There’s a Place in France

Posted inDesign Books

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

Bound and riven alongthe fault line between the ideal and the real, Parisiennes ablyworks this split terrain, providing both poetics andvérité in its photographic history of students andmothers, sunbathers and armed Resistance fighters. There’s noobvious status hierarchy here; classics by the likes of Brassaï,Robert Doisneau, and Jacques Henri Lartigue are included in a volumethat by and large features anonymous work.

Organized in a pleasantlyopen, generic way by such themes as “Love,” “Work andPlay,” and “Elegance,” the anthology is punctuated bymodest texts as well as bons mots from greats like Colette, Guy deMaupassant, Victor Hugo, and Charles Baudelaire. There is a purepleasure to the act of witness here; perhaps it takes the French toprovide a properly voyeuristic translation for the lexicon ofaesthetics, cultural mores, and desire.

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

How, then, will themost recent crop of transgressive libertines who populate The VicePhoto 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 thebeautiful are freaks, the freaks are beautiful.

The Vice PhotoBook gathers images from photographers associated with theeponymously named magazine, whose conception of truth and beauty ismarried to an anti-authoritarian candor that is—depending on whereone stands in the generational divide—inextricably bound to thegrotesque, pornographic, and taboo.

In surveying the near-decadesince the formerly Montreal-based newsprint freebie went glossy andmoved to New York, it is hard to think of any other publication that hasproved so consistently outré in terms of photographic and writtencontent. 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 mayultimately eclipse the more celebrated contemporary fine art photographyjournals. Within its pages, pictures to match the most scandalous textsand deviant themes are culled from the furthest excesses of suchpictorial provocateurs as Terry Richardson, Richard Kern, Ed Templeton,and Dash Snow. For those who seldom frequent the cultural gutters wherethe magazine and its photographers can be found, this compendium canonly arrive as the worst of news. The Vice Photo Book delivers avisual violence that rises, like a primal scream far above the mediadin, over the ongoing perversion of innocence.

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