Ever since its inception, photography has told stories about individuals. It has focused on people’s noble or wretched features; it has enhanced elegant clothes or sympathised with the rags of poverty; and it has depicted its subjects with brilliant precision. In practice, however, photography has always been about fashion. And when fashion became an industry, it turned to photography to enhance its products and celebrate its notions of affluence, glamour, style and leisure.
The subjects (all women at that) in the exhibition titled Eve and Eye, eclectically curated by R M Naeem at O Art Space in Lahore, are not role-playing. By trying to reveal their essence, the artists/photographers and the curator have tried to celebrate the beauty and complexity of what it means to be a ‘spiritual warrior’ – to offer oneself to the world authentically, to flex the courage muscles, and to share what it means to be human.
For Ashna Khan, the real world is often a counterpoint to his intensely saturated and highly stylised images. If only the world were sufficiently interesting and beautiful, he would shoot on location all the time, but the world is just not being designed with aesthetics as a priority, and so Khan prefers to rebuild it in his studio: a drive to condense, an obsession with detail and an insistence on remaining faithful to one’s own vision of the real.
Cinema, it appears, is a constant point of reference for this young fashion photographer overflowing with imagination. His erotic, urbane, dreamlike style, often a little spooky and subtly disquieting, is reminiscent of the atmosphere in films by Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad) and Luis Bunuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). In his saturated images everything is in focus, everything is clearly visible; the dense colour does not decorate but dictates the mood, creating a visceral experience for the viewer. Khan loves blue shadows and the colour tonalities of old Hollywood films, with their sombre and mysterious ambience.
Khan’s Thousand Years From Now On and Two of a Kind belong to a surrealist tradition, but they extend beyond surrealism — they are mystical, as if a hermit in a cave had made them, but they are still classical in shape and design.
The viewer’s gaze becomes bewildered by the image called Lost I; it is caught off-guard by the impact of a bizarre metamorphosis. A woman’s face is fusing into something indefinable. The dissolution of boundaries stems from Guddu and Shani’s desire to resist definition and leave interpretation open: the transformation may still be happening, not yet complete, or it may already be on the point of vanishing. The necessity of making the ordinary wonderful is revealed in this interpretation of reality, and is the key theme of their exploration.
The duo are artists who work on different levels, simultaneously both part of, and outside, advertising and fashion. They play with borders; they blur the contours of the human figure and confound the rules of perception. They bring colouring, montage, collage and lighting together to create their singular vision, in which the body becomes an enigmatic space. They are the creative force behind many major advertising campaigns and are the photographers of choice for numerous designers, even though sometimes they obstruct our identification with the product, a mechanism that fashion photography is conventionally meant to trigger.
Helmut Newton once told Herb Ritts that ‘choosing the model represents ninety-five per cent of a photograph’. And, when you count up the model, you will see that Alee Hassan has chosen a ‘creature’ that can define an era. By wearing nothing except a grey stocking, she displays her natural beauty, telling her story in her face, her eyes or her lips, which are either closed or slightly apart. Hassan’s images are a tribute to the splendour of the human body, a female with pneumatic curves that are athletic but not overdeveloped, and deeply feminine. His vision draws on classic figures of fashion and glamour from Horst to Hoyningen-Huene.
The two photographs on show, Lacuna — A Missing Manuscript I and II could be accused of sexism but, when examined carefully, they are more suggestive of a skilful game, based on the subtle irony that is an essential element of all great fashion images. Hassan takes the composition to extremes. In many of his collages he depicts beautiful women in an exotic or elegant setting, but in these images he chooses to abolish background. While other photographers aim to enhance brand names with a feminine personality, we can see nothing here of the woman other than her outline enhanced by the mesh she’s sealed in (as if she were in a cocoon ready to be transformed). Her elegantly contorted shadow seems almost to be moaning in pleasure, as if she were lost in her own vanity and eroticism. The viewer is left only with the clearly lit fetishes on her body (plastic babies), the remnants of an industry that exists to produce, create and consume dreams. Conversely, the work could also allude to motherhood and its concurrent desire a la Anne Geddes — Hassan’s muse.
Rizwan Baig has ventured beyond the limits set by the genre of fashion photography: he always seeks purity in his black-and-white images and is highly interested in portraits. He is particularly sensitive to light, creating delicate images that are supreme expressions of grace and fragile beauty. He works with a long exposure, which allows him to exploit natural light as it pours through the door. The model invited to pose in front of his camera is transformed into an angel, into a phantasmal figure who floats in a timeless and hypnotic universe. Baig constantly fights against the construction of his models’ professional image. The two works on show, Closure and Confined appear to be portraits of encounters where masks fall away. They can no longer play a role. There is no more defence, only the relationship between fashion photographer and model. All the little clichés, smiles, gestures, poses, hand movements, disappear. What remains is their gaze, their body, their sexuality. They are self-conscious and a little a la garcon.
This leaves a moment of emptiness. And for Baig, this emptiness becomes a moment of richness. Suspended between their materialisation and the possibility of their sudden disappearance, Baig’s figures are full of life at the same moment at which they seem about to vanish either into the darkness or the light.
The bodies elongate in repetition, changing and distorting everything. In Discourse I and II, Muhammad Husnain Mehmood confounds expectations, establishing new and insoluble enigmas for the spectator. His magical and surreal photography is a continuous game of distorting mirrors, of surfaces that appear to be real but are fictitious illusions that we would do well to doubt.
Mehmood’s characteristic style is to subvert conventions. He pushes fashion photography into uncharted territory, blending classical journalistic reportage with private photography, and always presenting his spectator-readers with a forest of meanings in which to lose ourselves. His photographs are like a record being played backwards, sending out unrecognisable phrases for which the terrified listener tries to find a meaning.