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The DART Interview: Vince Aletti

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday June 26, 2019

Tonight, noted writer, critic and curator, Vince Aletti, will be in conversation with graphic designer Ruth Ansell and creative director Sam Shadid about his latest book, ISSUES: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines, at The Cooper Union. He recently conducted this exclusive interview for DART by email. Above: Spread from the April 1965 issue of Harpers Bazaar; photos © Richard Avedon

Peggy Roalf: I understand that you arrived in New York City, from Florida, at the start of the British Invasion. Brits were everywhere, from the Beatles to the Kinks; from Penelope Tree to Twiggy to Jean Shrimpton; from David Hockney in galleries to David Bailey in magazines. Mods and Rockers shaped “youthquake” fashion while photographers such as Avedon, Penn, and Beaton continued making sublime spreads in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. Did the non-conformist style and attitude of this upheaval affect how you considered fashion magazines as an important platform for great photography?

Vince Aletti: Although I spent my early teen years in Fort Lauderdale, I came to New York by way of Antioch College, where the liberal arts couldn’t be separated from radical politics and counterculture aesthetics. Before I graduated, I owned all the Beatles records and saw the Rolling Stones on their first US tour at the Academy of Music on 14thStreet in 1965. That was the same year I picked up Richard Avedon’s April issue of Harper’s Bazaar, with his pictures of Ringo, Paul, Bob Dylan, Robert Rauschenberg, and, yes, Jean Shrimpton. 

My first post-grad job was at Ed Sanders’s Peace Eye Bookstore on Avenue A; my first (unpaid) writing job was as a rock critic at the RAT, the most politically activist underground paper in the East Village. If I was looking at fashion magazines in this period, it was only occasionally and casually. Until I got a job writing bios in the publicity department of Columbia Records, I couldn’t afford to buy them, and even then I was more focused on the upstart rock press: Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, NME. So while I was right on top of Avedon’s savvy take on pop culture, it’s really only in retrospect that I appreciate Diana Vreeland’s enthusiasm for the “youthquake” she helped to define at Vogue. Because fashion magazines considered it part of their mission to reflect on the culture at large, they’d hardly resist a movement that had such a huge impact on the way people dressed and acted–made music, made art, and made love.

 

 

Cover and spreads from the April 1965 issue of Harpers Bazaar; photos © Richard Avedon

PR: In your Introduction to the book you speak of the criteria by which you made your selection of covers, single images and spreads. One of these was to limit the book to 100 single issues. Any particular reason for this number?

VA: It’s a neat, concise number to work with. Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photography Books of the Twentieth Century, to which I contributed, was a model for Issues; I cut the number back to the more conventional 100 but allowed for several multiple-issue entries, like the French, British, and American editions of Vogue that featured Irving Penn’s “Small Trades” photographs. 

PR:  Another item from your “rulebook” was that the issue, as a whole, had to “add up”. Could you tell the readers what you mean by this in terms of how the photography included in the issue might have led the way toward a flash of the new, a disruption of the norm, a desire to provoke and subvert while “killing off a few sacred cows”?

 

 

Cover and spread from Details, Summer 1982; photos Bruce Weber

VA: Although a few magazines made the Issues list because of an iconic cover or a famous standout image, I didn’t include any issues that didn’t back up those features with other strong work. Since the best magazines are packed with photography, illustration, and writing from many different sources, it’s rare to find one that doesn’t deliver, divert, and subvert, which is what I mean by “adding up.” Not every fashion magazine is as smart as it looks, but ideally style and content come together in a form that still speaks to us years or decades later. 

PR: At the time you began collecting magazines, the field of fashion publications was dominated by Vogue, followed by Harpers Bazaar—at least in the United States. Since then countless more have emerged, prospered, and fallen away, including fashion magazines for men and for gender-fluid audiences. Could you speak to the notion of a transgressive vision being a necessary part of expanding the power of monthly publications in reshaping culture? And the ways in which you have found that this medium has given photographers room to “dream and to document, to express themselves, and to enlighten, startle, amuse and seduce us.” 

VA: I’m not sure a transgressive vision is a necessity for contemporary fashion magazines; not everyone is comfortable or thoughtful about challenging gender norms outside of an “issues” article or two. But magazines that can credibly address those issues clearly have an edge, and the photographers they attract and feature seem to be leading the way into a more diverse and enlightened future. I think the regularity and ephemerality of magazines encourages photographers to expand and experiment in ways they may not if they were putting on a show. Month by month, the results are often extraordinary. 

 

 

Cover and spread from Dutch No. 18, 1998; photos © Mikael Jansson

PR: Along those lines, can you offer insight on what had to happen at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar [and their European counterparts] for Details to arrive on the scene—and flourish for as long as it did? And what had to happen at Dazed and Confused for Arena Homme and Self Service to emerge?

VA: All the magazines you mention stake out their own claim to fashion and the culture it reflects. Even when they cover the same ground, they do it from decidedly different perspectives, with very different casts of editors, writers, stylists, and photographers. Details thrived as an alternative to the more established Vogue and Bazaar–a downtown, often dissenting, response to their uptown take on the world at large. Details gave Bill Cunningham virtually entire issues to discuss and dissect the latest collections and show how trends were being picked up from and reabsorbed on the street. Many of the designers he was excited by were ignored by Vogue and Bazaar until years later. Every magazine has a unique take on the subject at hand–a personality that appeals to an audience not already served by its rivals. 

PR: You say that the media landscape is more forbidding today than ever, yet magazines “are freer than ever to play, to experiment, to agitate.” Is there something you’ve heard of that we should be looking for on the magazine rack in the coming months?  

VA: I’m excited about the return of the great British pop monthly, The Face, relaunching as a print quarterly in September. I’m doing my best to temper ridiculously high expectations. And please be on the lookout for “This Is Not a Fashion Photograph,” my new monthly page in Vogue Italia. Like the show of the same name that I curated at ICP in 2009, the page will highlight photographs that were never intended as fashion images but are open to interpretation. One of Garry Winogrand’s ‘50s Coney Island photos, from the terrific show of his color slides up at the Brooklyn Museum now, kicks off the series in the July issue.       

Issues: Critic Vince Aletti on the Photographic History of Fashion Magazine Photography, Wednesday, June 26, 6:30-8:00 pm. The Frederick P. Rose Auditorium at The Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square, New York, NY 

The event is free and open to the public. General public should register here. Please note seating is on a first come basis; an RSVP does not guarantee admission as we generally overbook to ensure a full house. Info

Strand Book Store will sell books at the event and Vince Aletti will sign copies following the discussion. If you are unable to attend, you can purchase Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines (Phaidon 2019) here

 

Spread from I-D, Pre-Fall 2010; photo © Nick Knight. Photos here © Peggy Roalf

Vince Aletti is a writer, curator, and critic whose work appears regularly in such publications as Artforum, Photograph, Apartamento, and Aperture. Aletti was art editor and photography critic of the Village Voice from 1994 to 2005 and reviewed photography exhibitions for the New Yorker’s "Goings On About Town" section from 2005 to 2016. He is the author of The Disco Files 1973-78: New York's Underground, Week by Week (2009, reissued 2018) and coauthor of Avedon Fashion 1994-2000 (2009) and has contributed essays to numerous publications on photography and fashion. In 2005, he won the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Writing. He lives and works in New York’s East Village.

 

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