Bruce Weber, a noted fashion photographer with a long and distinguished career, is having a retrospective exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary. It is fascinating for many reasons, but first of all because an exhibition venue known mainly for installations and projections has dedicated almost its entire gigantic space to a solo show of this kind of “traditional” photography. But also – and especially – because it offers an unusual view of fashion photography as it is.
It’s rather difficult to organize a fashion (almost fashion) photography show in such a space. And the museum fills it up perfectly using different formats of the prints, an interrupted line of the installation, niches with subthemes that develop conversations among the images. But the main difficulty is this: how do you justify an exhibition for this type of photography that is normally intended to be published or used in commercials or some other sorts of display? It’s an ideological question that forces a revisit of the issue of where photography is today, how it has changed and what fashion photography is at this point. If it is something at the junction of design, marketing and, yes, art, what does change as we revisit it now?
In Bruce Weber’s case, the exhibition celebrates his long career but also focuses on the borderline between fashion and non-fashion and explores it while discovering something new. Many images included are well known from his campaigns, but others have never been published or publicly shown. They are images made in the same places and often on the same occasions as his famous photoshoots. The effect is almost like looking at contact sheets and discovering the full creative vision of his photography in a creative process, through the sequence of what came before and after. When both types of images are juxtaposed, they acquire a new tone, a little confusing and certainly ironic in relation to fashion as a mentality and practice. It is easier to understand his worldview and creative approach in a complete and a bit uncanny vision.
The exhibition deserves to be seen also as a revisit of the controversies caused by Weber’s works. Most of them are related to the provocative way he reveal the male body, with a gaze that was reserved for the female body up to that point. Today those controversies are moot. His view of masculinity is not scandalous at all. It may mean that the way we look has changed because of him and if so, we should recognize it. But the sensibility with which he shows masculinity, obviously originating centuries before but offered by him in a new context, has stayed impactful these 40 years later.