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Is the Road From Art to Fashion a One Way Street?

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A friend of mine likes to joke that he used to be in fashion, "but then I made bail." That sentiment probably rings true for many fashion photographers when they step into the gallery system. Maybe it's a punitive thing, where critics secretly believe that if you're making seven figures a year shooting ad campaigns and Vogue covers then you don't deserve accolades in the art press.

Or maybe we just have contempt for our contemporaries because only in hindsight can we see their creative triumphs.

One thing in photography is for certain, though: it's way easier to start from art into fashion than fashion to art. Look at Ryan McGinley, who was the youngest photographer ever to have a solo show at The Whitney Museum, a benchmark which allowed him then to shoot advertising for Levi's, Club Monaco, Nina Ricci and Pringle confident he could traverse both worlds.

Legends like the late Helmut Newton, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon all regularly contributed to glossy magazines and are seen as real artists despite their extensive commercial work. So why is it harder for someone like Juergen Teller to be taken as seriously by museum curators compared to those less famous in the same field?

Two problems arise here. Firstly, when people attempt to show their commercial work in a gallery setting, the art world tends to reject those images like a wine that hasn't been allowed to age properly. It feels lazy. The pictures are too fresh and often too familiar to surprise or delight. They read as magazine tear sheets.

Secondly, the sheer ubiquity of camera phones now means that there are billions of photographers running around so it's a steeper climb to capture something we can all agree is "special," especially when you are known professionally for employing a snapshot aesthetic. Andy Warhol believed art is whatever you can get away with and it must be a mystifying gamble for fashion photographers to know how far those limits should be pushed.

Thirty years ago, people were debating whether color photographs could contend with black & white pictures, which today sounds like lunacy. The point is that the model is always changing: one person's rules are another's to be broken. Maybe Juergen Teller is ahead of his time, challenging a narrow-minded system to reevaluate its conventional wisdom.

Of course, fashion related shows can be slam dunks for institutions. Look at the Alexander McQueen exhibition at The Met! At their core, the photographer's job is to say look at this, and whether that image hangs on a white wall or is printed as editorial, we should never let the medium itself impact the message... no matter what the gatekeepers might say.

Bill Powers is co-founder of and owns half gallery in New York. This fall he returns as a judge on Bravo's Work of Art.

Around the Web

Lehmann Maupin Gallery - Juergen Teller

Juergen Teller on artnet