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A look at SCoP’s ambitious Beyond Fashion exhibition

The fashion photography exhibit is much more than just pretty faces and gorgeous clothes

Photograph: Yemchuk Yelena_Tokyo
In 1970, Richard Avedon agreed to let the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts curate a retrospective under the condition that it took out his fashion shoots. 'Fashion is the F-word in the art world,' explained the photographer, who was best known for his fashion portraits. Fashion photography has never been taken seriously even though fashion shoots saturate many aspects of our lives.

Xue Kiki_Peking Opera
Photograph: YXue Kiki_Peking Opera

Commercially oriented, mass-produced and originally targeted for women are just a few reasons why fashion photographs haven’t been the collectable items favoured by museums. One exhibition that arguably changed the view of fashion photography took place at Getty Centre in Los Angeles in 2018. Curated by Paul Martineau, Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography presented an array of photographers who, apart from fulfilling the commercial purpose of their photographs, insisted on bringing creativity and personal style to them. People got to see Richard Avedon’s smiley models of the ‘60s, sexually-suggestive images from Helmut Newton in the ‘70s, Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts’s male sexuality in the ‘80s, and Inez and Vinoodh and Mert and Marcus’s boundary-pushing aesthetics.

Madigan Heck-Erik_Erdem
Photograph: Madigan Heck-Erik_Erdem Sannwald

Equally ambitious, the Shanghai Centre of Photography wants to engage fashion photography in the discussion of art – art with unique visual language rather than images created for 'hard sell'. Originally one of a series of exhibitions produced for the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography curated by Nathalie Herschdorfer, Beyond Fashion showcases nearly a hundred works from the world of fashion photographers, from the industry’s big names (Nick Knight, Peter Lindbergh and Mario Testino) to figures of the new generation.

Knight Nick_Past, Present  Couture, Dior
Photograph: Knight Nick_Past, Present & Couture, Dior

The purpose is to expose the audience to the world of fashion photography and possibly lay out a framework for future discussion. But for viewers, what a pleasant experience to see these images in a museum setting rather than the usual media – magazine pages or smartphone screens – where you flip and forget.