecedented ways, was used to translated photography from a documentary practice into an art form. The nude photographs drastically propelled Stieglitz’s career as an artist, and created a somewhat unpleasant sensation surrounding O’Keeffe, who was trying to further her own artistic career independently of Stieglitz. Though the two were in love, there is no doubt that Stieglitz’s purpose in photographing O’Keeffe was ultimately self-serving. O’Keeffe opted to change her artistic approach in order to avoid constant sexual associations with her work. She also declined to let Stieglitz photographer her nude again. O’Keeffe refused to simply exist in Stieglitz’s image alone, and was committed to gaining independent recognition for her art.

 

Still, an outsider looking at their relationship could easily overlook these intricacies and see only the romanticism in it. This seems to often be the case in the 1960s and 1970s, when fashion photography was liberalizing, and as a result sexualizing, at a pretty rapid rate. The sexual leniency of this period brought on a wealth of photographers and models freely running around in their skivvies, and this was welcomed, rightly so, as a much needed departure from the conservative values of the previous era. Still, the obvious sexual dynamics of model and photographer relationships began to add a cheap, tawdry feel to fashion photography. Many of these sentiments are reflected in the quintessentially 1960’s fashion film Blow-Up, in which David Hemmings plays the role of a London fashion photographer. The character was based on real life photographer David Bailey, who was pretty widely known for sleeping around with his models. In one particularly iconic scene, real-life model Veruschka Von Lehndorff cavorts in front of the camera for Hemmings. Their relationship, as portrayed in the film, is far from professional.

Verushka and Hemmings in Antonini’s Blow-Up

It’s not the sexual liberalism that I find disturbing – rather it is the cold superficiality of the photographer and the model’s sexual relationship, that the film portrays, that is unsettling. Despite this, it is romanticized; the carnal glory of the photographer and his muse distracts us from the heart of the matter. In today’s fashion world the model and photographer relationship is rife with bizarre, unhealthy power dynamics that are often concealed by this “muse” mythology. As a culture, we seem to have become lulled into thinking that it is OK for photographers to have casual sexual relationships with their models, because she is his muse. Therefore she must be his passion and his art, and their relationship must be deep and powerful and thus somehow transcendent of whatever creepiness may really lurk beneath.

 

Fast forward to the 2000’s and we find ourselves with similar characters. The David Bailey romanticism of the 1960’s seems to have lost a bit of its shine. But not for everyone. One of these exceptions is the iconic fashion photographer, Terry Richardson, known widely for his edgy, often sexually explicit, style. In the past decade, Richardson has faced a hailstorm of allegations for sexual assault and misconduct with the treatment of his models. The fashion industry has done little to respond or punish Richardson for his actions. And most models would rather give in to his demands – everything from casual mid-photoshoot handjobs, to asking a model to make tea from her bloody tampon – than risk career suicide in falling out of favor with a powerful photographer. Richardson’s out of line behavior serves to remind us of the vulnerability of our modern muse, today’s fashion model. Often, these girls speak poor English or are simply too young and inexperienced to defend themselves in this kind of a situation. In the case of Richardson, many of the accounts of his sexual misconduct allude to his assistants, and the general environment in his studio, propagating the normalcy of his naughtiness.

Richardson with model Kate MossThe positive angle of this phenomenon is that models are beginning to speak out, and a critical dialogue seems to be forming around the sexual misconduct of fashion photographers. Sites like Jezebel have been particularly vocal on this subject, and some prominent fashion models, such as Rie Rasmussen, have been going public with their stories. The hope is, the more this subject is tackled publicly, the less support a fashion photographer of notable skeeviness (ie Richardson) will get in the industry.

 

And where do female fashion photographers fit in with all this muse business? One would assume that with a woman behind the camera, the power disparity would be less, making for a more comfortable, professional relationship. Yet, prominent models have actually complained about their experiences working with female fashion photographers. Model Lara Stone was quoted in an interview as saying, “personally, I don’t like working with female photographers because they seem to never be able to make up their minds about what they want to do…so many times it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s try this’ and ‘Let’s try that’ and ‘Let’s do this’ and ‘Let’s do that.’ It’s like, ‘For fuck’s sake, woman!’” (Interiew Magazine). Unsurprisingly, the rhetoric of the female fashion photographer is flexible and collaborative, implying that the photographer-model relationship is one of partnership and cohesion rather than domination and force. What’s so bad about that? Even if a woman were to take on that dominant role as a photographer, cultural stigmas seem to forbid her from having a “muse” of her own. The situation in the reverse seems ludicrous: Veruschka and David Hemmings switched, the male model posed luxuriously at the whim of a dominant female photographer. Something tells me this role reversal would not fly in the fashion world. If anything, a female photographer would get criticized for being “unprofessional.”

 

The discussion on the nature of the muse in fashion can be studied from endless angles. As budding artists and fashionistas here at Sarah Lawrence, we can take a couple things away from this subject. Most importantly, I think that we must remain self-aware of our intentions as artists, especially when it comes to nude photography. The budding art student seems to have an unfortunate tendency to use nudity simply for its edginess, without approaching the subject with a real purpose in mind. A lack of purpose can lead to general unintended smuttiness, which is probably not what your model wants to be known for. Unless, of course, the intention is to create smut. In that case, I recommend throwing in the towel and joining the ranks of Terry Richardson. It seems like a good career path, just be sure to leave your morals at the door.

Images: Terryrichardson.com and Thestyleking.com

Sources & further reading on these subjects:

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stgp/hd_stgp.htm

http://jezebel.com/5494634/meet-terry-richardson-the-worlds-most-fked-up-fashion-photographer

http://jezebel.com/5501317/to-catch-a-predator-what-are-agencies-doing-to-keep-models-safe

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/mar/19/terry-richardson-fashion-photography-pornography

http://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/lara-stone/

Isabel Farrington is a pez-dispensing, tea-cup collecting cinephile who hails from Boston, MA. She prides herself on being both awkward and alluring, and spends much of her time scouring Netflix, taking pictures of pretty people, and attempting to write smart things. She also has an inexplicable fascination with Middle Eastern culture, and when dozing off in class, tends to imagine herself as a female Lawrence of Arabia. In the future, she hopes to travel the world with a camera in hand, and one day find a career path that connects all of her disjointed interests. Her photographs, stray ramblings, and inspiration can be found at http://ppalebluedot.tumblr.com/

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