Model Citizens

They don't get no respect. But supermodels are more than mannequins  they represent the possibility of grace in a humdrum world.

By Charles Taylor

Published November 25, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

a modest proposal: Anyone who writes about the
vacuousness/overexposure/bad example/(your favorite puritanism here)
of fashion models should agree to have the published piece accompanied
by an author photo. Not so we can see whether the author is as
attractive as a model (who is?). But so we can see how relaxed the
author is in front of a camera, whether he or she can project mood and
personality, or create the illusion of movement in a still photo.

You can find reams of negative press about artists, athletes, writers
and actors, and yet no author suggests of those people's abilities
that anyone can do that. Yet it's commonplace to think that
what models do doesn't take any special talent, isn't really work, and
isn't worthy of serious consideration, though their talents have been
worth the serious consideration of most of the great photographers of
the century.

Anyone who wants a lesson in the mastery of modeling's deceptively
simple arts can find abundant examples in three new books. "Lisa
Fonssagrives: A Portrait" (Vendome Press), edited by fashion
photographer David Seidner, is an exquisite and loving tribute to the
woman whose work from the '30s to the '50s, especially with her
husband and collaborator Irving Penn, virtually defined haute couture
elegance in those years. "Naomi" (Universe), by Naomi Campbell, a
compilation of the model's work, replete with testimonials and even
Campbell's fish-and-chips recipe, is a sort of fan's scrapbook. "10
Women" (te Neues), by the photographer Peter Lindbergh, showcases
Lindbergh's particular style of lived-in elegance in portfolios of 10
top contemporary models.

The unembarrassed pleasure these books take in their subjects is a
relief from the cattiness, jealousy, condescension, and
plain sexism of what's been written about models in the past few
years — things which, were they written about any other group of
women, would start a firestorm of criticism. Is the anti-fashion,
anti-model poot of Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf anything more than a chance
to resurrect the old canard that beauty and brains are mutually
exclusive? Is labeling the bewitching Kate Moss anorexic (a lie that
should be immediately apparent to anyone with two working eyes and
half a working brain) anything but an acceptable form of the
denigration of body type that feminists decry? (I can remember my
mother telling me as I was growing up that the people who said to her,
"You're too skinny," couldn't have been more hurtful if they told her
she was too fat.)

Beauty and the ability to project it is a gift too many people want to
turn into proof of moral and intellectual shallowness. Models work in
a place where feminism and social criticism intersect with our abiding
Puritan fear and distrust of beauty, pleasure and success. The most
common complaint about models is that "people don't look like that."
True. And most of us can't shoot a basketball like Michael Jordan,
play piano like Thelonious Monk, or sing like Cecelia Bartoli. Deal
with it.

Despite all the prudery and hostility directed at them, models have
become a fixture of popular culture, to the point where their
personalities have superseded the clothes they're supposed to be
selling. Clothes now serve models the way standards once served
popular singers. A Calvin Klein dress on Christy Turlington or a Tom
Ford suit on Kate Moss are vehicles for expression the way Billie
Holliday's version of "I'll Be Seeing You" or Sinatra's "That Old
Devil Moon" were.

That's the opposite of how Lisa Fonssagrives, arguably the first
supermodel, worked. "Lisa Fonssagrives" includes an essay by the
British photography historian Martin Harrison that quotes Irving Penn
(who was married to Fonssagrives until her death in 1991) as saying
that the personality of the subject is of no importance in a fashion
shoot. As a model, Fonssagrives didn't reveal herself as much as she
collaborated with the photographer to realize a stylized caricature of
sophistication. After retiring from modeling in the late `50s,
Fonssagrives devoted herself to sculpture. She maintained that her
work as a model was a form of sculpture as well. Look at the natural
contours of Fonssagrives' face and body — the upturned nose, the
slant of her long neck, the sleek upward curve of her jawline, those
endless arms capped by hands cocked as though her joints had been
replaced by ball bearings, her eyes and lips emphasized by bold arches
of lipstick and liner — and you see the spare, stylized jots of a
line drawing. In photo after photo, everything about Fonssagrives
seems to be ascending.

In almost every photo here, there's something not quite real about
Fonssagrives. The pictures are an expression of the era Harrison talks
of, when fashion was seen as something for the idle rich, and haute
couture had yet to give way to clothes for working women. They show
both the glory of that era and why it had to end.

If Lisa Fonssagrives was the epitome of unattainable elegance, Naomi
Campbell is casual funkiness triumphant. Leafing through "Naomi" is
like picking up a fat fan mag devoted to one star in all her
yumminess. It is also an unintentional demonstration of current
fashion's — and fashion photography's — stealth raids on
the past. Over the course of this book, Campbell goes from '30s gangster
in pin-stripe suit, to '40s satin doll in slip and pageboy, to '50s
jet-setter in Dalmatian-print dress (and matching Dalmatians), to
Gauguin native in sarong and exotic flowers, to pin-up cutie in
nature's glory. What unites the photos is Campbell's generous
impudence, an unshakable confidence that always lets us in on the
joke. There may be more of a sense of dress-up, more overt playfulness
in Campbell than in any other current model.

But the book in this trio that makes the best case for models as
performers who use photography as their medium of expression is Peter
Lindbergh's "10 Women." There's a spontaneity to Lindbergh's work (or
perhaps the illusion of spontaneity) that, I think, helps us to see
style as something that exists in the course of everyday life.
Lindbergh loves natural settings (the desert and seasides), and
familiar ones (city streets), and he loves natural looks.
Lindbergh's close-ups are likely to feature mussed hair, likely to
bring out shadows and lines, the textures of his models' skin, the
downy hair on arms and foreheads.

Fashion is rigorously subordinated to personality here. A white cotton
shirt in a Lindbergh photo isn't the crisp image of perfection it is
in other fashion photos; it shows the wrinkles that come after a few
hours' wear. Even when he shoots haute couture, he undercuts it. He
plunks Linda Evangelista, dressed in an evening gown and tulle
headdress, down in the sand next to a big dog who looks as if he's
about to give her a sloppy kiss.

Lindbergh never imposes personas on the models. His method is to
clear a space in which they can project. He is admiring rather than
protective, and the result is a series of portraits that, even in his
subjects' most pensive moments, radiate strength. Kristin McMenamy,
dressed only in pleated trousers, or in long gloves and high heels, comes
off as the child of Chaplin and Sally Bowles. Lindbergh pays Kate Moss
the supreme compliment of seeing her as woman, not waif, and the resulting
portraits give her a touching gravity without violating her youthful spirit.
His most stunning collaboration is with the ravishing Tatjana Patitz who,
with her penetrating gaze and ever-present cigarette, conveys a weary
hauteur that's both hard-boiled and elegant. She's a creature out of
Dostoevsky and Raymond Chandler, simultaneously.

To me, the supreme expression of style has always been a woman walking
along a city street on a sweltering summer day who manages to look
cool and composed. I suppose I love looking at models for much the
same reason: because they represent to me a possibility of getting
through the hassle of everyday life with some semblance of grace,
even wit. Style, for me, has always been less about exclusivity and
exclusion from life than a sort of alert comfort, what Isaac Mizrahi calls "understanding yourself for whatever the hell you think you are at the moment." Jane Jacobs' great 1961 polemic "The Death and Life of Great
American Cities" was an impassioned argument for the necessity of making
our cities amenable to life in its mundaneness as well as its pleasures.

"The sum of ... casual public contact ... is a feeling for the public
identity of people," Jacobs wrote. Looking at a photo of Kate Moss
strolling down a city street, or of a rumpled Amber Valetta slumped over
a lunch-counter cup of coffee, is a reminder of how a public identity
can radiate faith in the ability to thrive in our surroundings. It is style
as a sort of good citizenship, a secular expression of what it can mean,
in the words of an old spiritual, to brighten the corner where you live.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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