Book Review: ISSUES
By Anita Sheih
In his latest volume, Vince Aletti investigates the rich history of photography through the lens of fashion magazines. Through 100 painstakingly selected issues from his personal expansive collection, Aletti takes us on a journey from 1925 to 2018—a journey of famous figures, poignant poses, and illustrious images. Utilizing carefully curated images in combination with his gripping, astute prose, this book seeks to illuminate all there is to be discovered and investigated from a close reading of fashion magazines, past and present; and it certainly succeeds.
After an enlightening introduction about his long-standing fascination with fashion magazines and motivation for creating this monumental book, Aletti explores three early issues of the then-titled Harper’s Bazar: May 1925, April 1928, and May 1929. The illustrated covers in varying shades of pale to vibrant blue open to reveal elegant portraits of women posing in the popular garments of the time. Aletti’s accompanying text grounds the book’s beginning in valuable context and captivating language, revealing Aletti’s knowledge of fashion history and skill in fashion writing.
450 pages, 93 years, and countless words of insightful information and criticism later, Aletti brings us to the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Document, which he praises as a “self-aware” and “intelligent” new magazine. In his accompanying analysis of the twelfth issue of the biannual New York-based magazine, Aletti demonstrates his unfaltering knowledge of fashion publishing, contemporary photography, and social climate today. He provides an overview of the issue’s content as well as his analysis of it: The first half is directed by a keen editorial perspective, but the second strays into twelve tangents, “not all of them worth following.” As in the rest of the book, Aletti’s discerning eye and strong voice guides us through stunning images and history. Following the text, a stunning array of black-and-white and colored photographs from the issue shows the power of photography to capture the concepts of contemporary fashion in endlessly surprising ways.
These issues of Harper’s Bazar and Document are the bookending pieces of Aletti’s historical exploration, and in between lies a wondrous world of breathtaking images and information. In the October 1934 issue of Harper’s Bazaar (the publication added the second a in November 1929, as Aletti informs the reader), a spread features two women posing in front of skyscrapers positioned at dramatic angles. The first woman is pictured from the waist up, holding a lit cigarette and glancing down at caption that reads, “IT SEEMS THAT THERE WILL BE INFLATION AND NO ONE KNOWS WHERE IT WILL STOP.” The second woman, appearing from shoulders up, gazes directly at the camera with a coy smile. This diptych reveals the way in which fashion photography is able to succinctly comment on larger societal issues through an interaction of visual symbolism and linguistic economy.
Midway through the volume, Aletti includes two spreads dedicated to the February/March 1972 issue of L’Uomo Vogue, which celebrates black culture and style through portraits of both icons and everymen alike. Aletti brings attention to not only how black male models were largely excluded from mainstream publications at the time but also how the issue presents portraits of celebrities like James Baldwin, Marvin Gaye, and Muhammad Ali (then-Cassius Clay) as well as other actors, artists, and musicians who may not have been household names.
Pushing the conventional boundaries of gender and identity about four decades later, the June 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused paints a subversive view of the gender binary through intimate, androgynous portraits of boys with makeup and girls without tops. In these images, photographer Collier Schorr finds a way to play with composition, color palettes, and contemporary stereotypes. Aletti also notes that Schorr blends the editorial and the personal together in her work, so for her and many other contemporary photographers, “it’s all personal, all part of the process.”
Vince Aletti’s ISSUES: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines is an illuminating collection of remarkable photographs and thoughtful commentary by an esteemed critic. Whether you’re interested in a deep dive into decades of fashion photography or a casual flip through chapters of magazine history, this book will provide a greater understanding of the power of fashion photography to both comment on and preserve a record of human history.