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Monday, April 6, 2009

Q&A: Vince Aletti

Music, arts and culture critic—and voracious collector of magazines and photographs—Vince Aletti has one of those tirelessly inquisitive, faultlessly analytical minds. He's widely acknowledged as the first to document the disco movement, and throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s he wrote for a variety of magazines, including Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and Artforum. These days he reviews photography exhibitions for The New Yorker and recently he's been spending a lot of time at the International Center of Photography (ICP), curating This Is Not a Fashion Photograph and co-curating Weird Beauty (both currently on view), as well as working on an upcoming Richard Avedon retrospective. Here, by phone, I interrogate the interrogator...

Lee Carter: Are you a fan of fashion?
Vince Aletti: I've been interested in fashion photography for a long time. I collected fashion magazines, issue by issue, to get a better sense of the work of photographers I'm interested in, especially Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. For me it's the best way to understand what a working photographer does.

Did you meet Penn or Avedon?
I became friendly with Avedon in the last five or six years of his life. We met a number of times, but mainly we stayed in touch by mail.

What was it like to meet the person you worshipped?
Intimidating, of course. I met Penn as well, at his studio with Peter MacGill from Pace/MacGill gallery. Then I met him separately for breakfast once or twice. It was difficult to have a conversation that wasn't just a series of questions on my part about things I'd always been curious about, but they both put me at ease. They were both very charming and intelligent men.

Twiggy by Richard Avedon

Speaking of Avedon, you're working on an upcoming show of his at the ICP, with co-curator Carol Squiers. What's been the most challenging aspect so far?
Trying to fit in all the great pictures. Avedon was a ruthless editor of his own work, so there are plenty of photographs that we'd like to include that do not exist as exhibition prints. But just making space for the available prints is turning out to be a challenge. There are so many extraordinary images, from the early Paris collections work to later sessions with Penelope Tree, Twiggy, Lauren Hutton, Barbra Streisand, Veruschka. We want to tell the most complete story about Avedon's long and prolific career in fashion, but right now we wish we had a third floor to work with!

A friend recently showed me Male, a book of male portraits you compiled. It's really beautiful.
Thanks. Yes, in addition to my collection of magazines, I have a smaller collection of photographs. I showed some of it last year at White Columns and much more of it just came out as a book, which I'm delighted to have out in the world. I also have a book of my disco columns coming out from DJhistory.com in London later this month. It's nearly 500 pages!


Yes, I'd read you were the first person to write about disco. Is that true? Were you a disco bunny?
I was probably the first established rock critic to write about the music that later became known as disco—in Rolling Stone in 1973—mainly because I'd been going out to clubs like the Loft and Tenth Floor. But I was never any kind of bunny—a little too serious for that, I'm afraid. I was one of the few people who actually went to clubs close to the time they opened, at midnight, and left before the bunnies arrived en mass around 4 am. I liked watching the dance floor fill up and overflow.

When you collect photos and magazines, what criteria do you use? What do you go for?
It sounds cliche, but something that speaks to me immediately, that grabs me and means something emotionally. This is how I went through ICP's collection and culled images for This Is Not a Fashion Photograph.

How do you think fashion photography will fare in this recession?
I hope fashion photographers continue to be inspired by whatever gets them going, no matter what the economy is doing. I hope people sail through the recession without losing sight of the role fashion has in our lives, which is to keep us diverted. We need exciting pictures to get us through the day.

Last question: which designers are you wearing right now?
Head-to-toe J. Crew and Adidas Stan Smith sneakers.

What a perfect Sunday afternoon ensemble. I'm in my pajamas, so you're clearly more fashionable than I am.

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