Fashion image as a socially engaged practice

Rio Labour Club

As someone who has closely studied fashion photography since I first encountered it as a teenager in the late 1990s, I have witnessed a great change in the reception and understanding of this practice.

Pioneering exhibitions, including Imperfect Beauty curated by Charlotte Cotton at the V&A in 2000 and Chic Clicks curated by Ulrich Lehmann and Jessica Morgan at Fotomuseum Winterthur in 2002, have challenged outdated views about the significance of work that would traditionally be dismissed as simplistic and frivolous. Today, the tired debate about where fashion photography sits in the hierarchy of contemporary image-making is irrelevant. The ability of the fashion image to respond quickly to concerns of the present has made the fashion image a relevant form of visual communication for a new generation of image-makers.

Weimin, 2019, Heather Glazzard

Weimin, 2019, Heather Glazzard

For emerging photographers Heather Glazzard, Alannah Cooper and collaborative duo Clémentine Scheidermann and Charlotte James, the fashion image presents a ripe opportunity to explore socially engaged practices. While they each deal with different social concerns, their work shares a commonality in that it holds a strong sense of responsibility to both the subject matter and audience.

Heather Glazzard is primarily concerned with the representation of the LGBTQ+ community. Having developed most of their understanding and practice in the north of England where they grew up, it was whilst studying in Salford that they could reflect on what they had missed when coming to terms with their own gender and sexual identity in their teens. Queer Letters seeks to fill this void. By displaying individual portraits alongside personal texts written by the sitter, Heather presents candid reflections from the LGBTQ+ community with the intention to offer solidarity and support. ‘I was thinking of a younger self and how much I would love to see some “cool” representation.’

Lua, 2019, Heather Glazzard

Lua, 2019, Heather Glazzard

Queer Letters depends upon trust, an intimate connection between photographer and sitter. The recent demand for diversity in fashion imagery should, of course, be welcomed when addressed effectively – both in front of and behind the lens. But all too often it is used as a token gesture to enhance corporate image. This exploitative move is a key motivator for Heather’s practice, and is, in turn, why Queer Letters is so powerful, as it directly contests the exploitative treatment faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community when negotiating representation and visibility.

Wan o' th' Valkyries, 2018, Alannah Cooper

Eleanor in Eerie Orums, 2018, Alannah Cooper

Alannah Cooper’s work is also firmly rooted in her own heritage, responding to her upbringing in Orkney, a remote archipelago situated off the north coast of Scotland. In her self-published photobooks Teran and Hildaland, Alannah deals with the representation and experience of the rural. Both books employ a compilation style edit that combine a number of smaller projects, each being used as an opportunity to engage with and represent rural life in different ways. ‘The commonly seen image of the rural is archaic, yet through fashion imagery I believe it is possible to show how traditions and heritage can be contemporary and are ever evolving, rather than static and fixed somewhere in history.’

Alannah sees her role as both facilitator and photographer, regularly fluctuating between the two. For her project Memory Land, Alannah developed a workshop in collaboration with a cancer support charity shop based in Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall. Local participants were set a series of challenges that enabled them to fulfil – in an inclusive way – the common roles found in the collaborative construction of a fashion image; stylist, art director and model. ‘I wanted everyone to enjoy fashion in an active way, rather than feeling like they are observers or outsiders.’

It’s Called Fashion, (Look it up), 2016, Clémentine Schneidermann and Charlotte James

This participatory approach is also shared in the practice of Clémentine Schniedermann and Charlotte James. Photographer and creative director respectively, the duo have been developing It’s Called Ffassiwn with groups of local children in a post-industrial region of South Wales where Charlotte was born. Through a series of workshops focusing on photography, styling, moving image, casting and set design, the young participants are given the opportunity to learn about the how images are constructed and to play an active role in the process of representing themselves and where they live. Charlotte recalls her own experience of growing up in The Valleys as one with mixed prospects. ‘There wasn’t anything in terms of art, but always a strong sense of community. Clémentine and I enjoy playing with the idea of what can happen in these spaces.’

All informed by personal heritage and experience, these projects harness the power of multiple perspectives and enable others to inform and shape the project’s outcome – a critical measure to take when representing identity and place. Their work responds to the longstanding critiques of fashion photography by offering a conscious rejection of the shallow artifice and hyper-masculine egos that often prevail in fashion. In doing so, they embrace the advantages that fashion image brings: a practice ripe for collaboration and a tender visual language to which many can relate. As Heather put it to me so succinctly, ‘I feel people are more inclined to listen when it’s fashion. Fashion is a powerful platform.’

It’s Called Ffasiwn by Clémentine Schneidermann and Charlotte James is exhibited at Martin Parr Foundation from 27 March – 25 May 2019.

Blake, 2019, Heather Glazzard

Adam Murray is a freelance curator and lecturer based in Manchester. He is Pathway Leader for MA Fashion Image at Central Saint Martins and Senior Lecturer on Fashion Art Direction at Manchester School of Art. As co-founder of photography collective Preston is my Paris, he produced Preston Bus Station in collaboration with Jamie Hawkesworth. Murray has collaborated with SHOWstudio and lectured at the V&A, Tate Britain, The Photographers' Gallery and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Most recently he co-curated North: Fashioning Identities with Lou Stoppard at Somerset House.

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