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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 Book 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.