We’re F*cking Up This Industry, But You Don’t Know It

The butterfly effect is a fascinating phenomenon. It’s always easier to view a chain reaction and its repercussions in retrospect than it is to predict the circumstances of tomorrow, but that doesn’t take away the importance of actively reviewing the chain of events that lead us to where we are today. In order to save fashion photography I think it’s absolutely vital we stop in our tracks and take a good look at what is going on right now, and what has lead us to where we are now. Let me explain why.

Fashion photography is in serious trouble. In fact, the industry or art form as a whole is next to unrecognizable compared to what it was just fifteen years ago. It’s time we realize this, and even more so, stand up and take some bloody responsibility. Still don’t know what I’m talking about?

The Beginning (of the end?)

For good measure, let’s start fifteen years ago. The year 2000. DeviantArt launches as part of Dmusic Network[1]. Their slogan was “Where art meets application!” and they quickly became “the world’s largest online art gallery and community.”

In my opinion this solution is the first platform of its kind worth mentioning as it was the first to attract a considerable volume of artist audience and user base.

As a service DeviantArt provided creators from all around the world a platform to share art, get critiqued, and connect with other artists and/or enthusiasts. Even clients. From anywhere in the world. All you needed was an Internet connection.

As a user of DeviantArt you could add another user’s artwork to your favorites, comment on their art, and eventually “watch” them (/follow them).

A new incentive for artists was born.

The struggle for recognition has been around since the beginning of time, and is still in its primal ways apparent in the animal kingdom as lions fight to be alpha male, or when birds dance flamboyantly in order to attract mates. Obviously, for animals this is existential and instinctive behavior. However, the importance of recognition can be just as existential for an artist. Whether they would admit that or not is another question.

July 2003, Myspace launches. Yet another platform for artists to gain a following and recognition for their creations. Adopted by musicians around the world, but also photographers and other artists alike.

Along followed Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Behance, Tumblr, Vimeo, Instagram, Pinterest and so on. The concepts were in broad strokes the same, although they were all marketed and operating in slight different ways to attract different target audiences and markets.

In fifteen years these online platforms have turned the industry on its head, and we’re now experiencing a reality where most artists in fashion photography are so accustomed to this chase for recognition online that it’s become native. A great deal of the photographers coming onto the scene today are seasoned social media marketers.

Back to the future

There’s no doubt this digital evolution has brought with it some amazing benefits. You can now reach a world-wide audience by the press of a button, making it significantly easier to market your art and connect with fellow artists and clients. We all know the positives. But it seems that’s all we know.

The New York Times published an article by Melanie Abrams last September claiming “Fashion Photography Is the Art World’s Rising Star,” in which Peter Lindbergh was quoted “Fashion photographers are the new painters.”

Abrams continues “Today, fashion photography is art’s rising star, drawing large crowds to exhibitions (which produce much-needed revenue from sponsorships, rentals and even merchandise) and enticing more collectors. Even the fashion industry itself is showing more respect for the form.”

The article goes on to mention and quote amazing artists and personalities in the industry, all hailing the rise of fashion photography following the advent of new media.

Again, focusing on all the positives. However, one quote goes a long way to reveal a truth that’s heavily disguised in all of this. Inez Van Lamsweerde (of Inez and Vinoodh) says “We translate the designers’ idea into an image that people buy, [..] Nowadays this is valued more because of the Internet and the need for attention-grabbing content on the web in our image-saturated culture.”

There you have it. Let me put it in bold for you: the need for attention-grabbing content on the web in our image-saturated culture.

On a smaller scale, young and arising artists are operating in this very same image-saturated culture where gaining recognition is getting increasingly harder. The result is that this new wave of artists is adapting to the current climate and the art form changes as the majority opts for “attention-grabbing content” chasing likes, reblogs, traffic and followers.

Fashion photography has nearly become household, but newcomers to the art now seem to have a skewed view of what fashion photography is and represents because of the aforementioned.

This, in order, blurs the lines between soft pornography and fashion photography in immeasurable ways. Young artists coming into the industry today often don’t see the distinction only because of how the art is presented in new and social media.

Nudity and sex has been a part of fashion photography since long before the Internet, but it was never the main ingredient. And I ask, what happens when the photographers that were there before the internet retire? Who’s going to take the responsibility to keep this art form intact? Who will be the role models?

In order to inject some perspective I will put the spotlight on myself. In 2009 I started a fashion photography blog showcasing arising talent worldwide. It quickly grew to become a well-known platform for young photographers at the time, so big in fact, that I quit my day job as an Art Director and relaunched it as a full-blown online magazine in 2011. More blogs and magazines emerged, providing photographers more options to getting published on sites with decent traffic. This meant more competition between the sites for traffic and editorial submissions, but obviously also the photographers as the best photographers would choose the best platforms to be published. A large audience was a must in order to attract good artists.

Now this puts the independent publications and blogs in the same existential predicament as many young artists: in order to survive, you must gain a decent following.

However, what the editors and founders (myself included) seem to have failed to realize, is the immense responsibility for the art we have. If a publication decides to continuously publish provocative material under the umbrella of fashion photography, then this is how the art form will be defined by a great deal of young artists growing up within this era.

Yes, young artists look towards Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar for inspiration, but in order to get their work published they must start somewhere. And if lower level magazines and blogs value “attention-grabbing” material over good art[2], the aspiring artists will adapt to this and deliver said material in order to get published and gain attention.

Full circle. The dominant focus of the art world’s rising star has now become to create art that grabs attention rather than the inherent message of the art itself.

I am in it as much as you, and I have as much responsibility and blame as the other guy (probably even more). But in order to address this we need to admit we have a problem. So let me tell you: We have a problem.

We’re fucking up this industry, and now you know it.

[1] It’s worth mentioning there were other smaller communities online at the time, but not of DeviantArt’s scale.

[2] We might not agree on what the definition of good art is, but bare with me for the sake of argument, will ya?

Header and lead in photo by the late Helmut Newton, a photographer known for his provocative art.

Marius Troy