Patrick Demarchelier: Fashion Photography is the second, or other book in the two volume series of American Photographer’s Master Series of workshop-type books from 1989, the other being William Albert Allard: The Photographic Essay. Like its litter mate, Fashion Photography reads like very long
puff profile piece from a mass market hobby magazine.
Patrick Demarchelier is something of a fixture in late-20th and early-21st century fashion photography circles, with hundreds and hundreds of Vogue, Marie Claire, Glamour, Life, Bazaar, Elle, etc. covers to his credit, and both the Best Dressed over 50 mention (2013)* and the sexual misconduct allegations one would expect from a French expat and fashion photographer of a certain age. But Fashion Photography appeared long before #metoo (and #blacklivesmatter, for that matter), and though younger Demarchelier was very well dressed in the 1980s, he wasn’t yet over 50. He was, though, always and already a rakish French expat, so do with that what you will.
I will admit, right up front here, that both Blow Up and Austin Powers have sortof ruined the idea of the fashion photographer for me, and given Demarchelier’s French background (and accent), I have no trouble imagining either the misconduct allegations or the best-dressed nod, to be very flippant about it.
So Demarchelier, while largely unknown to those in the real outside world, was a shining star in the Fashion world of the late 1980s, with a New York studio and a huge number of covers and features and advertisements to his credit, and he knew his stuff. So it’s strange that the vast majority of the book was written by Kathryn E. Livingston, with very few quotes from Demarchelier himself. By contrast, the essays in the Allard book were filled with quotes from the photographer, to such an extent that he could be listed as a co-author. Not so with this one.
Livingston writes mostly about Demarchelier himself, his biography, his mannerisms, his gear, his work with magazines and companies, and very little about his actual process. Sure, there’s some process discussion of cameras and lighting in the gear talk bits, and many mentions of how much film he went through (the phrase “spray and pray” comes to mind), but the actual working process of a fashion photographer gets virtually no mention.
Well, that’s not quite true. There’s a great deal of discussion about working with brands and magazines, and some about finding work, a sort of glimpse into the actual business of fashion photography. It’s not enough to actually get anyone into business as a fashion photographer, even in the late 1980s, but it does give enough of a glimpse to maybe put you off wanting to be a fashion photographer, or maybe make you think you just might be able to do it.
In brief, it’s a hobby magazine view of a professional near the height of his career.
Beyond that, I was struck by a couple of things. First, as mentioned briefly above, is just how much film Demarchelier went through back in the day: “‘I’m not concerned about every roll and picture I take—I use a lot of film, because I am concerned about finding the right moment.’ Demarchelier shoots like a filmmaker, using three to twenty rolls for one photograph, depending on the assignment and the effect he wants.”** Decisive moment, smecisive shmoment.
Three to twenty rolls… that’s 48-320 645 frames or 108-720 35mm frames or 36-240 6×7 shots, to make one finished picture. Makes my 4 frames of a squirrel doing some trapeze work on Mom’s bird feeder look paltry, and my first experience with a camera—Mom & Dad handed me a camera and told me to go outside and shoot whatever… I took 27 photographs of my bicycle, mostly from the same angle—look much more reasonable, skimpy even, than anyone has ever suggested to me before.
Also of some small interest: Demarchelier shot dozens or hundreds of rolls of 35mm Polachrome and Polapan, the short-lived direct-to-positive stuff from Polaroid. There are even a couple of Polapan shots of Cindy Crawford on a beach in the late 1980s… Between a brief mention of that and several of Kodachrome 64, well, it was a trip down before-my-time lane. Good times, I guess.
Another striking thing, probably the main one for me, had less to do with Demarchelier and his process or photographs than the actual writing of the book. Livingston’s language is right out of 1989, and I’m struck by just how sexist and racist the language was back then. Sure, I was a kid then and didn’t read magazines like this so how would I know anyway, and also, sure, we as a society paid much less attention to such things back then. But still. A couple of examples are in order.
“Models themselves are tricky subjects. Above all, they are beautiful. Beyond that, they are human…” (Livingston, Kathryn E. Patrick Demarchelier: Fashion Photography. Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1989. p. 32). They’re beautiful before they’re human? Like the humanity of the model is secondary to her beauty? (And the models were all female in 1989, or at least in this book… male models are friends of the photographer or people he drug in off the street, mere props or window dressing behind the models.) That this was written at all is a bit grating, here thirty + years later, but that it was written by a woman is near-unexcusable, except that, well, it was 1989 and this was written under the auspices of American Photographer magazine.
If that wasn’t (retrospecively) bad enough, model Gail O’Neil is stealthy, while model Grace Coddington is lithe. Granted, this is heavily (and perhaps questionably) coded racism, but it still seems rather racist… in 2020, anyway. In 1989, I expect very few readers thought one thing about any of that. But here in 2020, very many people would gasp at the racist and sexist language used throughout.
Oh well. Even without that, the writing is a bit magaziney. It contradicts itself or, rather, is internally inconsistent in the way that only long form magazine articles for the hobbyist press could be. And the photography, while solid and practiced and very professional, is very 1980s, if only in the hair and color and all. It’s a book very much of its time and of its, ummm, class, for lack of a better word, not that I’m anti-hobbyist… I’m a hobbyist photographer on my best days. Still, the hobbyist press is, largely, garbage imo.
If you’re looking for a workshop-type book for fashion or portraiture or whatever in 2020, look no further than Aperture’s excellent Photography Workshop series, particularly Larry Fink on Composition and Improvisation or the more recent Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities, and give Fashion Photography a miss. Sure, the Aperture books are softcover, smaller, and maybe $5 more expensive, but they’re much more accessible to 20-teens and twenties attitudes, and that may have somewhat more staying power and longer term value than this shorter series from American Photographer.
If you come across Fashion Photography or William Albert Allard: The Photographic Essay in a used bookstore for $10 or less, maybe grab them, give them a read, and then sell them via Amazon or ebay for $15 or $20 and undercut all sellers while also doubling your money (assuming some idiot like me buys them from you). Also, if you’re a fan of the 80s, there are pictures of many of the top models of that decade—aforementioned Grace Coddington and Gail O’Neill, plus Paulina Porizkova, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christie Turlington, and many others—and period portraits of some big movie stars of the 80s as well, then Fashion Photography is worth a tenner, maybe.
Otherwise, give it a pass, I think. There’s not much there, really.
*Note to self: “One of my style mantras is: shoes and hair. These two are all you need for impact. Demarchelier knows this. He often rocks a box-fresh white trainer in the front row, and amazing, international-level hair (great for raking one’s hand through to assert artistic dominance on a shoot)” The Guardian, “Best Dressed over 50” 2013, retrieved 9/14/2020 from https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/gallery/2013/mar/29/50-best-dressed-over-50s
**Demarchelier, Patrick, quoted in Livingston, Kathryn E. Patrick Demarchelier: Fashion Photography. Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1989. p. 40