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Essay: Corinne Day's Pioneering Impact on Fashion Photography

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For this analysis, I will be considering the artwork of Corinne Day throughout her career and looking at how she changed and shaped fashion photography. Corinne Day was a British, self-taught fashion photographer. She was brought up by her grandmother who impacted a lasting influence over her creative views and style. She was in to music, partying, and producing playful and provocative images that were unusual to the fashion industry, creating her own aesthetic that went on to cause a controversial trend in fashion photography. Her technique was uncompromising, and of an impetuous truthfulness, providing a genuine reality of her life. Day’s photographic prints have been likened to ‘gritty documentary freeze frames’ from a home movie, appearing to try and be anything but formalised fashion photography, natural and without style. Her work has been labelled as themes of ‘grunge, dirty realism, imperfect beauty, and anti-fashion’.

Day’s career began when working for ‘The Face’ magazine, photographing young and upcoming models at the time such as Kate Moss. Her photographic style and approach was new to fashion photography, having a more candid and intimate manner about it. It was common for Day to create fun and exciting friendships with her subjects, this helped to emphasize the intimacy and reality captured. Her first well recognised series of images was ‘The 3rd Summer of Love’, July 1990. This is made up of several black and white candid images, containing a youthful Kate Moss. The series celebrates club, rave, and festival music. It appears that Moss is carelessly, and playfully posing on a beach in very little clothing and concern for the camera, representing youthful fan culture. Moss can be seen topless, with no makeup, and smoking in this series whilst her long hair is loose with two small braids at the front, providing a childlike look. This series provided image with poses being a lot more natural and free feeling. One of the most popular and recognisable images from this series is of Kate Moss grinning, scrunching up her nose at the camera, with a fabric and feather headdress. The new and intriguing documentary feel to these fashion images gained a lot of attention for Corinne Day.

She went on to photograph for Vogue magazine in June 1993, producing a series of images titled ‘Under Exposed. This soon became one of her most talked about series. There was controversy and back lash over her photographs glamorising drug use. This series of images were close photographs of Kate Moss placed around various areas of her London flat, only wearing her knickers and a vest. Moss appears pellucid, sad and gloomy with a subdued face, the opposite of her previous shoot with Corinne. These images were again used as a response to the glitz and glamour of the fashion industry, with Corinne rebelling against this through her photography. This series for Vogue was produced as a lingerie spread, however the imagery gained a lot of negative press concerning the ‘grunge’ lifestyle being shown, due to the sexual ambiguity and cheap lingerie, in a grimy location. During the 1990’s, Corinne Day’s work became labelled ‘heroin chic’, the most controversial trend of the decade. She is considered to have played a part in the launch of the waif era in fashion. This series caused controversy due to the worry over glamorising an unhealthy way of living. It was viewed as candid, and unartful. A lot of attention was brought to her work, with concern over Moss appearing ill, being extremely thin. The ideas relating to the ‘heroin chic’ trend was becoming an aesthetic. Drug use was becoming an aesthetic. With models withdrawing from society, and a view of disengagement and boredom. Her new emerging ‘heroin chic’ fashion photography was slammed by the press with a ‘tidal wave of disapproval’. (John Hartley)

With these series of photographs, Corinne Day had been pushing her anti-fashion approach in order to change the fashion industry. She would visualise people she knew and the life experiences she had. Day wanted to integrate her real life and the fashion industry, as opposed to the stylised and unrelatable fashion photography that had been known previously, changing the way of women in fashion. “I wanted the ordinary person to see real life in those pages” (Cotton, 2000). She would explore the less perfect, more inclusive concepts in beauty through this ‘grunge, waif, and heroin chic’ style. Day tried to bring out the model’s personality in her photographs, wearing ordinary, second hand clothes and would shoot in dull environments, highlighting this emergence of individuality. She would walk away from the camera until the models would become bored and fidgety, creating this spontaneous and realistic fashion imagery. (Sheryl Garratt, 2013)

Corinne’s career had become very, very controversial. She had produced work and played a big role in the launch of this new photographic style. It was dangerous, influential, and caused a lot of concern internationally. ‘Under Exposed’ in 1993 produced the big rise in concern. There were accusations of Day glamorising drug use. The thin, tired, and weak looking Kate Moss who was carelessly placed in a grubby flat highly resembled someone hooked on heroin. The way in which Day was photographing a model for a well-respected magazine, who appears unhealthy due to an illegal substance, is an uncomfortable view. It most certainly is not something that should have been advertised and encouraged further as it had the potential to have caused serious damage to others. The response to this image came from discomfort and disappointment, that this new trend had been introduced with major concern over the way in which it will influence others, especially the younger generations of the time. The waif appearance of Moss was another problem for spectators, with some claiming that Moss is bordering on anorexic. This encouragement of slenderness being beautiful, caused a lot of misconceptions as to what is right, healthy, and beautiful. It can damage women’s thoughts on body image, diminishing their self-esteem. For some, it can cause crazy crash diets and disordered eating with such an intense desire to appear ‘beautiful’. Glamorising drug abuse, and unhealthy weight can be very harmful to some, and cause lasting impacts. It can change people’s lives, influencing them in the wrong ways.

Along with the worries of glamorising drugs, and anorexia, there were accusations of ‘Under Exposed’ containing child pornography and sexualisation due to the young age of Kate Moss. When these photographs were taken, Moss was 18 years old. Marion Hume, a British fashion journalist, responded to this series of images stating that they ‘glamorise starvation, and invite the spectator to stare at a sexualised child who looks back at the camera with the passivity of a victim’, there were concerns relating to Day condoning underage sex, paired with the clear awkwardness of Moss found throughout the series. Following the accusations of child sexualisation, there is a theme of vulnerability found within the imagery, linked to the innocence of her age. Moss’ ‘naked and bruised’ stare reflected the brutality she experienced working in the fashion industry (Caroline Evans, 2003). In contrast to the negative responses to these photographs, the Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman defended Corinne Day’s work expressing “personally I think they’re beautiful. The kiddie porn accusation is ridiculous” (John Hartley, Ellie Rennie).

Following these anxieties, it raises question over who is responsible and what is right? One could argue that Corinne Day was responsible as she took the photographs and achieved this desired look from her shoot with Kate Moss. However, Vogue magazine took the work on board and approved the images to be shared further, does this mean Vogue are of a higher responsibility? For Corinne as a fashion photographer there is a certain amount of social responsibility that she carries, as well as Vogue. The circulation of fashion photographs that take place in mass movements provide insight to the current aesthetic ideals. This advertising plays a significant part in circulating and reinforcing bodily standards. These can be negatively impacting on those viewing, especially when unachievable and unhealthy processes are required. Psychological research studies prove that self-esteem has been lowered by unrealistic ideals, which can lead to eating disorders and numerous other health problems. This creates a lot of concern over the ‘heroin chic’ style and trend involving an unhealthy and dangerous aesthetic to be achieved through the use of drugs. Considering the lifestyle and ideals photographed, there is question over Corinne Day’s ethical choices, and her play in responsibility when capturing these photographs and choosing to share them on such a wide scale as Vogue. (Finklestein 1998)

After the media storm of controversy over ‘Under Exposed’, Vogue 1993, Day felt her imagery had been rejected which led to her taking break from fashion photography. She turned to focus on a more documentary style, personal project titled ‘Diary’. Diary was a series that Day produced by taking photographs of her close circle of friends and life experiences. It displays very real and intimate moments, now made into a book, consisting of 100 photographs accumulated over 10 years. They follow a very similar theme to the ‘heroin chic’ imagery, but even more explicit. This imagery often contained the realities of living in a grotty flat/squat, that would be trashed and smashed up with minimal belongings. Revealing the everyday realities of sex, drugs, tough times and the best of times, documenting her day to day. This series also included a lot of insight into Tara St Hill’s life, following her relationship, pregnancy, and life being a single mum. Diary is found to be ‘painfully intimate’ to view, with no event too private for Corinne to capture and share. Day explained her subject choice, saying ‘To me, photography is about showing us things we don’t normally see. Getting as close as you can to real life’.

The heroin chic style and trend grew on an international scale, exposing the darker and sadder side to the fashion world. It progressively got more and more extreme with other photographers adapting their style to shoot in accordance, such as Nan Goldin, Jeurgen Teller, and Davide Sorrenti. With the growth in glamorising this lifestyle, huge worry started to be addressed by those high up and outside of the fashion industry too. For years the fashion industry had denied that drug use among creatives had any significance to the heroin chic style and trend, but the early death of Davide Sorrenti in 1997, due to a heroin overdose highlighted its prevalence. A significant moment followed this, with Bill Clinton addressing the current issues in contemporary fashion during a press conference stating ‘the glorification of heroin is not creative, it’s destructive’. Clinton made it clear that this trend was unnecessary and dangerous, encouraging everyone to view it this way. He finished his comments on the trend with a reminder that ‘glorifying death is not good for any society’. This statement was met with mixed responses from the fashion world, some felt he was voicing many people’s fears, whilst others thought the trend was over and it was too late.

Following the heroin chic decade, several images were exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The exhibition was titled ‘Imperfect Beauty’, taking place in 2000 – 2001. Peter Campbell, an art critic at the London Review of Books, visited the exhibition and found that the fashion photography displayed had become less focused on the clothes, but more about the stories told and experienced in these clothes. He questioned whether ‘art invaded fashion or fashion swallowed art’. Campbell also addressed in his response to the exhibition that all the photographers wanted to not only focus on the clothing but make it a little more personal, and rebellious to previous fashion photography, especially Corinne Day. He concluded

“Corinne Day’s pictures in Imperfect Beauty are, on the face of it, the most personal of all. When she took fashion pictures she wanted to ‘instil some reality into a world of fantasy’. Yet her girls, in this context, artful. Photographs have lost the special status they had as evidence, but we still sort out, as far as we can, the real from the make-believe. Sometimes (as in the case of Sally Mann’s pictures of her children) people get agitated because the signals are ambiguous. Fashion, the most artificial of photographic genres, will use any style – no matter how un-artful – to catch your eye. But the story the interviews in Imperfect Beauty tell often suggests a hankering for picture-making projects in which ‘selling an item of clothing’ is not the highest priority.”

In addition to Peter Campbells observations, John Hartley’s analysis of Kate Moss as an icon within the fashion industry stated that fashion is at the centre of contemporary cultural life, saying that fashion imagery is “the undisputed avant-garde visual art of the era”. Both of these analyses suggest that the 1990’s, and work of Corinne Day changed fashion photography by focusing more on culture than just fashion. It changed the way spectators visualise fashion, providing more detail and depth to the image, thinking of more than just the clothing. These statements both coincide with Day’s intentions, implying that her photography did represent the current generation and provide insight to others of the current lifestyle for many.  

After a few years out of the fashion photography industry, Corinne Day did return to Vogue in 2000. She also reunited with Kate Moss for this shoot. Despite their time apart, the imagery felt no different. Her photographs, similar to before, appeared comfortably posed and free feeling. Kate Moss laying on a sofa covering her topless breasts with a cushion and being seated on a stool in an empty room just wearing underwear whilst eating a sandwich. The main difference in this imagery is that Moss is found wearing high end lingerie and clothing. The imagery maintains the awkward posing and lazing around look that had previously caused outrage with concern over the ‘heroin chic’ style. She had returned to fashion photography, with an intention to produce more traditional and commercial imagery in an attempt avoid such controversy she experienced before. She went on to produce many more series for Vogue, working with a number of different models.

In conclusion, this anti-glamour, informal, and dressed down aesthetic that Corinne Day played a role in creating within the fashion industry, caused huge controversy, and for good reason. Day always denied her photography had any intention of glamorising drugs, and explained she was representing real life within her fashion photographs. This is hard to challenge, especially once viewing her series titled ‘Diary’ as the images found within that are made up from a ten-year period but continue such a consistent theme that can be likened to her fashion photography. Peter Campbells exhibition response also addressed the use of ‘reality’ within Corinne Day’s photography. He found them to be very personal and viewed Day’s intention of installing a reality to the fantasy of the fashion world. Caroline Evans, a professor of fashion history, also found Day’s photography to have a ‘uncomfortable authenticity, a kind of ugly truthfulness’. This backs up the intention of reality from Day, and less of a desire to glamorise drugs within her imagery. ‘The Observer’ newspaper commented on this visual culture, stating that without Day, we would never have the ‘stripped down glamour or unscrubbed beauty. Anti-fashion wouldn’t exist’ (O’Connell 2001). The heroin chic trend gradually came to a close, with changes found in fashion photography as the style and thought-provoking approach made its mark. In today’s society, photography in this style appears less controversial to view, I believe this to be because Corinne Day made the first move in the 1990’s by producing more shocking and realistic photographs, that over the years through much controversy we have learnt to accept ‘grunge’ and ‘anti-fashion’ photography. Interestingly, more shocking and direct imagery relating to drug use has been produced since, such as the 2007 Sisley advertising campaign titled ‘Fashion Junkie’. This allows me to question if the ‘heroin chic’ trend has actually ended, and if it ever really will. When concerning Corinne Day’s photography career and the impact it had on the fashion industry, it was dangerous and negatively influential to society during the 90’s decade. However, her work did raise awareness of drug abuse through the controversy caused as well as provided the fashion industry with a new style that may need approaching differently in the future. It gave fashion photography a wider subject range, expanding the way in which fashion can be communicated and portrayed. Overall, when viewing her images now they are a lot more forgiving due to the candour used but also the subtler approach to drug use, unlike some fashion campaigns found in the 2000’s.

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