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Friday, November 9, 2007

Haidee Findlay-Levin sees it like it is...

Blindspot is a photo magazine with a mission to publish new work by the established and undiscovered, a source book for curators and art directors. As a counterpoint to its visual nature, Blindspot got together with the New York Public Library to stage conversations between photographers, as a kind of forum to shed light on the often contradictory issues surrounding photography, the media, art and commerce. When I saw the line-up, I committed myself to all three sessions.

The first conversation took place between artist Jack Pierson and photographer/filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg. I hoped Pierson would bring his more personal experiences to the discussion, but I soon realized he was as much in awe of Schatzberg and his body of iconic work as I was. Jack took us through some of the visual material and highlights of Schatzberg’s 4-decade-long career, which included assignments for Vogue, Life and Esquire. There are the gorgeous portraits of a 16-year old Catherine Deneuve, Nico (pre-Velvet Underground), Sharon Tate and one of his favorite models, Peggy Moffitt. The funniest, of all these iconic images, were those of the Rolling Stones in drag! Then there's his former relationship with Faye Dunaway and his ongoing collaboration with the elusive Bob Dylan.

Schatzberg, meanwhile, in his constant search for "the improbable but not the impossible,” relayed anecdotes from his ensuing film career, stories from the set of Puzzle of a Downfall Child (Faye Dunaway plays the fallen model), The Panic in Needle Park (with Al Pacino) and Scarecrow (hitw Al Pacino and Gene Hackman), for which he won the Cannes Palme d'Or.

The highlight for me was the telling of his experiences while shooting a particular photo assignment for Esquire in Paris of 1962. These photos are an insider’s view of the couture salons of Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior—including Saint Laurent's first outing as a solo designer—that go beyond the runway: the early morning preparation, models having a quick breakfast and doing their own make-up (as all models did in those days). There is the audience of fashion editors and socialites eagerly waiting for the show to begin, followed by the show itself. Back then, fashion shows could feature several hundred outfits and could last two hours. There's one shot of Yves himself nervously watching as his first solo collection as it is presented.

All these images finally appear in a new limited-edition, autographed book called “Paris, 1962” (Empire Editions) and includes a signed print in an embossed clambshell box. I was so intrigued with these pictures, that I went along to the launch and book-signing Wednesday night at The National Arts Club. Up close, each image had such depth and narrative, taking you not only behind the scenes but to moments of sheer anxiety for the designer, the utter exhaustion of the models—house model Victoire with her head in her hands, the posturing of the photographers and, finally, to the closing image of the concierge cleaning up, once all is done. Schatzberg's favorite image is also telling: a dwarf standing in front of the window display at the Christian Dior store, her pose not dissimilar to those of the models upstairs.

The second conversation was titled Money Money Money, which in itself is what probably drew the full house. Mind you, the list of panelists was pretty impressive. Moderated by my all-time favorite Glenn O'Brien, the panel included photographers, art directors and advertisers: Vince Aletti, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, W's Dennis Freedman, Doug Lloyd, Glen Luchford, Collier Schorr and Andy Spade.

The topic was art and commerce, but it seemed more like art against commerce. When O'Brien posed the question “What is art and what is commerce?” to this pretty grumpy bunch of artists, the distinction seemed contradictory at first. Shooting commercial work is, to them, an uninspiring pain in the arse, where the viewpoint of the photographer and even the art director is ignored, and everything is controlled not only by the client, but—with digital photography's instant results right on the set—by committee. All profit, no creativity. So tell me something new!

Art director Dennis Freedman saw it more directly. The moment an art director/client/third person was present, it ceased to be art. This did not mean it couldn’t be good or inspiring work, but commerce nonetheless. As the notion of an artist working within a commercial world, particularly fashion, seemed to sit so uncomfortably with the panelists, I wondered why they did it at all. There was one exception: Glen Luchford. Coming from a British working-class background, he saw commercial fashion photography as a way out. Compared to shooting for i-D or The Face, being a factory worker had little appeal. Yet ironically, Luchford’s images for Prada are some of the most creative and inspiring ad campaigns of the last several years, and were subsequently exhibited, in the company of Cindy Sherman (who unfortunately was not present) and other renowned artists, at MOMA.

The client, as represented by Andy Spade, had his own take. Beginning as a copywriter who wrote ads recruiting soldiers for the army, he worked his way up the ranks of advertising, recognizing at each stage that the person above him had all the say and power. When he finally became an art director, he realized that, in fact, the final decision was still not his—it was the client's. He then chose to become the client, and a very successful one at that.

To me it seems painfully obvious. If the artist doesn’t want to do commercial work, don’t take the commission! There are 18,000 photographers in New York alone delighted to do the job. Lets be honest, doing a commercial job may take the artist away from valuable time spent on his/her art, but the money earned buys the time to spend on it. It’s that simple.

Back to Cindy Sherman. I don’t think her work ever felt compromised by her ads for Comme des Garçons, perhaps the ideal client/artist collaboration. Nor did the work of Louise Bourgeois diminish when it was exhibited as a Helmut Lang ad, with just the company name appearing below the original art. My question to all those disgruntled artists is: would you prefer to shoot something commercially that had something to do with your creative style or nothing to do with it at all? And if it’s the latter, as I think Philip-Lorca diCorcia suggested, would you not prefer to plagiarize your own work than allow someone else, like a full-time commercial photographer, to plagiarize your work and be paid handsomely for it?

There indeed seems to be a blindspot when it comes to seeing the art world as just art, when today it is most certainly commerce. A diamond skull by Damien Hirst fetches ridiculous sums of money. So comfortable is Hirst with this notion of art-meets-commerce that he recently collaborated with Levi's to embellish their jeans with...a skull. Are companies such as Prada and LVMH not the Medicis of our time, sponsoring individual artists, as well as large art events and shows? Or think about Claude Monet when he was commissioned to paint his water lily series (Les Nymheas) specifically for the dimensions of the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris. Now please tell me, is this art or is this commerce?

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