Dissertation Discussion: Sophie

Photographs of Parkinson’s Wife, Wanda Rogerson in Robin Muir, ‘Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion’ (London, National Portrait Gallery 2004)

What is your title?

The title of my dissertation will probably still change. However at the moment I am going with How very British: National Identity in Norman Parkinson’s fashion photography for Vogue, 1950-1952. Parkinson produced some stunning images for different spreads, many of which lend themselves really well to a study of British national identity. Delving a little deeper into these specific images, Parkinson’s biography and the history of 1950s Britain has been great fun.

What prompted you to choose this subject?

The topic stemmed from a mixture of previous interests and pure chance. I had no pre-conceived idea of what I wanted to look at for this dissertation. However, I always studied World War II and the Cold War when I had the chance as an undergraduate, so I knew I wanted to stick within that time frame. Couple this with my love of 1950s fashion and elegance, and the random selection of a beautiful book on Norman Parkinson whilst browsing the stacks at the Courtauld and – ta dah! – the dissertation title was born. I had also wanted to be practical about my choice and choose a topic that would enable me to make the most of London based archives. Norman Parkinson has his own in south London (big shout out to the lovely and wonderful people that work there!), so it all came together beautifully.

Norman Parkinson Archive

Most interesting research find thus far?

I believe I read in Parkinson’s book that Irving Penn babysat Parkinson’s son. As you do. No big deal. On a more serious note, I am still continually blown away by how clever his images are. They seem so simple at first glance, and then, the more you look, the more you realise just how good he was in expressing a certain image, feel or identity to a wide range of readers. This was especially interesting with regards to the way in which his photographs for a 1951 South Africa spread differed, or were used in a different way, from the May edition in British Vogue to the July edition in American Vogue. On a side note I have become obsessed with an image that I’m not even using in my essay. It is just too stunning. Everyone- google “Carmen’s Armpit” and you will understand! Or not, in which case it is just my inner dress history nerd coming to the fore…

Favourite place to work?

I would love to say that it is The National Arts Library in the V&A. It surely wins the award for most aesthetically pleasing place to study- but I tend to be freezing cold in there, so sadly it loses out. I rather fluctuate between the Courtauld Book Library and my home. This arrangement provides the perfect balance between the comfort of home (sneaking a couple of biscuits and copious amounts of tea) and the beautiful comradeship between all Courtauld students during dissertation time in the library. We all really share the stress and joys of the process and that is unbelievably valuable as you are working. *Insert cheesy violin music here!*

Courtauld Library

Looking North

Open Eye Gallery withVirgil Abloh and Ben Kelly’s installation

For the past few years, London’s galleries have been hosts to some incredible fashion exhibitions, luring visitors from every corner of the world to pore over their sartorial treasures. With the dawn of a new year, however, a new city is emerging as the latest fashion destination. From January 6 until March 19 2017, Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery is showcasing North: Identity, Photography, Fashion, an exhibition curated by SHOWstudio’s editor Lou Stoppard and Adam Murray, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. Prompted by the impact the North of England has had on fashion, music, design and art the world over, as well as the clichés associated with the area, the exhibition explores and challenges these dominant themes, asking the visitors to come to their own conclusions. The heritage of the North is unpicked through photography, historical films, interviews with its artists and designers, garments, fashion magazines and music, highlighting the impressively far-reaching influence of the region, one which is seldom acknowledged, ignored even, in the capital city oriented fashion world.

“Liverpool is tiny, but it has a lot of impact.” – Christopher Shannon, designer | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion

With Stoppard and Murray not being full-time curators, the organisation of the space is free of restrictions and preconceptions of seasoned professionals, allowing for a fresh take on the potential of exhibitions. The rooms have a relaxed vibe, a coolness about them, which one can already sense getting off the train at one of Liverpool’s stations and walking through its streets to reach the gallery. It feels very authentic, honest and respectful in its representation of England’s North, a much welcome relief from the sometimes derogatory mentions the area gets in the media. Walking through the exhibition, admiring the prints by fashion’s favourites Jamie Hawkesworth, Alasdair McLellan and David Sims while being slightly amused by Alice Hawkins’ genius portraits of Northern teen girls or perusing the editorials in i-D, Arena Homme+, Vogue and The Face, all inspired by the visuals of the region and displayed in custom-made Sheffield steel vitrines (not a single detail escaped the curators), one starts to question the lack of credit given to cultural centres outside of London. Even musical legends such as Morrissey, The Stone Roses, New Order and Oasis, who have conquered the world with their sounds, (and who rightfully have their own pride of place within the exhibition) grew up and formed within the North’s energetic environments. No one can dispute that the talent which hails from and is inevitably profoundly influenced by the North of England enjoys great stature worldwide, yet their origins are often forgotten. Fortunately, North brings the talent home again.

“There’s tons of beautiful girls in Liverpool that aren’t WAGs with caked on make up.” – Thom Murphy, stylist | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion

The magnitude and the wealth of visuals the North provides the world with becomes even more apparent upon entering the fashion gallery. Garments from the Belgian Raf Simons, German adidas and American/Milanese/Ghanaian Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh all clearly show signs of the North, emphasising its crucial and international role. On display are various versions of the adidas Samba and ZX trainers dedicated to Northern cities. Elsewhere, an Off-White knit pays tribute to the Gallagher brothers, while a Raf Simons Autumn/Winter 03 parka with a print of New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ album cover designed by Peter Saville hangs nearby. The parka can still be bought online, though it does fetch $20,000. Who said the North wasn’t fashionable? Add the giant steel columns created by Abloh and Ben Kelly, the designer of Manchester’s iconic Hacienda nightclub, interior of which was a starting point for this installation, which, complete with Abloh’s signature chevron, dominate the facade of Open Eye Gallery, and the North of England is firmly secured on fashion’s radar.

“The most Northern part of me is my sense of humour. That more than anything is the thing that has endured and what I use in my way of dealing with people. But I’m not a professional Northerner.” – Simon Foxton, stylist | Raf Simons parka from ‘Control’ Autumn/Winter 2003

“Some things I explore in my collections relate to my life in the North-East. There’s a sense of real life, because things aren’t so aspirational.” – Claire Barrow, designer | Mark Szaszy, Corrine Day – Diary (Extract) (2012)

There are many other gems scattered around the exhibition space. A small Panasonic TV from decades past screens an extract from Corrine Day’s diary, where the late photographer reminisces about her shoot for Dutch magazine in 2001 titled ‘A British Summer: Blackpool 2001’ featuring Kate Moss, George Clements and Rosemary Ferguson. A 1939 short film named ‘Spare Time’ documents the people of Sheffield, Manchester, Bolton and Pontypridd in the in-between times when they are not working in the towns’ famous industries. Watching the movie sat on a park bench, headphones on, you get sucked in, almost feeling as though you are in the film yourself, observing the goings on, being a part of the daily Northern life. Yet the biggest surprise is upstairs. The room is transformed into an old, seventies maisonette, complete with lace curtains, a floral print armchair, a bed with an embroidered throw, a giant wooden cross, shaggy carpet and old rotary dial telephones prompting the visitors to pick them up, revealing sound bites by Northern creatives such as Stephen Jones, Christopher Shannon, Claire Barrow and Gareth Pugh in which they look back at their upbringing and the importance of the North of England in their life and work. It is a charming corner to relax in, take a trip down memory lane, meet the locals and ponder on the importance the North of England has on the country’s image. Perhaps just this little refuge in a twenty-first century city is a reason enough to return for another visit. As Gary Aspden remarks in his interview upstairs, “all roads lead back to the North.” This exhibition is a testament to that. So do yourself a favour, brave the almost five hour long round trip from London and visit the Open Eye Gallery. Believe me, it is worth it!

“I still think that people from down South don’t understand people from up North. And it is this huge cultural, class and every-which-way divide.” – Stephen Jones, milliner | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion)

“I feel still very much connected to where I grew up… it’s a huge part of who I am. And I think in that it’s the Northern work ethic, that’s also something that is quite important.” – Gareth Pugh, designer | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion 

Sources:

‘North’ on SHOWstudio.com

Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern: Dress & No Dress

Amalia Ulman, from Excellences and Perfections, 2014; Yves Klein, ‘Leap into the Void’ (Saut dans le Vide), Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960.

Amalia Ulman, from Excellences and Perfections, 2014; Yves Klein, ‘Leap into the Void’ (Saut dans le Vide), Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960.

Clad in his classic bourgeois suit, Yves Klein leaps into the void. Captured in a Christ-like posture, his silhouette hovers over a street, the deadly landing point of the Parisian bitume in view. It is perhaps the void that Amalia Ulman evokes too – a hollowed sense of identity left to exist solely through Instragram snapshots. Klein opens the Tate Modern’s Performing for the Camera, Amalia Ulman acts as an allusive conclusion.

As an additional shot reveals, a group of Klein’s friends holding the tarpaulin into which the French artist was meant to safely fall was erased through photomontage. The photograph was then printed on the front page of a spoof newspaper, disseminating the aura of Klein’s eerie figure to the masses. Ulman’s lingerie selfie is a shot from her instagram feed, blown up to museum proportions. It is taken from a three-part tale, in which the artist assumes the identity of a provincial girl with dreams of making it in LA, and acts out her downfall into drugs, surgery, and suggestive selfies. Finally, redemption – in the form of juices, yoga, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Klein’s image condenses many of the themes the exhibition sets to unpick: the camera as record of an art performance, the photographic image as the site for which the performance is conceived, and finally the photographic document as proof – conscious or unconscious – of a performed identity, whether part of the work itself as an intentional act of self promotion for instance (Koons’ magazine advertisements) or as an attempt to create a seemingly authentic (artistic) persona (Klein’s suit). This last aspect is not overtly addressed by the exhibition but lingers over it, as artists dress or undress for the camera.

Artistic authenticity comes in the form of nudity, or so it seems considering the vast number of images of naked performance on display. The subversive quality of nakedness seemingly ensures the authenticity of the performing artist, literally stripped bare of ‘superficial’ signifiers. Costume, as a sort of manifest addition to the body, appears to stand as another strategy used to subvert identities, highlighting their contingency, yet one that also retains or marks the distinction between the performed role and the ‘true’ identity of the performer.

It is precisely the boundaries of costumes and theater that allow Sarah Bernhardt to flaunt a more liberated body, both through dress (clad in male attire) and her comical poses. Nadar’s studio is made into an extension of the theater stage, in which actresses such as Bernhardt embodied a wide array of identities, yet upheld her image as ‘the eternal feminine’ in the eyes of critics. From Nadar, the exhibition takes us to an endless archive of images from big names (Andy Warhol, Hannah Wilke, Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman etc.) to a younger bunch, among them Romain Mader (featured on the show’s poster) and Amalia Ulman.

Jeff Koons advertisement in Art in America, 1988-9; Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Pierrot Assassin,’ 1883

Jeff Koons advertisement in Art in America, 1988-9; Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Pierrot Assassin,’ 1883

In Ulman’s shot, the distinction between artistic self and performance blend. In an interview, Ulman reveals that a gallery had concerns over her credibility before the artist revealed the spoof, namely that the shots of herself were part of a performance. ‘I was acting, it wasn’t me.’ The need to emphasize those boundaries exposes the necessity for an ‘authentic’ self to exist outside of what we are caught easily judging as inappropriate or superficial (as Simon Baker notes, the comments on her Instagram feed are as much part of the performance as the images). Perhaps more than confronting us with our daily selfie routines, Ulman’s performance draws attention to our own highbrow assumptions of what constitutes an ‘appropriate’ display of the self.

Performing for the Camera is on display at Tate Modern until June 12, 2016

 

Mary Louise Roberts, Disruptive Acts, The New Woman in Fin-de-siècle France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/performing-camera

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/is-this-the-first-instagram-masterpiece/