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From Fashion to Pornography : The Viewer Confronts Himself in Current Photography

From 1999 to 2008, the famous clothing brand Sisley hired Terry Richardson, the so-called soft porn photographer, to shoot its new advertising campaigns. The result of this meeting of porn and fashion was rather unexpected... The boundaries between porn and fashion pictures have become porous ever since the work of such photographers : glamour has become a part of decadence and decadence a part of the sublime.

 Lucille Toth-Colombié

A porn aesthetic ?

It appears that 70’s and 80’s porn has strongly influenced the fantasy and myth surrounding today’s pornography. The young model in Lee’s publicity still (http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_E2Ed7lgEABs/R_plkbXN4eI/AAAAAAAAC-s/iYJiELSqrdQ/s400/Terry+Richardson+-+Sisley+-Farm+-+2001.jpg) looks high, a wild child. She sticks out her tongue to receive cow’s milk in her mouth (an image more than obviously of masculine ejaculation which reminds us of another “normal” practice in today’s porn suggesting the “facial” - another extreme transgression). Richardson’s model touches the cow’s teats. She squeezes them to obtain the milk, and thus she has physical contact with the cow, a real contact. On the other hand, in Lachapelle’s picture, Naomi Campbell is in a purified space with fake bottles of milk and fake lights. The milk falling on her body symbolizes ejaculate as well, but the colors and the set are so elaborate that what the viewer remembers is not the pornographic image but the artistic work.
Lachapelle’s image reminds me of a very famous French milk advertisement from the 90’s : (http://www.youtube.com/watch ?v=yXCXHqf6INA&feature=related). The slogan was “Les produits laitiers... des sensations pures !” This commercial staged teenagers drinking milk and, after drinking it, sensually wiping white liquid from their lips. The sperm reference was obvious and sexuality very present. Why does white liquid on the mouth have this sexual connotation ? To answer this question, we have to return to a long pornographic film tradition and to the Deep Throat generation, when porn looked fun and liberating, and when buying a ticket was “an act of freedom, an act of revolution,” as explained in the documentary Inside Deep Throat. In the 70’s, porn was not yet the big industry that it is today ; it looked light, easy, refreshing - even if, as McNeil and Osborne show in their book, The Other Hollywood : The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, mafia and traffickers used to control porn and “fun porn” was always already an illusion.
So, am I claiming that porn aesthetic is an aesthetic of the real ? Am I saying that, because these images stage a true event, they are pornographic ? It seems that, in its own way, Nan Goldin’s work was as pornographic as Richardson’s pictures. Junkies who used to shoot up in front of her camera showed an authentic truth. The syringe was real, the spoon was real, the lighter as well, everything was authentic. This mixing of porn and fashion has come to influence and sexualize fashion, but what about porn ? Is it now accepted because of its entrance into the fashion world ? Some of Richardson’s exhibits started debates, including one of his pictures in particular. He took a picture of himself while having sex with a girl, an image which has been exhibited and acclaimed throughout the world as a work of art, as part of Terry Richardson’s amazing corpus. How does such a picture change the reception of the sexual body ? Is the naked body (with the exception of shoes and socks conscientiously kept on !) accepted or considered a pornographic body ? Or is it considered as an artistic and aesthetic work ?
The real question is then : when porn is everywhere, does the category still have a meaning ? Does the excitement of porn not reside in the fact that it is hidden and forbidden ? And then, is this modified (chic and soft) porn still pornographic ? What is the interest of being pornographic when porn is accepted and seen by everybody ? I think the most important point here lies not merely in the mixing of genres, but in the impact of this mixing on the viewer, on the consumer and on his body. Fashion was supposed to perfect the body, to fire the consumer’s imagination through images, while porn was supposed to realize deviant, unspeakable and even unviewable desire. Lachapelle’s perfect bodies, even if extremely sexualized, are still kept on the viewable side. On another hand, Richardson’s bodies show a truth and a kind of body we do not want (and are not allowed) to see.

New images, new viewer ?

As I said earlier, with these porno-fashion pictures, the viewer is trapped. Trapped because we think we are watching an advertisement, when in fact we are watching a normally unauthorized picture, an unauthorized body - unauthorized by society, church, morality (perhaps we can recall here the difficulty for women of talking about sodomy and of confessing to doing it). Fashion is supposed to be the model to follow, that of the perfect body. Thus, if fashion sexualizes its bodies and its clothes, we are supposed to do the same. This process destabilizes what we used to believe in, and what used to be our limits. While playing with the importance of the body and making defects an aesthetic asset, Richardson undoes our narcissist identification.
Porn is not a place of identification because a pornographic picture is by definition saturated, in Baudrillard’s sense (“saturé”) : the subject cannot creep into this image, he is never looking at his own desire but at the orgasm of the Other, or what he thinks is the Other’s orgasm. Since it is “saturée,” the image cannot work as a mirror. The pornographic image is not a model as fashion can be, nor is it a norm (and we know how normative fashion is). Instead, it is the place where the subject returns to himself as a viewer. Sociologist Richard Poulin explains, in his book Le sexe spectacle, that arousal could come from a self-satisfaction, a desire to see ourselves come to an orgasm, a desire to be a viewer. He takes the example of clients in a strip club, showing how all the artifices surrounding the dance and the dancer’s body (during private dances, she is surrounded by mirrors so that her body is seen from every angle) are conceived to allow the man to watch himself while he is watching the dancer. The client is then as excited by the object he watches (a naked woman paid by and for him) as by the very idea of seeing himself watching and feeling his own arousal. This all adds up to a feeling of power over the desired object. The kind of voyeurism that Poulin uses in his analysis puts the viewer at the center of the pornographic logic. The Other is merely a support for oneself : the dancer is only used to reflect the narcissistic desire of one’s own body, of one’s own sex.
In Richardson’s picture, we also find this idea of being aroused by one’s own gaze as a viewer. The photographer likes to take part in his pictures as a participant (“actant”) and not just as a maker. He wants to be identified within the picture and, at the same time, he embodies the viewer’s body. Because he has the impression of being in the image, the viewer can therefore begin the usual process of identification. With Richardson’s work, the image is mocking us ; we believe that we are watching an advertisement when we are actually facing a sex scene. Then what we used to believe to be certain and established collapses. Our reference points do not apply any more (the bodies change, the aesthetic changes and, therefore, the message changes). Psychoanalysis would speak here of the collapse of the self and of the mourning of the ideal self, a collapse that would turn the body (as it was imagined) into a cadaver. But I would rather speak here of a rebuilding of the subject. The subject is betrayed in the process of being shown images that reconfigure the usual representations and their limits. The subject is given a new model, a new path to follow. _ Richardson completely embodies this idea. He first induces in the viewer a form of mourning while presenting him the opposite of a fantasy (the dirty reality), and inflicting on him bodies that are the opposite of what he is expecting, but he ultimately proposes a new model for identification. As I already explained, the Sisley picture, where a girl is going to masturbate in front of Richardson’s camera, reminds us of “homemade” porn (this phenomenon made possible thanks to webcams) rather than an advertisement. Richardson imposes grieving on the viewer ; he shows the viewer the collapse of what he believed was the truth. It seems that Richardson sees in such a de-dramatization of bodies (sexual and sublime), in such an ironic game of being, a symbolic new birth. While turning technical “defects” into an aesthetic asset and dealing with bodies in a highly frivolous manner, he turns narcissistic identification into something more constructive. Since his desire for narcissistic identification is not satisfied, the viewer grows frustrated, disappointed with too much realism. The idea that a picture must be the embodiment of a dream, or a way out of reality, is here taken against the grain. Richardson constructs a new reality with his free and spontaneous, fun and unprepared snapshots, and he turns it into the new dream, the new model. If Fashion accepts Richardson, we must then laugh at ourselves and take our bodies less seriously, laugh at Fashion, laugh at sexual taboos and then, laugh at pornography.
Although he proceeds differently, aesthetically speaking, Lachapelle also plays with the consumer’s desire to identify. He gives way to dreams, to the sublime, but he acts in a much more perverse manner than Richardson does. With Lachapelle, the fall is harder, the cadaver much heavier. The viewer is betrayed by the illusion of a so-called satisfied fantasy. The image is perfect : it corresponds to expected fashion standards and yet, the message denounces and points a finger at us. In the documentary that was based on his work, Lachapelle explains that he hates, among other things, coffee, luxury clothes, fur, junk food and plastic surgery. Nonetheless, he has worked for Lavazza, Louis Vuitton, and the TV show Nip/Tuck. He uses images and his work to convey his political ideas and surrounds them with glitter and glamour. For the Lavazza campaign, for example, one of his pictures shows, for example, a black woman with a small cup of Lavazza covering her sexual organs and some white sugar spread on her breasts. The sugar represents cocaine and coffee thus becomes, for Lachapelle, a drug like any other.
Thus, yet again, narcissistic identification is thwarted. The process moves towards a re-opening of the inquiry, an obligatory questioning, instead of towards a reunion with the ideal self. And yet, once again, faced with the anguish of betrayal, the viewer looks for safety. It is therefore within himself, within the fantasy that he had of his own life, that he will find the means to overcome his own loss. Richardson was laughing at us from the very beginning, while Lachapelle starts with glitter in order to humiliate us even more deeply, and, eventually, more openly. These two artists give us beautiful disillusions that attack every single one of our reference points : fashion, sex, society, politics, art, nothing will be spared. Everything deserves to be processed and thought about again.


Baudrillard, Jean. L’échange symbolique et la mort. Paris : Gallimard, 1979.
Corliss, Richard. “That Old Feeling : When Porno Was Chic” in Time : March 29, 2005.
Gautier, Théophile. De la mode : 1858. (http://www.bmlisieux.com/archives/delamode.htm)
Lachapelle, David. Hotel Lachapelle. Boston, Bulfinch, 1999.
Lachapelle, David. David Lachapelle. Kempen, TeNeus, 2008.
Goldin, Nan. A Double Life. New York : Scalo Publisher, 1994.
Richardson, Terry.TerryWorld. Taschen, 2004.
Vigarello, Georges. Le propre et le sale. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1985.


David Lachapelle. USA, 2005.
Bailey, Fenton and Randy Barbato. Inside Deep Throat. USA, 2005, 91 minutes.


http://www.lachapellestudio.com/ _Lachapelle :

Les produits laitiers :
http://www.youtube.com/watch ?v=yXCXHqf6INA&feature=related
Tom Ford advertisement :
Lee’s advertisement :

Sisley’s advertisement :
http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_E2Ed7lgEABs/R_plkbXN4eI/AAAAAAAAC-_ s/iYJiELSqrdQ/s400/Terry+Richardson+-+Sisley+-Farm+-+2001.jpg

Lavazza’s advertisement :
http://www.lachapellestudio.com/advertising/lavazza/ ?ci=22

L'unité réelle minima ce n'est ni le mot ni l'idée ou le concept, ni le signifiant, mais l'agencement. Claire & Gilles
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