There’s a Place in France

Ever-shifting ideas of beauty are all the more suspect
when it comes to fashion, since they’re an inextricable element of
glamour. Two very different recent photography collections,
Parisiennes and The Vice Photo Book, which weigh in on the
two major cultural capitals of the past 100 years, Paris and New York,
make for a provocative perspective on this issue. The ruling precepts of
desire documented here are so mesmeric and convincing that it’s
shocking to see how far our archetypes of youth and beauty have evolved
in such a short time and geographic proximity.

Bound and riven along
the fault line between the ideal and the real, Parisiennes ably
works this split terrain, providing both poetics and
vérité in its photographic history of students and
mothers, sunbathers and armed Resistance fighters. There’s no
obvious status hierarchy here; classics by the likes of Brassaï,
Robert Doisneau, and Jacques Henri Lartigue are included in a volume
that by and large features anonymous work.

Organized in a pleasantly
open, generic way by such themes as “Love,” “Work and
Play,” and “Elegance,” the anthology is punctuated by
modest texts as well as bons mots from greats like Colette, Guy de
Maupassant, Victor Hugo, and Charles Baudelaire. There is a pure
pleasure to the act of witness here; perhaps it takes the French to
provide a properly voyeuristic translation for the lexicon of
aesthetics, cultural mores, and desire.

In the broad brushstokes one
must use when shorthanding eras, nations, and cultures, however, this
“celebration of French women” reminds us of the
contradictions between an accepted idea of them as a liberated lot and
the perceptual lattice that holds the seductive as separate. Loving
women, it would seem, is a male pastime; some of the aestheticization
here borders on subjugation. Through the book’s century-long arc
of day-to-day moments, radical emancipations, haute couture styles, and
loving intimacies, however, the collection also documents the frisson
where the free spirit rubs up against fundamental human
rights—such as the right to vote, which, as one essayist reminds
us, was not afforded to French women until 1944.

How, then, will the
most recent crop of transgressive libertines who populate The Vice
Photo Book
look to future viewers? Whatever that answer will be,
they make for a helpful counterpoint to Parisiennes
depiction of beauty, showcasing the new New York sense that just as the
beautiful are freaks, the freaks are beautiful.

The Vice Photo
gathers images from photographers associated with the
eponymously named magazine, whose conception of truth and beauty is
married to an anti-authoritarian candor that is—depending on where
one stands in the generational divide—inextricably bound to the
grotesque, pornographic, and taboo.

In surveying the near-decade
since the formerly Montreal-based newsprint freebie went glossy and
moved to New York, it is hard to think of any other publication that has
proved so consistently outré in terms of photographic and written
content. Anti-intellectual, politically incorrect, and crassly artless,
Vice’s shamelessly unapologetic celebration of sex, drugs,
and rock ’n’ roll has fostered a lurid legacy that may
ultimately eclipse the more celebrated contemporary fine art photography
journals. Within its pages, pictures to match the most scandalous texts
and deviant themes are culled from the furthest excesses of such
pictorial provocateurs as Terry Richardson, Richard Kern, Ed Templeton,
and Dash Snow. For those who seldom frequent the cultural gutters where
the magazine and its photographers can be found, this compendium can
only arrive as the worst of news. The Vice Photo Book delivers a
visual violence that rises, like a primal scream far above the media
din, over the ongoing perversion of innocence.

In that earlier, less
self-conscious age, pictures could still capture the unposed and
spontaneous. Perhaps that sensibility is not so far from
Vice’s penchant for eschewing agents, photo reps, stylists,
and staging in favor of another kind of candid camera to capture those
moments when skateboarders bleed, teens have sex, girls grab guns, and
the best of parties end in puddles of puke. For those with better bounds
of taste and decency, this kind of degeneration must be intolerable. But
if by chance, you, too find both these books equally sexy, then maybe
the truth explaining how any era comes to navigate the mundane and the
fashionable to create a new conception of beauty is that deep down, we
all like to watch.