On the recommendation of Sharon Marcus, I recently watched The September Issue — a documentary about the making of the September 2007 issue of American Vogue.

Ostensibly the film focuses on icy editor Anna Wintour, but as many reviewers have noted, the real star of the proceedings is stylist Grace Coddington, who tromps about the Vogue offices in flats and a shapeless black something, bird’s nest red hair flying off every which-a-way, mothering the models and midwifing gorgeous confections like this:

Just looking at that can send you into insulin shock.

Looking at it also made me think again about Stanley Cavell and his ontology of photograph. As I noted here a little bit back, Cavell argues that the borders of a photographs are arbitrary; the frame cuts out a square of the world, and in so doing implies the existence of everything else. A photograph is not a world; as he says, it’s part of the world. Thus it’s power is that it shows us that reality exists — while also pointing to the ways that we are cut off from it. We’re ghosts, unable to affect the world.

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world, either because I left it unloved (the Flying Dutchman) or because I left unfinished business (Hamlet). So there is reason for me to want the camera to deny the coherence of the world, it’s coherence as past: to deny that the world is complete without me. But there is equal reason to want it affirmed that the world is coherent without me. That is essential to what I want of immortality: nature’s survival of me. It will mean that the present judgment upon me is not yet the last.

As I noted before, this ontology seems to break down in the work of artists like Jeff Wall or Tarkovsky, which insist on the artificiality and contrivance of what’s within the frame. They do this to such an extent that they seem in some ways not to validate reality, but to call into question everything you don’t see. The picture is a world, and looking at it you wonder whether there is any other.

Something similar is going on in Coddington’s arrangement I think — though with a more pop inflection.

This is a deliberately created fantasy world; it’s referencing the 20s — but a faery 20s of languid, perfect glamour. The woman are obviously carefully posed — they aren’t arranged naturalistically, as if caught in conversation, but are instead placed about the stage set to display elegant limbs and voluptuous clothes to best advantage.

In fact, the models look less like people than like dolls. The image is affecting not because it gives us a window onto an uncontainable and undeniable real, a la Walker Evans, but precisely because it denies that real. This image is contained; the dolls and clothes and even the little dogs are available to the viewer for leisurely looking. There’s so much there — the ruffles on the dresses, the exquisite caps, the engravings on the columns, the food spread out on the blanket — but it’s a consumable plenitude, presented and arranged as an enfoldable opulence of desire.

This description dovetails nicely with why fashion photography, and fashion in general, tends not to be accepted as art. Art reaches for the deep and real; fashion for the shallow and artificial. Art causes us to appreciate our place in an wider and spiritual world; fashion packages trivial existence up as a capitalist fetish.

Yet, I wonder if the two are really that distinct.

That’s a Walker Evans photo. It’s obviously about reality; these people aren’t dolls dressed up by the photographer. The frame of the picture cuts out a bit of their world, but their world is not created by the frame.

And yet…well, here’s my reply to some comments made by Bert Stabler on the earlier post.

So you’re skeptical of Cavell’s whole effort to make art replace or equal reality — or else you think that he’s right that this is what film and photography claim, but you feel it’s ethically dubious, inasmuch as it elides the extent to which cropping does not point to the world but to itself; the boundary is the boundary of the subject imposed on the world. It’s modernist humanism; the individual becomes the measure of the world rather than vice versa.

Or, to put it another way, the ontological claim of Evans’ picture is more insistent than Coddington’s, but I don’t know that what he is doing is actually different in kind. You move around the picture noting details, patterns, textures — lines on faces instead of ruffles on dresses, a penis instead of a bulldog, perhaps, but still details that become yours. Perhaps the real difference is that for Coddington what you own is a fantasy, while here you own reality itself. Or, maybe in Coddington the picture’s reality is hidden beneath the finery of fantasy, while in Evans the picture’s fictitiousness is concealed by the distracting nakedness of reality.

If there is a reality in Coddington’s piece, that reality may be Coddington herself — or the part of Coddington in the picture, which is her desire. Where Cavell sees the picture as reality and the observers as ghosts desiring but unable to get in, Coddington’s images are themselves frozen shadows, locked in place while the viewer moves over and through them.

The two women in the front are stiff and gazing away from each other, suggesting an unspoken (sexual? romantic?) tension, perhaps between one another, perhaps aimed at someone (a man? a woman?) just out of view. There is a world beyond the frame, but it is defined not by the border but by the gaze, and it does not by any means exclude the viewer, who may in fact be its object. In case someone somehow missed that point, Coddington has helpfully included some mirrors to gratuitously display for us, the audience, Coco Rocha’s shapely shoulder as well as to allow the woman in the back to gaze raptly at herself, almost close enough to kiss her own image.

The women looking at this picture (and within this picture) are not, then, powerless spirits forced to acknowledge the world’s coherence without them. Instead, they’re active participants; the world is there for their gaze, their identification, and their desire. The image is there so you can touch the dresses and touch the woman, inhabit the dresses and inhabit the women, play with the dolls and imagine being the doll that is played with. The being that is in this picture is not in the frame that cuts out and signals reality. Rather, it’s in the desire that inhabits the subject viewing and the object viewed and blurs the lines between them.

In one photoshoot in the September 2007 issue of Vogue, Coddington actually played quite consciously with the ontological difference between fashion photography and more documentary approaches.

The cameraman jumping there is a real cameraman; it’s the guy who shot the “September Issue” documentary. After he’d been following her around for weeks, Coddington asked him to appear in the shoot at the last minute. The documentary then showed how the Vogue staff took the image of the cameraman, took the image of the jumping model, photoshopped them together, and thus created the illusion of the documentarian filming the model leaping together in n-space.

Further, the documentary covers the disagreement between Ana Wintour and Coddington over whether to photoshop the jumping cameraman. Wintour wants to take out his gut (“You need to spend more time at the gym” she tells him.) But Coddington insists that he doesn’t need to be photoshopped. “Not everything’s perfect in this world,” she says. “It’s enough for the models to be perfect.” (As you see, Coddington won; he’s still got a gut.)

The documentary itself is intended to show the (somewhat ugly) reality behind the beautiful world of fashion — cover-girl Sienna Miller’s ratty hair, the tension between Anna Wintour and Coddington, etc. etc. And Coddington responds by putting the documentary-maker in her image, serving as an icon for the reality which he traffics in. His paunch stays — but it stays as part of an image which is ostentatiously goofy, not gritty, and which is in any case quite clearly impossible.

If the documentary is going to reveal the “real” Grace, Grace is going to turn around and conceal the “real” documentarian. Face covered, he is no longer a truth-teller, but an instrument of glamour, impossibly suspended as he looks with and for Coddington at the perfection of the model. Female readers of the magazine (who perhaps have slight paunches of their own) are like the photographer looking at the model while also imagining being looked at like her in a frame that encloses and excludes nothing but the looking and the being looked at. Ontology’s not an inescapable truth, but a tease and a friendly in-joke. Don’t trap it in a frame; make it jump for you.

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