The connection between edgy, avant-garde, fashion photography and a soft porn aesthetic is nothing new, especially in high end fashion magazines like Vogue. When it shows up in the NYT it can create a flap, as it did when the 2007 Holiday issue of T featured a photo shoot of 17 year old model Ali Michael in a series of seductive images, including one photograph that revealed the barest glimpse at an out of focus breast. Sex sells, of course, and as one NYT Magazine editor justified the decision to publish the photographs, “We’re well past the point in our culture when there is a bright line that separates sexually charged images of men and women just short of 18 from art.” Of course, the line would seem to be a bit brighter between a woman just short of 18,” such as Ms. Michael and, say, 15 year old teen idol Miley Cyrus (aka, Disney’s “Hannah Montana”) whose topless and semi-clad portrait by Annie Leibovitz is featured in the current issue of Vanity Fair.
Leibovitz’s portrait has created a controversy of its own, with advocates on one side worrying about the effect of the image on the preteens who look up to Cyrus as a role model and those on the other side concerned with the effect it will have on the “wholesome image” that underwrites the projected billion dollar industry that has grown up around the Hannah Montana brand. No one so far seems to be concerned with the degree to which Cyrus herself is being exploited in all of this, but that is a topic for another day.
What the controversy calls attention to for us, however, is that while we seem to live in a public culture that worries about the way in which adolescent sexuality is portrayed with real adolescents, we don’t seem to be worried when otherwise, presumably mature women are portrayed as if they embody a seductive, adolescent sexuality. At some point we have to ask, what difference does it make?
Consider, for example, this fashion photograph that appeared in this week’s Sundays NYT Magazine.
We are never told the name of the model and there is no way to know her age. Nor does it matter. For whether she is fourteen or twenty-one, the point is that she is portrayed as a young Lolita, her supple body barely covered by a dress that seems to be in tatters. The expression on her face simultaneously performs a cultivated innocence and a primitive sexuality, the two reinforced by her bare feet and skinny, pale legs spread seductively around the back of a folding chair. Her long hair is both combed and yet unkempt, simultaneously complementing and accenting the tensions between nature and culture that pervade her pose and animate the adolescent sexual energy of the image. Shot in the grey scales of black and white photography and with the slightest hint of a soft focus, it has a subtle dream-like quality to it which invokes a surrealism that adds to its erotic appeal. (In this regard it contrasts with the muted, desaturated colors in Leibovitz’s portrait of Cyrus, which produce a harsher, somewhat gothic effect that seems hardly erotic at all.) And the question is, if we are troubled by Leibovitz’s photograph (or others like it, such as those of Ali Michael), why is there no hue and cry about images such as this which pretend to represent a seductive adolescent sexuality for mass consumption?
Part of the answer, no doubt, has to do with the vexed relationship between art and pornography. And so, of course, we have to take context into account. This photograph is one of six images that appeared as part of a story titled “Green With Envy.” The story focuses on eco-conscious fashion being marketed to a “well-heeled audience” by Earth Pledge and Barneys New York. It thus operates within the soft porn aesthetic of high fashion photography. The woman above is wearing a Maison Martin Margiela dress made from “silk head scarves that were bleached, cut into strips and asymmetrically woven by hand.” The price is available on request, though the eco-conscious fashion wear on display in the other five images ranges in price from $910 for a smock dress made of “undyed cotton” to $10,000 for a ruffled dress made from “biopolymer—a corn-based alternative to polyester.” What we have, then, is the greenwashing of a soft porn aesthetic, where one progressive cause (save the environment) seems to trump another (protect our youth from sexual exploitation).
Apparently there is no end to what sex can sell, including a sustainable earth. Surely this is no way to save the planet.
Photo Credits: Annie Leibovitz/Vogue; Earth Pledge and Barneys New York