An Eye for Fashion at the ICP

BY Arts Desk  February 19, 2009 at 4:03 PM EST

Fashion Week in New York ends Friday, but take a short walk from the big tents (which, face it, you’re not going to get into anyway) and you’ll see enough models making fierce faces and striking poses to last the whole season. Through mid-May, the International Center for Photography is devoting all of its exhibition space to four fashion photography shows, all of which offer an eclectic mix of old glamour and contemporary attitude.

[Click here to watch a slide show of some of the fashion photos on display at the International Center for Photography.]

The first show gallery visitors encounter is “Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now,” a collection of photos and magazine spreads that moves fashion photography into a strange, new world. While it would seem the purpose of fashion photography is to sell clothes, these avant-garde interpretations are appealing for their use of narrative and fantasy. They mix the beautiful with the grotesque (a fur hat is modeled on a melting, skeletal head). They challenge traditional fashion rules (a plus-sized model donning a ratty, beehive hairdo lounges in the desert with her Adonis companion). Frankly, they make it hard to see the clothes. Photographers like Steven Klein, Solve Sundsbo and Jurgen Teller are featured, as well as big art-world names like Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin.

Also on the first floor, but in contrast to Weird Beauty, “This Is Not a Fashion Photograph” draws mainly from the ICP’s permanent collection of photographers not normally associated with fashion photography, but whose work and subject matters have influenced the genre. In these images of non-fashionistas, stance, expression, attitude and mood are foremost, rather than the body-as-object or haute couture.

Downstairs, two shows define classic elegance by looking at the early days of magazine photography. On display are works from legendary fashion photographer Edward Steichen (all from the work he did for Conde Nast) and from Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi, whose archive of negatives was recently rediscovered. Steichen’s studio images are stunningly spare, with little to distract from the beautiful, sometimes iconic (Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper) figures. Munkacsi, who worked for “Harper’s Bazaar” after he came to America in 1934, came out of a tradition of photojournalism, a style you can see in today’s fashion magazine pages.