COLLECTING
Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Harper’s Bazaar: A Decade of Style at ICP

Stephanie Seymour by Patrick Demarchelier, Courtesy of ICP

While it is to Harper’s Bazaar Editor-in-Chief Glenda Bailey’s credit that she did, in fact, come to New York City to take her post at the famed magazine the day after September 11, her work during the following decade is not anchored in that event. It is rather a continuation of a long tradition at the American monthly (founded in 1867) to popularize fashion, to impact Americans’ understanding of aesthetics, and to bring a little bit of joy and style in every home in America.

Rather than linking the exhibit on view at the International Center of Photography to the September 11 exhibit, also at ICP, at the lower level galleries, one gets a better, more complete picture of what America is about when reflecting on this exhibit’s relationship to the representations of the Great Depression by Danish documentary photographer Peter Sekaer (1901-1950).

A friend of Walker Evans, Sekaer traveled to the American South during the Farm Security Administration years, and photographed (very much in Walker Evans’s style) what caught his painterly-trained, graphic eye.  His photographs span the years from 1935 to 1945 (another decade of American history) and have recorded the humanity of those who both suffered through but also survived the Great Depression.

Here we have it: Two instances of iconic imagery in America, 75 years apart. Compared to this country’s young age, these 75 years represent a substantial amount of time, during which a major transformation took place. When both the Depression and the Second World War were over, Americans became aware of their longing for material goods, demonstrative nature for acquired status, and rather misguided approach to European culture.  Today, one does not have to look hard for these traits. Bling is everywhere. It is big; it is flashy; it is American. It is a way of celebration for those who went through very tough years.

Peter Sekaer, A Sign Business Shop, 1935, Courtesy of Peter Sekaer Estate

And this is where the Harper’s Bazaar exhibit becomes relevant again and picks up the conversation exactly where Sekaer leaves it.  Fashion is as much an escape as it is an art. People should have fun with it and in the process enjoy their own life. The photographic tales, therefore, that Glenda Bailey and Harper’s Bazaar Creative Director Stephen Gan created within the last ten years operate on multiple levels. They inform, entertain, and impact everyday aesthetics with the power that only high-circulation media have.

Which also brings me to my last point about the exhibit itself, a true gem of curatorial design. ICP Guest Curator and long time photography critic for The New Yorker, Vince Aletti, is telling the American magazine’s tale while treating it for exactly what it is: a monthly, a magazine that, more often than not, is thrown to the trash as soon as the next issue comes out. The history of the last decade is certainly important for the magazine but also for its Chief Editor. As such, the individual issues are featured under closed glass cases, alongside labels that highlight the themes and photographers who developed them.  But the stories themselves, the creative spreads and imaginative mise-en-scènes are pinned to the walls as is suited for magazine pages that one usually tears out of the issue and tucks away into a wish-list journal until the next shopping opportunity (if any). Finally, some of the most iconic pictures by famous fashion photographers (such as Karl Lagerfeld, Patrick Demarchelier, Peter Lindbergh to name just a few) are framed and hung in a visually sharp composition that respects their intended size and allows the viewer to pause and reflect, drawn once again into the magical world of fashion magazines and away from reality, whatever this may be at the moment.

Harper’s Bazaar: A Decade of Style through January 8, 2012
International Center of Photography
An accompanying book, Harper’s Bazaar: Greatest Hits is available in the ICP store and online at www.icp.org/store.

© Thomaï Serdari