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The Age of Sex: Bad Boys and the Sexualized Body in 1960s Fashion Photography

The Age of Sex: Bad Boys and the Sexualized Body in 1960s Fashion Photography

The Counterfeit Body: Fashion Photography and the Deceptions
of Femininity, Sexuality, Authenticity and Self in the 1950s, 60s and 70s
The Age of Sex: Bad Boys and the Sexualized Body in 1960s Fashion Photography
Tina Butler,
May 9, 2005

The following quote from notorious 1960s photographer David Bailey makes painfully clear how he earned his reputation in the world of fashion and insinuates the more extreme and sexualized direction his medium is about to take. “I like high heels—I know it’s chauvinistic. It means girls can’t run away from me” (Barnard 160). Other remarks added to the photographer’s vulgar infamy. “The only reason I ever did fashion was because of the girls,” and “A model doesn’t have to sleep with a photographer but it helps,” are two comments that can be credited to him (Radner 137). Bailey’s crass, bad-boy, sexual-predator style persona has been linked to his cockney, working-class roots. “[He] achieved fame as a fashion photographer while largely ignoring the clothes. “A frock is a frock,” he said dismissively” (Steel 60). Instead he chose to focus on the model’s sex appeal. Photographing a fashion model was a sexual act, Bailey implied, and the camera was like a phallus (Ibid.).

The arrival of Bailey on the fashion scene, as a figure of this profession, signaled a major shift in fashion and thus, fashion photography. A member of the notorious “Terrible Three” photographers—Bailey, Terrence Donovan and Brian Duffy—working-class Londoners with an irreverent attitude to the world of fashion and the pretensions of its protagonists, Bailey reconstructed and redefined the persona of the fashion photographer for the 1960s (Smedley 146). This figure was now presented as a sexual conquistador, rude and abusive to his models, but always successful in getting them into bed. This new breed of photographer was best personified by Bailey, and ‘Thomas,’ the character modeled on him in Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blowup. This representative persona makes a forceful impact, with rock music pounding in the background, David Hemmings, (the actor) kneels over a writhing model, his camera clicking away. [Fig. 8] Automatic camera drives revolutionized the process of photography,” Bailey likened the bzzz bzzz bzzz of the apparatus to sex (Steel 60). This highly sexualized, aggressive and controlling individual came to dominate the period. Even the equipment of fashion photography assumed this new sensibility or lack thereof. The camera, in this era, came to embody the male gaze, become its equivalent. The nature of presenting clothing on women in pictures was in diametric opposition to the tasteful, inhibited and pure compositions of previous years. Sexuality was the new essential dynamic. The aesthetic was a few steps beyond ‘freedom’ and ‘independence.’ The images of women were about sex.

Bailey and his colleagues sought a departure from the prim, proper and restrained; they wanted to sex things up. Their vision was just as problematic as the impossible ‘Single Girl’ ideal of the 50s. Fashion photographers of this school developed a theme of women’s independence, yet also placed value on beauty, sexuality and success. “In summing up their style, Brian Duffy stressed the fact that the three of them were ‘violently heterosexual butch boys…We emphasized the fact that there were women inside the clothes. They started to look real'” (Smedley 146). At once, it seems as though Duffy was attempting to lift the veil of homogenized anonymity from his models by giving them valid identities through his presenting them as ‘real’ people. Yet at the same time, the majority of his fashion work, as well of that of his colleagues, manifests a far different effect. Duffy’s referencing of creating ‘reality’ in the fashion photograph was not a new comment or innovative endeavor in fashion photography. Many photographers strove for and claimed to achieve the same effect in the aesthetic of their work. And like those before him, this attempt to recreate the real failed because of the intense stylization of the images, regardless of the insertions of ‘naturalness’ in posturing or setting. More possibly honest and valid versions of a realist fashion photographic style would be attempted later, most significantly in the work of Corrine Day, among others.

Bridging the junction between reality and the world constructed for fashion photography, Bailey brought himself more into the glare of public life and scandal with his relationship with one of the top models of the era, Jean Shrimpton. Through their ‘collaboration’ in both romantic and professional terms, She became “the quintessential face of the period” (Steel 60). Shrimpton, like Bailey, had humble beginnings and her rise to recognition and fame was somewhat miraculous. She fit into the “Single Girl” category, yet by projecting new identities on her body through different poses and gestures, she was capable of assuming a multiplicity of selves. Shrimpton’s versatility in presenting plural and discordant versions of herself as the setting demanded, strongly aided in her success. Her ties to Bailey however, did not exactly set her back either.

In time, Shrimpton worked with the most noted photographers of the time, but it was her relationship with David Bailey that first marked her as a true and prominent model. At some level, she, as his first ‘star,’ ‘made’ him or rather legitimated him, assigning the photographer a new role, as star-maker. (Radner 137) This links back oddly, yet tellingly and undeniably to the character of Dick Avery in Funny Face. “The figure of the photographer as star-maker in this period comes not only to have an economic significance but also a highly charged erotic connotation” (Ibid.). Like Avery’s unsubtle, yet somewhat restrained seduction of Jo in Funny Face, Bailey had more than just economics and artistic impetus in mind when working with Shrimpton.

Not only was Bailey fixated on creating an intensely sexualized aesthetic, but he was also acutely concerned with expressing a sense of instancy in his photographs. Bailey demanded specific movements and gestures from his models. He had an ideal of presenting a “fluid body,” and models served to actualize his vision. The concept of the caught moment—the interruption, was central to his work. This thoroughly progressive outlook and approach fit into the rapidly transforming era and shunning of the old. “Motion had been a touchstone of modernism (rapidly appropriated in fashion photography throughout the twentieth century)” (Radner 137,8). Additionally, “the emphasis on exaggeratedly angular and anxious permutations of the fluid body was a central component of the look of the time” (Ibid.). Bailey gave movement precedence over the garments, instancy over organization and sexuality over decorum. His photographs seem to be more about gratuitous display and using the body to sell the clothes.

Perhaps the occasionally subtle and often not so subtle villianization of Bailey’s persona can be explained or rationalized in part by the cycle of domination by specific elements of the structure, practices and conventions in fashion photography already in place and that remain today. Rodriguez writes how the genre remains dominated by sexually charged images of women. He additionally notes that models remain an exploited and predominantly elite group, who through commercial pressures, have to possess just the right features, physique, good looks and youthful appearance. While the notions of beauty and sexual attractiveness do shift from decade to decade, there are some constants in the most desirable characteristics, most universally, thinness, youth and impeccable bone structure (51). The author acknowledges a pre-set standard. Fashion photographers are only participating in what has been previously established. Bailey is merely acting and creating based on the history laid out before him, only he takes it to a new extreme. Here, Bailey becomes relevant in relation to these shifts as well as addressing the issue of exploitation.

Consider Bailey’s disclosure at the height of his success: ‘With Jean (Shrimpton) it’s her waifishness…with Susan (Murray) it’s her sensitiveness sometimes I hate what I am doing to these girls. It turns them from human beings into objects. They come to believe they actually are like I photograph them and it gives me a terrific feeling of power. Power and destruction. (Ibid.)

Even the famed bad-boy of fashion photography has misgivings about his art and its powers to transform and overdetermine identity. Through the process of being photographed, the ‘fashioned’ woman becomes a body and a body alone.