Sigurd Grünberger – Untitled (201X)
I’ve heard that you can recognize a photographer
by how they continually compose the edges of their frames,
that each quarter-second decision to exclude, to define a boundary,
to say what will not be in the photograph
is as explicit as a thumbprint.
It got me thinking about how classical and jazz musicians are not unlike fine art photographers insofar as they tend to look down on those who embrace other quote-unquote genres of image making.
To perhaps push the analogy to its point of rupture: fashion photography is not unlike pop music; it’s not intended to be expansive so much a tick certain boxes at certain times in an effort to sell as many units as possible. (That’s not to say pop can’t be ‘innovative’ and/or ‘ground-breaking’, merely to point out that when such words are used–it is the exception that proves the rule.)
Historically, there are those who have pursued both pursuits. Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton come to mind; both of whom, incidentally, I don’t exactly hold in high esteem. (I mean Newton was a sexist pig and if you’re at all interested in how not to render those you photograph as objects instead of people, there are worse things to do than treating the man’s body of work as a cautionary tale.)
And I shouldn’t completely write off either–in both cases, there is some good to be found by attacking their respective body of works’ with a fine-toothed comb. For example: in Leibovitz’s case, I recently encountered her photo of Karen Finley in Nyack, NY in 1992 and consider it to be effortlessly immediate in a way that the rest of her work just isn’t; whereas, if you’re ever in Berlin and can somehow swing getting into the Helmut Newton museum without paying (the price of admission is too steep considering how little is on offer), Newton’s sequestered personal work (left and all the way to the back upon entering the museum) is not exactly good but it exudes a sort of stubborn melancholy that feels both more honest and astute than the rest of his work.)
However, to return to the analogy at hand: I feel there is a way that fashion photography has historically sought to sublimate the photographer’s thumbprint in favor of foisting the idea of the brand in its place. Or, a better way to put it is that fashion photography has always seemed to me to be more preoccupied with a look, with representing fashion as reliably and replicably about adhereing to strict design parameters–something not unlike what web developers would call a style sheet.
These days with scads of internet famous photographers and image makers blurring the boundaries between the genres of fashion, editorial and lifestyle, it’s nice to see folks who feel most at home in fashion actually honing their distinctive thumbprints.
This certainly applies to someone like Grünberger. (I’d place Maxime Imbert in the same category.) You can spot his work from twenty yards out without having to read any kind of plaque or search for attribution. There are elements of high-end design, sensitivity to color, sharpness, resolution, painstaking lighting design/post-processing and a focus on minimal distractions from the subject.
I think it might be time for so-called fine art folks to maybe start spending more time with fashion folks. I mean if you haven’t seen the latest Amish inspired Vogue Italy editorial by Steven Meisel, it’s maybe overly clever and precious but it’s also one of the best examples I’ve encountered of how to include both B&W and color within a single, closely circumscribed body of work.