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ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

April 29th, 2008

Greenwashing the Softporn Aesthetic

Posted by Lucaites in fashion/fiction

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.

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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.

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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

7 Responses to ' Greenwashing the Softporn Aesthetic '

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  1. on April 29th, 2008 at 7:34 am

    […] NO CAPTION NEEDED wrote an interesting post today on Greenwashing the Softporn AestheticHere’s a quick excerptThe connection between edgy, avant-garde, fashion photography and a soft porn aesthetic is nothing n […]

  2. Phaedra said,

    on April 29th, 2008 at 8:55 am

    John, indeed. I love your last call and agree that putting underweight white western women on display in precarious poses carries no sustainable future that I would want to promote.

    The trend of exploiting what dominant media corporations and their supporters deem as “sexy” for environmental causes is, of course, not new. The famous PETA debates over the “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” ads (and more; strip videos, etc.) with feminists–featured in Ms. magazine (http://www.msmagazine.com/aug00/wildpussy.asp)–have gone round and round on this. Further, as I’ve argued before, there remains a particular problematic when the “sexy” articulation eclipses the environmental critique (as in Julia Roberts’ role and actions after receiving the Oscar for *Erin Brockovitch*). And there are many more, of course…

    Leibovitz, as you know, is notorious for her shocking photographs of practically naked stars, such as Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair (pregnant, post pregnancy, etc.). In this sense, since she is often considered not a photojournalist but an artist in most instances, does her photography provoke worthwhile debates about sexuality (about age, pregnancy, etc)? That’s what PETA seems to claim. Me, I think I’m more often moved by the anti-icon…

  3. Lucaites said,

    on April 29th, 2008 at 9:06 am

    Phaedrea: Thanks for the comment. My point was less to critique Leibovitz per se and to call attention to the contradictions in a culture that vilifies her but nevertheless “buys” images of women portrayed as if they were adolescent and all that entails. Of course, the second “green” image is not by Leibovitz or–at least technically–by a photojournalist, i.e., it is “fashion photography.” Of course we have to question the stability of that distinction when fashion images show up in the paper of record as part of a story on the enviornment.

  4. Kathleen M. said,

    on April 29th, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    There has been a fair amount of negative response on the part of feminists to images of adult women dressed as sexualized girls. One especially controversial spread that comes to mind featured Madonna wearing a baby doll dress while posing in all manner of provocative sex scenes.
    I think Leibovitz’s portrait of Cyrus has a bit more depth too it than your average exploitative photo of budding sexuality – and perhaps even offers a critique. As you note, the colors are fairly muted, which is unusual for Leibovitz. The white, gray, and black offset her red lipstick at the center of the photograph. But the interesting part is that her lipstick looks mis-applied the way it does when little kids wear make up. Wearing nothing but a sheet and smeared lipstick, Cyrus looks like she’s playing dress up, like she might also be wearing high heels that are three sizes too big. Given the recent blow up over online photos of Cyrus showing the edge of her bra strap, this photo is an especially interesting comment on the pressure girls face to act sexy, especially when they’re celebrities.


  5. on May 4th, 2008 at 9:58 am

    […] No Caption Needed wrote an interesting post today on Greenwashing the Softporn AestheticHere’s a quick excerpt 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 […]

  6. Drake said,

    on December 10th, 2009 at 1:10 am

    Well honestly I dont know the reason for this photo but i can say that hannah montana has beautiful skin although i am sure they touched it up…You see my stand on such debates of sheltering children from certain things is ok but you cant hide everything from them there will come a time when they find something new and if they havnt been exposed to it already they will probably not talk to mommy or daddy first mostlikly it will be a friend some one they think will listin insted of already have a fixed idea about something….I am not saying pile the porn on your children or that “hannah montana” should start doing porn but I am saying that It isnt wise to shelter children. I see it like this a long time ago in china a woman showing a man her wrist would be the same turn on as a woman showing her breasts to a man now IF we all walked around naked eventualy people would think nothing of it. I guess i just see the human body as a beautiful bit of art but that was do to my up bringing i was never told that is was wrong to see a woman naked and now i think nothing of it when i do….sorry to go on my tangent but one more thing you cant hope for hannah to remain a kid forever we all grow up well that is all for now hope i didnt offend anyone

  7. Ivey Bleich said,

    on April 16th, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Miley is a totally amazing performer. I have all of her songs.

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