Sunday, December 30, 2012

When Art and Fashion Collaborate: A Critique of Bottega Veneta's "The Art of Collaboration"

The fashion industry is all about collaboration and inspiration. Collaborating with fashion designers, photographers, stylists, hairstylists, editors, and artists, the industry always strives to bring together a variety of creatives and ideas that inspire new work. Inspiration for ad campaigns can stem from a variety of places including photographers. Sometimes the photographer is highlighted and the company will incorporate the photographer’s name into the branding of their company and image. 

One prominent example of this is photographer Jeurgen Teller for Marc Jacobs. Teller’s name is displayed at the bottom of the advertisements and his name has become almost synonymous with the Marc Jacob’s brand. Regardless of the season, Marc Jacobs sticks to a similar visual style and is consistent not only with his visual campaign but the way the campaign is imaged, with the display of the photographer’s name as an integral piece of the construct of the visual imagery.

However, more often than not the photographer who photographed the advertising campaign is not brought into recognition: their name and identity is not a part of the visual or conceptual marketing strategy. There are also times when a fine art photographer is recruited to lens a specific ad campaign as a way of defining a certain visual style for the brand.

Bottega Veneta is one example of a fashion label that regularly recruits fine art photographers to shoot ad campaigns as a means of capitalizing on the exclusiveness of fine art photography and providing another element of interest in their visual style. Tomas Maier, creative director of the fashion company Bottega Veneta, is inspired by fine art photographers and integrates them and their unique visual styles into the brand by collaborating with them to shoot advertising campaigns for the company. He calls this “the art of collaboration” and selects a different fine art photographer whose personal visual and photographic style is in sync with the feel and message he wants to convey with his clothing line for a particular season. 

For Maier, collaborating with fine art photographers is a way to indulge in a creative medium that he enjoys as well as creating the opportunity to do something different and to stand out in the fashion world. For an article for W Magazine, art and fashion critic Sarah Haight wrote, “[Maier] shrewdly began trading on his commercial success for more personal projects, namely, hiring fine-art photographers, many whose work he collects, to shoot the company’s campaigns. Among those Maier has engaged are Sam Taylor-Wood, Nan Goldin, Lord Snowdon and Larry Sultan… In an industry that has typically relied on a small cadre of fashion photographers to handle multimillion-dollar advertising projects, the use of, say, Tina Barney (spring 2007) and Philip-Lorca diCorcia (fall 2005) was considered risky, not to mention provocative.”

The interesting thing in Maier’s decision to hire fine art photographers to photograph an ad campaign is that he expected the images to speak for themselves. Bottega Veneta has never advertised the name of the photographer on the actual layout of the advertisement and only really makes the identity of the photographer known in press releases or can be looked up online in order to see the proper credit. Why then would Maier go to such trouble to be risky or provocative if no one could outwardly tell the difference? Were the photographic and visual styles of the fine art photographers so radically different that it provoked the public? Maier addresses this question in his W interview and discusses artist Nan Goldin as an example,

“And while Goldin’s campaign shots are much more polished and subdued compared with her raw images of New York’s subcultures, circa 1986, there is…a distinct imprint. Just don’t expect to see her name, or that of any of Maier’s collaborators, on the ads any time soon. “When I get the layout [from the art directors], it has the name on the bottom, and I say, ‘You can take that off right away because it’s insulting,’” Maier says. “If you know anything about photography, you recognize it. If you don’t recognize it and you have your doubts, look it up, you know?”

Maier assumes that each of the campaigns that are shot are successful in establishing the identity of a particular artist. For many of Bottega Veneta’s ad campaigns, the photographers will work in their own photographic style: the reason for which they were brought to the attention of Maier in the first place. For example, for the Bottega Veneta ad campaign, Nan Goldin photographed with natural light and captured a certain intimate softness that is characteristic of her personal work.

Similarly, Phillip-Lorca diCorcia photographed his ad campaign in an urban street scene with carefully constructed lines and reflections that too, are visual characteristics that are reflected in his personal work.

Goldin and diCorcia were artists who were able to work in their own style for a commercial purpose. The identity of the artist, based on consistent visual characteristics could be easily hinted at because of the stylization and personalization of the images they photographed.

The photographers who shoot for Bottega Veneta are not always easily identifiable based on their personal work. The most recent “collaboration” for the fashion company was with artist Collier Shorr. In the press release for the campaign, Shorr is described as, “…an American artist best known for photographs of adolescents that combine photographic realism with elements of fiction and fantasy. Her central subject is identity, which she often explores through the lenses of gender, sexuality, and nationality. Schorr’s images are direct and immediate, their impact heightened by the evident engagement between artist and subject.” Because the press release description characterizing Shorr’s work is relatively vague, it does not set the campaign up to identify with a particular style. Disappointingly, the images from the campaign do not illustrate or display any identifying visual characteristics of Collier Shorr’s personal style. 

The campaign was photographed against a blank concrete wall with no other hints at a location other than the use of daylight. The model is delicately resting against the wall as as she clutches a bag and stares into the camera. She is doing nothing out of the ordinary or behaving in a way that is unfamiliar as advertising vocabulary. The only interesting or perhaps unique part of the image is that the model stands on her tip toes with her feet slightly askew, which is hardly enough of a defining visual characteristic to warrant commissioning an art photographer to inject some of their personal photographic style into an advertising campaign.

Normally, a photographer for an advertising campaign wouldn’t attract so much scrutiny to their adherence to personal style if it weren’t for the way in which Bottega Veneta went about advertising their campaign. If a brand wants to stress the individuality and personal style of a certain photographer, then they should make that come across as a priority through the images. The implications of being hired for a personal artistic style and not communicating them properly or effectively, make us question the intent of hiring someone for their personal style. Many factors are at play during an advertising campaign. Even with a brand such as Bottega Veneta that prides itself on granting artists creative freedom, the message of artistic and stylistic retention and preservation is at play.

 If a unique visual style is not apparent in an ad campaign even to someone who is familiar with fine art photographers then what is the point of having to “look them up” as Maier suggests? If a brand goes to such lengths to stress the importance of individual style then it should be apparent somewhere in the images. If an artistic voice isn’t properly communicated through visual imagery then perhaps the creative team should have stepped in and advocated for more of a personal voice from the photographer. 


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