Lonneke Engel for Versus, 1996, gracefully shot by Bruce Weber
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.
When I was a kid, we used to go on field trips to a local textile factory. There was one machine that sat separately in a large production hall. The manager proudly explained that it was an electronic loom and it could reproduce exactly and quickly any design you enter in its computer memory. We looked at it in awe and tried to imagine a future in which any image we come up with can become a flawless, exact reality.
20 years later, all looms are electronic. But when I was in Northern Italy this summer, the cradle of the famed textile and fashion industry we all admire, I was surprised to hear people speaking of mechanical looms with nostalgia. Something has changed in the last decades and it’s not just cheap Chinese competition. The machine as we know it is gone, quietly.
I had the chance to visit a small family-owned textile factory North of Milan and was allowed to take pictures. There was one single mechanical loom, the first one the owner had purchased when he opened his factory, which he keeps now set aside in a niche, as a good-luck charm.
There’s something touchy-feely about mechanical machines, with their levers, steering wheels and belts. They tell a story through the moving thread they help propel that actually makes us see how things are made.
I believe there’s something more important we lose when we replace machines with computers. We lose our personal connection to how things work as we’ve relegated that commanding task to a computer. We lose wonderment of how things work. Here is my visual argument.