Exhibition Review: Lives and Still Lives at Howard Greenberg Gallery
Leslie Gill, Frances Mclaughlin-Gill, and Their Circle
The Fuller Building 41 East 57th Street Suite 1406 New York, NY 10022
by Madeleine Leddy
The line between contemporary fashion and editorial photography is blurry. It has not, however, always been this way: just take a look back at the glossies of midcentury Britain, America, and France — the majority of “fashion” photography in these publications resembled more closely what we would refer to, today, as commercial art than editorial.
There were a few artists—many with experience in unstaged and street photography, even photojournalism—who pioneered the art of editorial photography before it became an integral part of the fashion world. Edward Steichen, when he took a job at Condé Nast as a staff photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, is rumored to have said to Edna Woolman-Chase, editor-in-chief of Vogue at the time, “Faites de Vogue l’équivalent du Louvre” (“Make Vogue the equivalent of the Louvre”).
Steichen, an amateur photographer with a background in portrait-painting who later turned to photography as a profession, was one of the earlier innovators in bringing fashion photography closer to fine art, and away from advertising. His and the following generation of artists- and amateurs-turned-fashion-photographers — among them Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn (who famously photographed Steichen himself in 1959), Erwin Blumenfeld, and a notoriously interdisciplinary American couple, Leslie Gill and Frances McLaughlin-Gill. The latter two are the focus of the current exhibit at Howard Greenberg Gallery (and it’s the first time that their work has been shown alongside one another’s), which also includes work from Penn, Blumenfeld, and other contemporaries who took the reins of Steichen’s and Beaton’s transformation—and, ultimately, creation—of a genre.
Howard Greenberg’s expo provides a fairly comprehensive retrospective of McLaughlin-Gill and Gill’s respective evolutions as experimenters in inter- and post-war America. A critique of faux glamour underlies both artists’ work: for Gill, who had trained at RISD as a painter and learned the ropes of the classical school, this critique was directed at the staunch world of traditional parlor art; for McLaughlin-Gill, it was at the emerging discipline of fashion photography. These were the respective genres within which each had felt constrained for most of their early careers, and the Greenberg Gallery’s situation of each of their work alongside the other’s shows how they may have inspired each other to push the boundaries of these restrictive genres—to expose (and even to mock, but always with class), each in their own field, the reigning fausseté of high art and haute couture.
This mutual inspiration is especially visible between Gill’s well-loved contemporary still lives and portraits, and several of McLaughlin-Gill’s Vogue photo series from the 1940s. Gill was, in fact, one of the first photographers to experiment with color film; he was also a pioneer in the use of photography as a medium for still life art.
But just as photography represented a technological departure from painting, its predecessor in naturalistic representation, Gill clearly had plans to overturn what should be accepted as a still life in terms of subject matter. Case in point: his “Garden of Sculptor, Elie Nadelman” (1948) reveals the falsity of a studio background and re-situates the vaguely traditional contents of the arrangement—some marble busts and ironwork sculptures, artfully perched on stands and display blocks—in an environment that clearly is not a studio. It is presumably, as the title suggests, the garden of the man who created the objects in the arrangement; and yet the fact that the garden is drab and brown, filled with dead leaves—seemingly shot in winter—also alludes to the French term for still life (a term intrinsically associated with stuffier European schools of parlor or salon painting), nature morte, which literally translates to “dead nature.” Gill’s composition is a meta-portrayal of the nature morte subject matter—the figurative definition of the term—within an actual scene of nature morte, in the literal definition. It goes against the pedestrian preconception of a still life as something pleasant and harmless—indeed, far enough from death to contain “life” in its genre name—to put its contents in an ominous setting, as Gill has intentionally done.
Curator Elisabeth Biondi cleverly hung Gill’s sculpture-garden still life on the same wall as some of McLaughlin-Gill’s most intriguing Vogue editorial pieces, which also serve as a silent revolt against the ideal of studio photography by moving the studio to the outdoors. McLaughlin-Gill’s models are still posed, but they are also self-conscious. The women, like the photographer herself, are aware of the juxtaposition between their real environment and their photographic environment.
A particular Vogue print (from an unspecified date in the 1940s) of McLaughlin-Gill’s, where a model in a red skirt, standing in front of a cheap-looking canvas backdrop, suit looks skeptically, almost incredulously, at something off-camera in the “real” environment; softened by dappled, early-morning outdoor light, she is lightly smirking at the notion of posing in front of a canvas background. And indeed, McLaughlin-Gill’s clever exposure of the “real” background—a green forest—also lends itself to a commentary on the evocative quality of natural outdoor light, a tenderness and mystique that artificial studio light may never be able to counter. Like McLaughlin-Gill’s many other exposed-backdrop editorial shots, this one breaks with the “stilted formality” of the day’s dominant style of fashion photography.
That the arrangement of the exhibition makes these kinds of comparisons between each half of the couple’s work possible is perhaps its greatest forte. As several of Gill and McLaughlin-Gill’s other photographer and artist friends’ works are also on display, the show functions as a library—a micro-database for examining how these people who lived and worked in the same New York interacted with and influenced each other.
Given the historical context—they were working at first amid the uncertainty of the Great Depression, then during Cold War decades of American identity crisis and hyperconsumerism— it makes sense that they would both have been interested in redefining what is beautiful, in both fashion and art photography. They both worked to unstage staging, to rediscover the natural beneath the artificial; even when compared with some strikingly similar works on display by their contemporaries, Gill and McLaughlin-Gill’s genre-bending shines through certain images, and makes for an interesting setting to think about what photography is in relation to fashion and fine art.