Holly Hay and Shonagh Marshall talk us through Photographing the Body in Fashion.
Photograph by Lena C. Emery, ‘The Practice’ from The Gentlewoman, Spring/Summer 2014Photograph by Pascal Gambarte, from Marfa Journal, Issue 6, November 2016
I have jeans that make me stand at road crossings a certain way, positioning myself in a manner that to my taste best serves the silhouette of the style and simultaneously flatters my body; there is nothing subconscious about this stance. I’m ready for the glare of Google’s Street View camera at any given moment (or more commonly, the completely unconcerned faces of the pedestrians standing opposite me).
It’s hardly the sort of visual Holly Hay and Shonagh Marshall were seeking to explore when they began curating Posturing: Photographing the Body in Fashion – not once have I been stopped by Lena C. Emery or Zoe Ghetner or any of the other wonderful photographers whose work features in the show – but it is another example of one of the exhibition’s wider themes, looking at how we choose to display clothing. The fashion critic Charlie Porter for example, when uploading catwalk imagery to his website, flips the image upside down, giving, in his opinion, the clearest view of the outfit in question.
“I think,” offers Marshall, “to draw attention to the pose within the image asks us to consider how this affects the way in which we view the clothing, which is the function of a fashion photograph after all.” A fashion curator who’s worked closely with Somerset House – on the recent Sam McKnight exhibition amongst other things – Marshall has known Hay (a photographic editor and art buyer) for many years, both as friend and collaborator. This year the pair launched Ground Floor Project, seeking to marry the many, often unexplored, areas of the fashion industry, from which Posturing is the initial offering.
A group show (in partnership with The Outnet) housed in a clean white space in south west London, it features 43 pictures from 21 photographers with the common theme of the non-conforming pose. Below the duo tell us more.
Photograph by Brianna Capozzi, ‘Laura Ashley’ from Double Magazine, Autumn/Winter 2016
You’ve just set up Ground Floor Project which sets out to “consider fashion in the physical space”. What inspired the project’s founding, and where do you hope to take it?
Holly: Shonagh and I had been having all these conversations about how we thought there was perhaps something missing for fashion, specifically between the institutions and commerce. We wanted to start something that explored fashion in a dynamic way and asks lots of questions to encourage conversation around the subject. Ground Floor Project is a new kind of agency where we plan to work directly with brands to deliver exhibitions, content and publications through thoughtful, curatorial ideas.
Shonagh: As Holly said we wanted to create a space for discussion around contemporary fashion within the physical space. Many fashion exhibitions staged within institutions focus on the designer monograph or a specific photographer’s body of work. We want, in our work with The Ground Floor Project, to develop thematic approaches that look at contemporary work. The first project encompasses exhibition, film commission and book, and we really hope to be able to continue producing these types of installations and creative projects in partnership with brands around other subjects.
Obviously GFP is all about considering fashion in the physical. How does social media, and particularly Instagram, fit into this?
Holly: How we roll out the stories of what we are doing is always part of the conversation, particularly to continue the life of a project. Commissioning new visuals is also part of what we do and we think carefully about where everything will live.
Posturing: Photographing the Body in Fashion is the first exhibition from GFP. What inspired the show, and can you talk me through the title?
Holly: The inspiration came from a movement in contemporary fashion photography that Shonagh noticed, where there was a new approach to pose and it was just the type of images I had been commissioning for the last few years. We wanted to celebrate this work and group of photographers as we hope in years to come we will look back at this work and it will exemplify this particular time and what the visual landscape looked like for fashion.
Shonagh: The title Posturing is tongue and cheek. Posturing means to behave in a way that is intended to impress to mislead, I really loved that people would perhaps misinterpret that it was related to posture. The whole exhibition has an element of humor, and when speaking to the photographers about their work this is a part of their approach. The idea initially came from a long period where I was researching fashion photography in relation to Sam McKnight, from late 1970s to current day, and Isabella Blow, late 1980s to mid 2000s. With contemporary fashion photography I noticed a very distinct change in the approach to pose, there was a move away from the sexualised body to a more witty, haphazard, playful positioning of the body. I wondered how this was affecting the way we viewed the garment.
Photograph by Blommers & Schumm, ‘Navy’ from The Gentlewoman, Autumn/Winter 2010
The exhibition focuses on the “role of the female body in contemporary fashion photography”. Why did you decide to focus on women’s bodies specifically?
Holly: We had to give ourselves some rules or we could have ended up with the world’s biggest fashion photography show – we didn’t have that kind of space to play with. We decided to focus on images made for womenswear fashion magazines. So no menswear, advertising or personal work.
Shonagh: It isn’t really about the female body so much as the way the body is positioned within the image. We focused on female editorials commissioned for the fashion magazine, as we had to make some curatorial restrictions. I think to draw attention to the pose within the image asks us to consider how this affects the way in which we view the clothing, which is the function of a fashion photograph after all.
And image wise, pictures cover 2010-2017. Why those years in-particular?
Holly: The Blommers & Schumm image for The Gentlewoman felt like a great place to start and seemed to mark a moment where this approach to the body became widely used.
Shonagh: The exhibition isn’t a chronology. When we began speaking about it Holly made a folder of around 150 contemporary images that she felt relevant to the theme. From there I went through and edited them down to around 50 that really interrogated the theme and we felt would stand up to being printed and framed. In that sense the linking factor is aesthetic. However, the earliest is, as Holly said, the Blommers & Schumm and if you look at the other editorials being commissioned at this time it does feel different.
The show features work from a great selection of contemporary photographers. How easy (or difficult) was it selecting who to include, and were there any you went into the project knowing you wanted to feature? Obviously you’ve mentioned Blommers & Schumm…
Holly: We had a very definite list from the very beginning. This was about photographers who have a dedicated and specific approach to the body. I am such a fan of all these artists work that the selection came very easily.
Shonagh: I absolutely wouldn’t have been able to do the exhibition without Holly’s. It has been such a great creative partnership with Holly’s knowledge of this group of photographers, we were able to build a group of images that is representative of a really exciting approach.
And was there anyone you wanted to include but were unable to?
Holly: There were a couple of photographers who are fine artists too, and also have gallery representation. For them exhibiting their fashion images was not their intention. They had made these images specifically for the printed page and so that’s where they wanted them to stay. We totally respect this decision but had such interesting conversations with them.
Shonagh: We spoke to photographers who feature in the show to ensure that we were representing their work in the right way. There were some photographers that I thought initially we would include however when we dug deeper into their process, it became apparent that they weren’t thinking about pose in the way that we had expected.
What was the biggest surprise you found, putting the show together?
Holly: It’s not that it was a surprise but I was so touched by the generosity of the photographers, they took so much time to speak to us about their process and select work with us. It has been an incredible experience; we have learnt so much about their practice and the motivation behind these amazing images.
Is there anyone in particular you hope sees the show?
Holly: We are doing lots of tours with universities and I am really excited to hear their thoughts and start discussions around the work. I would also love for curators from institutions to see the show and get their reactions.
Shonagh: I am really looking forward to hopefully a large cross section of people seeing the show. We have been installing in space and everyone who walks past looks in, it being opposite the V&A, I really hope that people stumble upon it.
And what do you hope people take away from Posturing?
Holly: I really hope it will make people smile as much as it has for us.
Shonagh: I hope that it opens up conversations around contemporary fashion photography, that apply to the industry in a wider sense.
Next up is a film and then a book. What’s the biggest difference between the three, from a curator’s point of view? And do you have a preference, in terms of how you personally consume fashion photography?
Holly: What I love most about doing the film next and then the book, is it means the project really will live on beyond the 10 day run of the exhibition.
Shonagh: The overall project, with its three incarnations, is all about looking at the way different mediums alter the way in which we read the body in fashion. Photographing it, filming it and writing about it. It is such a joy to be able to do all three as it means that the subject can have further scrutiny.
Posturing: Photographing the Body in Fashion is open at 10 Thurloe Place, until 12th November.