When viewing a fashion spread, you can approach the image from a variety of angles: advertising, or as art, or as part of a complicated cultural standard. How you see it depends on where you sit. (NSFW after the jump.)
The image above is by Greg Kadel featuring models R'el Dade and Mélodie Dagault. Featured along with three other provocative photos on Models.com, the image instantly sparked an online reaction - and not just because Dade was initially misidentified as Jourdan Dunn.
Much of the debate focused around two assertions that are assumed to be mutually exclusive: (1) that the images were gorgeous and (2) that the posing and framing of the black model (with bare breasts in all shots), with the slave like position was racist.
Contrary to popular belief, these two ideas can exist at the same time.
For the purposes of this discussion, let's add a bit more context, both in terms of race and gender.
Approaching the image uninformed, one may simply see a striking image involving two beautiful women. And this is true, that is the image.
However, if one looks at some more of Kadel's work, we start to realize that this image, which on its own appears innovating, is actually a the next in a long line of work that focuses on two or more semi-nude girls. This shoot, called "Come As You Are," was done by Kadel last month, for Vogue Australia.
Jenna, our own formerly anonymous model, pointed me toward more of Kadel's work, explaining:
I personally find Kadel to be particularly derivative. His work is often extremely sexual, and full of nudity - which isn't in itself a problem, in fact it's common in fashion spreads - but Kadel always has his models get nude so he can depict them in a male-gaze kind of way. His work lacks that element of subversion, that subtext. And he often does girl-on-girl themed shoots. Not like Steven Klein or some other photographers, who return again and again to shooting several models at once because they're investigating themes of twinning or repetition - Kadel's schtick is much simpler. He'll just shoot two or three models together, under the pretense that they're hanging out, and getting naked. Which is such a cliché of women's sexuality in general.
Just last month he had a long story in Vogue Australia with Catherine McNeil and Abbey Lee, embodying that particular male fantasy. And it was such a rote Kadel editorial that the only reason it even caught my eye was because Vogue Australia Photoshopped out Abbey Lee's nipple piercings.
Other editorials by Kadel seem to follow the same lines of nudity, near nudity, and sexyface. So, adding a little additional context can change how we feel about what we see, and what an editorial represents.
Let's head back into why the images were perceived as racist.
First, it is important to understand that discussions of art are not immune from conversations about racial bias. Art is not created in a vacuum, and as artists are often inspired and motivated by current events and popular societal perceptions (even if they are playing a part in breaking with convention) it is an area ripe for discussion. As Mimi wrote, in response to a commenter who assumed she was ignorant of art history because she brought up the racist and classist implications in a Nylon photo shoot:
[T]he author of the comment called us stupid, too preoccupied with Gucci (as if) to know anything about art (which fashion, the author asserted firmly, was not). Furthermore, she scolded, we should "educate" ourselves so we might better recognize the "brilliance" of the NYLON editorial as an art historical reference to such canonical images like Edouard Manet's Olympia (1863) (Fig. 1) and not a comment on racial thinking or class inequities at all. [...]
[Y]es, the editorial certainly does reference a canonical theme in European art history, and no, this hardly excuses the editorial. If anything, it makes the editorial that much more a poignant example of the long duration of racisms and their entanglements with other vectors of power, including gender, sexuality, empire and labor. That is, what this comparison makes too obvious is that colonial and imperial histories of conquest and aesthetics continue to exert themselves in the present.
Precisely. Art can exert its influence on society, but society also exerts its influence on the artist. Thus, when we are discussing perceptions of fashion photographs, it is important to understand that an artist brings their viewpoint into their work. So if the artist is a misogynist, we receive rehash after rehash of dead or disembodied women. If the artist likes to objectify the female form, that enters into the work as well. And if the artist is influenced by racism - which includes everything from fetishization to omission - that is also reflected in the work.
As Jenna wrote last week, in her post about Caged Black Women, artist Jean-Paul Goude saw black women through a very specific lens, and that is how they manifested in his pictures: