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February 23, 2013

The Ghost in the Machine

Fashion Week never ceases to teach me something.  And now that the week lasts most of the year as the shows blossom one after another around the globe, there is much to learn.  Not least about photography.

This image is from the New York Show last September.  Fashion isn’t timeless, but the photographer’s artifice has captured something about photography itself.  Perhaps the over-the-top artifice of the shows gave the photographer more artistic license than usual, for most would not intentionally overexpose the model that supposedly is the focal point of the event.  By focusing on the audience, however, the image both brings them out of the darkness while turning her into a creature of light.  Which she always was, of course.

But which is stranger: to see an all-white silhouette, or to see the act of spectatorship offered to view?  One answer is that both are strange, with the emphasis depending on where you want to go philosophically.  By focusing on the model, images of haunting come to mind, and one might recall how images of ghosts, fairies, spirit worlds, and other premonitions of life beyond death were a prominent part of the early history of photography.  Ultimately (but not completely), realism trumped that exercise in imagination, but photography has remained a medium in several senses of the word ever since.  As the bare outline of the model suggests, the camera is only capturing traces of what is there, with the rest to be supplied by the imagination.  Likewise, one can imagine how images are already within the camera, waiting to be released, and also floating unseen through the air, waiting to be captured.  Haunting is omnidirectional, I imagine.

But is there one ghost or many?  As the members of the audience are brought out of the shadows, we are reminded how they also haunt the camera: always there unseen and often unbidden, waiting for the image to appear.  Without the audience, there is no need for the image, so in one sense they have to always be there, unseen, as the potential force that allows the camera to flash.

They are more like us than any of us are like the model.  They double our viewing, as we do theirs.  I find the experience of seeing them seeing to be a bit troubling.  (If you want to get a good dose of the experience, sit through the scene in the film Amour when the concert audience is waiting for the performance to begin.)  We might ask why that is, but I don’t have time to consider that question today.  I’ll close instead by noting how much there is to see about seeing.

The gazes in the audience shown above are by turns appraising, calculating, desiring, distracted, bored, and more.  Some are extended into taking photographs, thus also doubling the act of taking this photo.  Photography is a study in plurality, extended further by its own reproduction, and ultimately about itself only when it is showing what it means to see and be seen.

Or perhaps I should have said, to see what often goes unseen, even during Fashion Week.

– Robert Hariman

(cross-posted from No Caption Needed)

(photo: Andrew Burton/ Reuters. caption: Audience members watch a model during the J. Mendel Spring/Summer 2013 show at New York Fashion Week on September 12, 2012. By exposing for the darkened audience, the photographer overexposed the brightly lit model.)

  • bks3bks

    Is there anything that speaks more loudly to the excesses of capitalism and the manipulation of women than fashion shows? Great picture but I would have
    preferred seeing Mighty Joe Young tossing the patrons around like a tornado
    in a trailer park.


  • Cactus

    This is a strange
    but intriguing photo. The spectators tend to look rather menacing, their
    disembodied heads amid the darkness of the background. The model so thin as to
    be shapeless is ethereal, with the flip of hair behind her adding to the

    Metaphorically if
    you will, her complete absence of the appearance of life just might be symbolic
    of the way the entire fashion (and advertising) industry sees women, especially
    models. In truth they are but mannequins for the display of the designer’s
    work. I wonder if an extension could be made for the status of women in the
    fashion design world at large — although there are more now than there used to

    I am curious about
    the girl (?) in the front row left of the model, with the strange hat and/or

  • robert e

    A wonderful image that showcases photography’s ability to obscure the seen and reveal the unseen. A deceptively simple image with many hooks for deep and complex associations and connotations. Is it revealing that fashion is “the emperor’s new clothes”? Or that beauty (or ugly) is in the “eye of the beholder”? That fashion is ritual vessel, or form letter, with a “fill in the blank”? That fashions are ephemeral, but fashion immortal? Or is it separating the ethereal world of visions and gods and fantasy from that of spectating mortals (or spectating gods from performing mortals)? Consumers and consumed? Rich, rich, rich. Thank you for spotting this one.

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