After eighteen years of glory, W magazine, the fashion and art bible, is suffering. The current recession and the crisis crippling the magazine industry have undermined its basis of success and forced a rethinking of its editorial vision. The era of the forward thinking creative director Dennis Freedman has come to an end: he resigned in early April. In an ailing economy there is no longer latitude for his expensive shoots, artistic experiments, and satiric take on the industry. To trace his tenure is to mark out the contours of a brief, creative confluence of fashion, art, and consumer fervor in the magazine world – and of a period of sardonic exuberance in the luxury echelons of the world.
The cool version of W was born in 1993, a dramatic year for American fashion magazines. At Harper’s Bazaar a new power duo of editor Liz Tilberis and art director Fabien Baron planned to restore the glossy’s lost luster, working with such art photographers as Cindy Sherman, Nobuyoshi Araki and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Anna Wintour strove to turn Vogue into America’s leading fashion title. And at W, a small team of editors sought to turn a 20-year-old, biweekly newspaper supplement of the fashion trade publication, Women’s Wear Daily, into an innovative new consumer magazine that would mix European-style sophistication with an aggressive commercial strategy.
If the then modest magazine could never compete with mass-market behemoths Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar for readership numbers, W’s editorial director Patrick McCarthy, design director Edward Leida and creative director Dennis Freedman brainstormed about reshaping it into a cutting-edge publication that would challenge the big books for impact and influence. For months, Freedman and Leida exchanged ideas in Leida’s Honda Prelude while commuting to and from W’s midtown Manhattan office to their houses on the eastern end of Long Island. Rather than copying other monthlies, their plan was to appeal to the very wealthy in a booming economy and become a trendsetter in the industry by experimenting with photography and design. W would distinguish itself with a bold vision, bringing a downtown twist to its uptown sensibility. It was to stay true to its newsy origins and to publisher John Fairchild’s legendarily witty coverage of society and culture. “It is our goal to keep the feisty spirit of the magazine that we have successfully published for 21 years,” claimed the editorial staff in the July 1993 issue. “As for size, W will be big – much bigger than any fashion magazine – and we trust, much more exciting.”
Freedman had an atypical profile. He wasn’t much interested in fashion and had never imagined that he would work in that field for more than 20 years, becoming one of the industry’s most influential voices. He had studied interior decoration, art and design and particularly admired William Eggleston’s color shots of ordinary objects or the socially minded images of Robert Frank. Inspired by the daring approach of celebrated art directors Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar from the thirties to the late fifties and Alexander Liberman at Vogue from the forties to the sixties, with whom he would later be compared, and by Fabien Baron’s innovative work at Bazaar, Freedman decided early on that the magazine would not look like a commercial fashion catalogue. His boss John Fairchild, whose own coverage in WWD had openly denounced sacred aspects of the fashion industry for over forty years, supported his unconventional sensibility.
The creative director recognized – and seized – a key moment in a booming economy when contemporary art and fashion were overlapping in increasingly lucrative ways. Freedman became the leading voice of that era in the American publishing industry. “I believed from the beginning that for W to succeed we had to have a different approach,” says Freedman, 59, who favors a laid-back wardrobe consisting of jeans, khakis, plaid shirts and sandals in the summer. (His rugged good looks have drawn comparisons with Warren Beatty and he was named one of the “most beautiful New Yorkers” by New York magazine.) “We could not be an imitation of Vogue. We would have never made it past the first year because there was no way that we would have succeeded on their terms. We had to offer something different and it turned out that as a creative director my background was much more about the visual arts so it was more of my interest.” W repeatedly surprised industry insiders with Freedman’s inventive and often controversial covers and photo spreads, which sometimes ran more than twenty pages. Conscious of the bottom line, he also included conventional shoots to keep advertisers feeling secure. Helped by WWD’s status as the leading voice in fashion, the magazine attracted advertisers.
But far from being smooth, Freedman’s era was defined by a struggle to balance the commercial requirements of the magazine with his more adventurous vision (Freedman generally dislikes the words “edgy,” “freedom” and “modern” when applied to his work.) At first, when it launched in August 1993, the new W featured shopping ideas, travel articles and fresh fashion images shot in a conventional manner. But the format was unusual; the magazine was so large it often couldn’t fit in newsstand racks. Slowly Freedman brought more daring fashion shoots into the editorial well. The erstwhile smiles of models jumping around in sunny fields gave way to tortured-looking girls, sometimes smoking, sometimes angry, and generally sexually ambiguous. The quality of the photos kept pace with the change in content. Bazaar was being acclaimed for merging art and fashion and for hiring such little-known photographers as Craig McDean, Steven Klein and Juergen Teller, who weren’t in the Condé Nast empire; Freedman sought to work with them as well – and gave them more pages and more sway than Bazaar did. “As we became more sophisticated we moved to a higher level of photographers,” says Freedman, “and the times were very much open to experimentation and there was a strong connection to the art world, to challenging photography. The whole environment was one of doing work that challenged and excited the reader.” The first issue to do so aggressively hit stands in September 1995: It featured Steven Klein’s images of Tom Ford and an army of platinum blond-wigged androids, shot in Helmut Newton’s razor-sharp, sexually disturbing style. In one image, Ford sands the tanned bottom of a man with a steering wheel. In another, he kisses a blow-up doll, revealing the plastic and metal structure beneath her silicone skin. Then he is shown naked in bed with two women; wrestling on a mattress with a man; and pushing a sickly model in a wheelchair. Next, in 1996, came Paolo Roversi’s oneiric images of waif-like girls, shot in moody lighting with washes of purple and ruby, and later that year, Mario Sorrenti’s semi-naked model alienated in a purple cyber-land. In 1997 Freedman asked acclaimed fashion photographer Bruce Weber to go to Mississippi to photograph Eudora Welty, the Pulitzer-prize winning author who wrote about the South. The result, a 30-page shoot mixed the gritty style of a black-and-white documentary reportage with the polished color aesthetic of fashion photography. It featured a close-up portrait of Eudora Welty’s 88-year-old face, a portrait of a child, and images of young couples dancing and had an earnest, spontaneous feel rarely seen in the overproduced pages of fashion magazines.
At the heart of W’s creative innovation was Freedman’s narrowing of the gap between art and commerce. He encouraged audacious fashion photographers to rethink the values of commercial imagery and brought into the industry art photographers’ growing interest in, and critique of, the fashion world. In many ways he imported the bubbling energy of London’s underground fashion photography to mainstream America. In the eighties, drawing on London’s street culture, grunge music, the images of Nan Goldin or the films of Larry Clark, a generation of photographers – Juergen Teller, Corinne Day, Nick Knight and Wolfgang Tillmans, among others – started making fashion photos that challenged the glamorous, polished images in mainstream publications. Their raw images sometimes presented sex scenes and the drug addictions of their friends. New magazines such as ID and The Face published their work, along with articles about cutting-edge music, cinema, art and literature. These photographers tackled psychological, political, sexual and economic issues. Sometimes showing models wearing little or no clothing, they highlighted the notion that fashion was also mood, lighting, setting, body language – identity. This new approach brought a self-critical dimension to fashion images, expanding their scope. Fashion photography also became increasingly influenced by the language of cinema’s complex narratives and the snapshot aesthetic, coming to be seen as “a chronicler of contemporary life,” as curator Charlotte Cotton wrote in the catalogue of the V&A’s 2000 exhibition, Imperfect Beauty. Since the eighties critical interest in fashion photography has risen. “Kantian divisions between art and non-art are obsolete in the hypermodern era,” explains philosopher and sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky. “A fashion image can provoke more emotion than a Damien Hirst.”
Hirst’s extravagant art works became the emblem of the nineties economic bubble – and of the artist’s wry manipulation of it – as dot-commers and hedge funders spent massive amounts of money building collections and boosting art’s status as a commodity. Fashion became thoroughly intertwined with this glamorous world: art stars dressed in the trendiest clothes and fashion photographs garnered gallery exhibits, fetching prices as high as $700,000. Art events didn’t simply resemble fashion gatherings; in many ways, the two had merged. In 1993 designer Miuccia Prada founded PradaMilanoarte, a foundation dedicated to contemporary art. François Pinault, the owner of French luxury conglomerate Printemps Pinault Redoute, built one of the largest art collections in the world and bought Christie’s, the auction house, in 1998. “A lot of people in fashion are interested in art and the prestige and high culture associated with art so that collecting art can raise the image of a fashion brand,” says fashion historian Valerie Steele. “If you have artists working with themes from fashion, like the body or deformity, it raises interest from people in the fashion world. Also, the art world has come to resemble the fashion world – glamorous people going to glamorous events.”
Freedman and his collaborators realized that the growing affinities between art and fashion could both be interesting commercially and provide an opportunity for innovation – W would distinguish itself by catering unabashedly to the lavish lifestyle of the young, wealthy, educated readers they targeted, luring the high-end advertisers that would allow them to soar. Meanwhile, mainstream magazines like Vogue were backing away from the heroin chic aesthetic in the mid-nineties after public backlash against it, ceding to pressure from advertisers to show products in a more conventional manner. Bazaar maintained a brash creative direction, but its team always made sure that their shoots catered to the needs of advertisers, featuring enough clothes to meet their expectations and the readers’. “I would have never printed blank pages in a shoot,” says Baron. “I was not making a book, I was making a magazine.” In contrast, W often printed tiny pictures of naked models, blank pages, or entire shoots without shopping credits. “They were building an image,” explains Baron. “In the nineties, it was all about building the brand, building the image.” And W’s strategy paid off. In 1994, W generated $33.5-million in advertising revenue for Fairchild, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, and by 1998 that figure had increased to $87.6-million.
The magazine’s distinctive voice helped attract high-end advertisers. By focusing on a high-end niche, explains Johan Svensson, art director of French Vogue, magazines like W and French and Italian Vogue guaranteed income from luxury advertising and mostly avoided the commercial constraints that come with mass-market magazines. (And thus, they did not reach for the mass-market readership numbers that Vogue commanded – more than a million.) Baron offers another, perhaps more cynical explanation for W’s appeal to advertisers: Because brands wanted good reviews in WWD they advertised in its offshoot.
In his next bold move after the 1997 Mississippi shoot, Freedman commissioned Philip-Lorca diCorcia, an art photographer whose work he admired. A year earlier New York’s Museum of Modern Art had published a book of diCorcia’s work: precisely constructed color images that evoked family Polaroids, film stills or documentary images and blurred the lines between reality and fiction. Using cinematic lighting and built around narratives, they were highly produced and carefully composed. The book included shots from diCorcia’s highly influential “Hustler Series,” portraits of Hollywood men in intimate settings accompanied by text: their names, ages, cities, and the amount of money they required to pose for the picture. When Freedman asked diCorcia if he wanted to work for W, the artist replied, “I don’t really do fashion photography.” He had never heard of the magazine.
“All these fashion photographers are copying your style,” said Freedman. “So you might as well do it yourself.”
Freedman invited diCorcia to come up with an idea for a shoot. He wanted diCorcia to reproduce the cinematic style that had characterized his work from the 1970s to 1990. diCorcia felt that he could return to his earlier style without compromising his artistic integrity. “In a way, people don’t hire you to do something new,” says diCorcia, who says until then he had done commercial work only as a travel photographer for Conde Nast Traveler when actually he had already contributed to Harper’s Bazaar and New York Woman. “But creatively it was interesting because it was another level of production.”
DiCorcia told Freedman he wanted to create a narrative that showed the absurdity of Los Angeles, where he had lived in the early nineties. “It was about how the alienation in a big city like LA could be from having a lot or nothing,” he recalls. Narratives showing social inequalities and the despair that can come with excessive wealth are usually not welcomed in commercial fashion magazines, but Freedman enthusiastically said, “Yeah, great, let’s do it.” The story, called Lost Angels, showed models Kristen McMenamy as a “trophy wife” and Erin O’Connor as a “newly arrived struggling person,” remembers diCorcia. The team had to find ideal settings: a location scout was sent out to make a selection, then the team spent two days roaming in a van to look at different options. The stylist showed diCorcia a large selection of clothes and accessories, including those of favored advertisers, from which he chose several options. Then the shoot began. diCorcia had two assistants, as did the makeup artist, Dick Page, and the stylist, Michel Botbol. Freedman was there, although his interference was minimal. With people moving things in and out, caterers, and others hired to help, the scene reminded diCorcia of a film set where everything had to happen fast; there was no room for error. They cleaned up an abandoned bus full of dead pigeons and filled it with extras. They shot lace dresses, beaded dresses, jeans and thick winter knits, the models sweating under the scorching July sun. The team worked four 15-hour days to produce ten different setups.
The series, which was published as ten double-spreads in W’s September 1997 issue, offered dreamlike images of the models, frozen in enclosed spaces. In one shot, O’Connor sits in the back of a bus with her eyes shut. In another, McMenamy, clad in a body-con cocktail dress and with her hair coiffed in an elaborate chignon, pushes against the glass wall of her modernist mansion. In another, the two characters’ glances meet in the mirror of a public bathroom. In the last spread, the trophy wife seems to be drowning in clear water, her neck bound by a thick metal neckpiece. Both women are trapped in confining spaces, and the layers of glass and mirroring add a voyeuristic dimension to the images. The hyper-saturated colors – carmines, canary yellows, mauves, and bright tropical greenery — suffuse the scenes with a surreal tone.
After the shoot was done, Freedman and diCorcia chose the images and organized them in a narrative order. Freedman showed them to design director Edward Leida, who added graphic, bold typography to the left of the opening image. The last person to approve the shoot was editorial director Patrick McCarthy, who had always supported Freedman’s work and didn’t object to anything diCorcia had done.
He’d have had little justification: That year the magazine was one of the finalists for general excellence at the American Society of Magazine Editors awards. It was the first of a bevy of nominations and awards to follow. In 1999, the media conglomerate Condé Nast purchased Fairchild Publications for $ 650-million and the relatively small-circulation trendsetter now sat in the same stable as Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and Vogue, one of the standards against which W defined itself. “There’s no way that W would have survived if it had tried to approach fashion the way American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar did,” says Freedman. “They had a very specific way of photographing fashion. I always thought that W needed to play on something else, visually stimulating photography that dealt with the subject of the woman in the picture, more than trying to make a story out of the theme of what she’s wearing. The stories did not begin with the idea that we’re going to do color blocking for you, or that we’re going to do this kind of shape – it’s about what kind of story we’re trying to tell, sometimes loose narratives. And with artists we were working with fashion as a tool of expression.”
After Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis died from cancer in 1999, that magazine lost its artistic edge; Fabien Baron left and the new editor took a more conventional direction. “When I got to Bazaar in 1990, W was nothing,” recalls Baron, who says that it was Bazaar that dominated until the late nineties as the most original high-end American magazine. “When Liz died Dennis carried the torch. W became the creative outlet for the industry. Photographers loved him. He gave them all these pages and more freedom and he had a large budget, up to $100,000 per shoot.”
His success with seeing fashion as a tool of expression led Freedman to work with more artists: Chuck Close, who did a daguerreotype series of portraits of Kate Moss, and John Baldessari, who collaged Mario Sorrenti’s fashion images with pop-style color cutouts. Freedman found inspiration in art directors who blurred the boundaries between art and fashion. Man Ray, Cocteau and Chagall had worked for Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar in the thirties. Later in the forties, at Vogue, Alexander Lieberman hired Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In the sixties Harper’s Bazaar art directors Marvin Israel, Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler worked with Andy Warhol, Claus Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and George Segal. “I always followed my own beliefs. I believe in the power of photography. I believe that a picture is a sacred thing because it has meaning and it can influence people, even within a fashion magazine,” says Freedman. “That’s an important thing and there’s a long history of people who worked that way and their images stand the test of time.”
Like art directors at French and Italian Vogue, the creative bibles of the fashion industry, Freedman saw collaborations with artists as a way to expand the scope of fashion photography. “What I’m trying to do is to bring in different points of view,” he explains. “I’m not saying that the point of view of John Baldessari is by itself any more interesting than the point of view of commercial fashion photographer David Sims. I’m just saying that his point of view is going to be very different by the fact that he isn’t somebody who narrowly deals with fashion nor is schooled in all of the tools of our industry – stylists, hair and makeup. He doesn’t attend fashion shows, he’s not exposed to all the intricacies, he’s not exposed to all the talent. This naiveté about fashion is interesting and he’s also bringing in a world of his own. My intention is not to make anything other than great fashion photographs. I do believe that great fashion photographs can be very telling images. Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton made fashion images, but they certainly stand on their own. They make you think.”
Freedman’s interest in art, design and architecture goes back to his childhood in a middle-class Jewish family in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. As an art student in the early 1970s at Pennsylvania State University, mainly known for its football team, he shot a Super 8-mm film about the slaughterhouse near campus, early evidence of his offbeat viewpoint. He spent hours in the library looking at such European design magazines as Abitare and Domus. He was particularly interested in contemporary European architecture and radical Italian furniture of the 1970s, which he now collects. For one of his photography classes he created cardboard stand-up dolls made from black and white photographs of his roommate’s girlfriend in her bra and panties and himself in Hanes Jockey shorts. He made detachable clothing from pictures of their college wardrobes. From Penn State, Freedman applied to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, but his application was rejected. Determined to go to England, he enrolled at Beaver College, a small liberal arts school allied with the City of London Polytechnic.
Returning to America, Freedman settled in New York to study interior and urban design at Parsons. He was interested in architecture but didn’t value his skills enough to pursue a career in the field. He took in the effervescent culture of the late 1970s. After graduating, he worked as an interior designer for three years – but after an argument with a difficult client, he quit. He met the art director Charles Churchward, who was redesigning House and Garden magazine with Ruth Ansel. Freedman met with Ansel, who asked him what he thought of the magazine’s redesign. For the first time, the young man felt that his opinion counted.
On Churchward’s advice, Freedman enrolled in two evening design classes at the School of Visual Arts. In one of them, he made a mockup magazine, using images by Robert Frank, Ellsworth Kelly, Lucian Freud, and Chuck Close. At the time, Fairchild Publications were launching a new men’s magazine, M, and they needed a freelance designer. Freedman got the job. John Fairchild, the chairman and editorial director of W, noticed Freedman’s wide-ranging interests and often invited him to lunch, where they chatted about movies, plays and museums exhibitions. Freedman came back from frequent visits to London full of story ideas. In 1989, Fairchild asked Freedman if he could be the features editor at W. He had never written or edited a single article, Freedman said. Fairchild asked him if he could recognize a good story; he said yes and got the job. He was terrified. Deciding that the best way he could make a difference was to improve the quality of the photography, which had been weak, Freedman set about learning the workings of the fashion industry and the relationship among stylists, photographers, makeup artists and models.
“I was an odd fit since I had been inspired by the work of people like Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Larry Sultan and Joel Sternfeld – photographers who recorded the commonplace events of life, subjects then anathema to the fashion world,” he recounted in the catalogue of the MoMa’s 2004 exhibition Fashioning Fiction in Photography since 1990. “So-called beautiful pictures of beautiful women felt empty to me: meaningless and false.” Most fashion magazine editors and stylists attend fashion shows in New York, London, Paris and Milan, and pick the strongest trend for the upcoming season. Then they brainstorm with the rest of the team and choose the photographers, stylists and models who illustrate the trend for the readers. Mainstream magazines like Vogue and Elle often produce themes related to a specific trend, such as minimalist designs, thirties-inspired fashion or Hollywood glamour. The lighting, settings and compositions of the images often conform to recognizable patterns. “If a photographer shoots a grey sky for Vogue, Anna [Wintour] sends him back to shoot a blue, sunny sky,” says Baron. “The models are happy, nothing is dangerous, everything is pleasing to the eye. If Mert [Alas] and Marcus [Piggot], Steven Meisel or another photographer shoots for Vogue, the images are going to be the same. The photographers are Wintour’s soldiers.” At Vogue, Elle, or Marie-Claire, the fresh-faced models typically evoke an ideal of health, beauty, and wealth. In commercial American magazines nudity is absolutely off-limits.
At Freedman’s W, however, the themes related to issues in contemporary culture and were often narrative, cinematic, and character-driven. Sometimes they were dark. Black-and-white images, frowned upon by commercial magazines because they don’t show the clothes clearly, often appeared in the magazine, as did moody lighting and off-centered compositions. The models were sometimes nonprofessionals and didn’t always conform to standard ideals of beauty. Freedman’s interest in art history permeated the fashion pages: photographers also often referred to photography as a genre or to other photographers, adding a self-reflexive dimension to the images. Breasts and male and female bottoms were standard, as was sexual ambiguity.
In 2000, when W’s editors decided to feature the latest haute-couture, Freedman upped the ante on outlandishness: he called Juergen Teller, the unapologetically wry German photographer who got his start in the London indie music scene before he worked in fashion. Teller’s work is known to ridicule the most fundamental principles of the industry. He “doesn’t just go to the studio and take pictures,” said the late Katy Baggott, Teller’s agent. “He needs to think about what would make sense. So in the context of couture he felt that very few people in their twenties can afford couture so he and Dennis were talking and he said, ‘if I am going to shoot couture I need to shoot it on the people who actually wear it.’”
Most of the couture houses objected to the idea – the point of magazines, they thought, was to sell a dream, an ideal, not to show reality. But Freedman and Teller went ahead and organized appointments with the clients of the couture houses, a mix of European aristocracy and American socialites. A small team made of Teller, a young assistant and Freedman traveled from couture house to couture house with modest equipment comprising two small cameras with built-in flash. Without decorum, Teller asked the clients to take a pause, and within a few rolls of film the shoot was done. There was no makeup artist, stylist or editor, no lighting or props. The result, a succession of mature women, their expressions frozen by the unflattering flash – and sometimes plastic surgery – dressed in evening outfits and shot in harsh light, didn’t please the industry. The brands would much more have preferred to see the dresses on flawless 18-year-olds. Some shots took up a whole page; some were published in a smaller format, off centered on the white page, as Teller had wished. In an industry specializing in fakeness, Teller is one of the rare fashion photographers who refuse to retouch images; the wrinkles were kept. Freedman later regretted doing the shoot and wished he had earlier read Fairchild’s warning in his memoir, where he described the fashion industry’s harsh reaction to his newspaper’s ruthless criticism.
But that year W’s ad sales went up 28.6%, totalling $9,407,411. And even though he never shied away from social commentary, Freedman wasn’t a provocateur. “He’s more of a progressive creative director with good taste and a broad culture” says Marc Ascoli, an art director known for his innovative Yohji Yamamoto campaigns with photographer Nick Knight. “I’ve never tried to shock for shock’s sake,” says Freedman, “because that’s the lowest form of provocation, because it’s empty. I’ve always tried to provoke ideas and question ideas and I will continue to do that because I think that what anyone working in the creative world has to do.” For every experimental extravaganza, Freedman made sure there was a straightforward fashion shoot showcasing the clothes on typical models. The covers, polished images of celebrities and well-known models, were generally on the safe side. Freedman understood that W was a commercial venture, and most of his decisions tried to find the perfect balance between creativity and commerce. Despite their creative experimentations, Freedman and his team favored advertisers’ clothes during selections for shoots, as industry standards dictate.
By the early 2000s, the magazine claimed almost half a million readers with a median income of about $150,000. His prestige and commercial success allowed Freedman to expand his work with high profile photographers such as Teller, Steven Klein, Craig McDean, Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, and Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. W boasted some of the largest budgets in the industry – up to half a million dollars per issue – which meant they could work with the most sought-after talent, travel around the world, take a generous amount of days to shoot and spend more on post-production than many other magazines. Along with French Vogue, Italian Vogue, ID and Interview, it was now one of the handful of magazines that the industry watched intently. “Everyone looked at W too see what Freedman was doing,” says Svensson, noting that the magazine was especially influential for its celebrity coverage.
After celebrities started replacing models in the late nineties, every editor featured them to maximise newsstand sales. But while stars are shot in a flattering light in other magazines, W often chose to depict them sardonically. In Steven Klein’s 44-page portfolio of Madonna, in 2003, Klein photographed the entertainer in contorted postures in a circus-like setting. In one spread, she wraps her arm around her fishnet-clad leg, lying on a wooden table. In another image, she reclines, desperate-looking, on the iron frame of a bare mattress. Isolated in a stark room, she seems trapped, as the image of her muzzled face suggests. In another photograph, she seems to set her clothes on fire. “I’m not interested in going to a fashion shoot and just trying on a bunch of clothes,” the singer told W at the time. “It’s so boring.”
Once again, Freedman’s audacity paid off. That year the magazine garnered another ASME nomination for general excellence. But W’s first prize specifically for photography came in 2004, honoring Freedman’s interpretation of another celebrity: Kate Moss. He had commissioned a dozen artists and photographers to create images of the iconic model. “We are far less interested in appearances,” he was quoted as saying in Julie Belcove’s profile of the model in the issue. “We look for character and Kate has character.” The cover story and 40-page portfolio came out in 2003 in September, traditionally the most product-packed issue for glossies. Chuck Close created daguerreotype portraits that showed Moss’s tired skin and its every flaw; Lisa Yuskavage painted a realist portrait of the model with a blonde wig, a finger under her colored beaded panties. Sorrenti photographed her as Lolita sitting in the woods with a red dress, distressed. Teller captured the model on her back, bare-chested, with her hose-clad legs in the air. Alex Katz created a painting in yellow and green. The Kate Moss tribute issue quickly became a collector’s item, along with other outstanding ones. (It sells on eBay these days for $49.99.) While other mainstream magazines filled their pages with fads and shopping ideas, Freedman was sensing a trend by making W something of a coffee-table book with his unique and emblematic collaborations. “Magazines can never offer the most up to date news, you go to the Internet for that,” explains V&A curator Charlotte Cotton. “One buys a magazine as a gift to oneself. Today a magazine is more luxurious, it’s more deluxe than it’s ever been.”
The year of the Kate Moss special, images from W were published in an art book: the catalogue of the MOMA show, Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990, the museum’s first exhibition dedicated to fashion photography. Among the first of a flurry of exhibitions that marked the institutional recognition of fashion photography in the 2000s, the exhibition documented the cinematic impulse in contemporary fashion photography and showed images by Cindy Sherman alongside advertising campaigns by Cedric Buchet and Ellen Von Unwerth. Several W shoots were on display, including diCorcia’s 2000 Cuba Libre, Tina Barney’s 1999 New York Stories, and Juergen Teller’s The Clients. The exhibition’s catalogue published a nine-page interview conducted by the curators, Susan Kismaric and Eva Respini, with the creative director. “Dennis Freedman occupies an important position in fashion photography,” stated the text. This was hardly news in the industry, but the MOMA imprimatur meant that Freedman’s reputation as a trendsetter was established. Several of the shoots Freedman commissioned, such as The Clients, Lost Angels and Madonna Unbound also became covetable prints as galleries started selling them for several thousand dollars. The result, suggests Vince Aletti, a New York based photography critic and, with Carol Squiers, the co-organizer of the ICP’s Year of Fashion, is that it’s “less and less possible to make a strong distinction between a great Philip-Lorca diCorcia photo made for W and a photo he made for a gallery, and from my point of view there’s no need to make that distinction.”
Aletti’s point of view is very controversial in both the art and fashion industries. Most artists and critics claim that work commissioned by a magazine or advertising client is not art, but commerce. diCorcia feels that his creativity is compromised when he shoots for a client with a large team, showing advertisers’ clothes, working within budget and time limits and using polished models instead of real people. Freedman himself said in a 2007 panel about art and commerce at the New York Public Library, “If I’m in the room with the photographer, it’s no longer art.” But as Aletti points out, a fashion picture can express a complex point of view on the world. As Freedman said about the division between art and commerce: “Those boundaries are softer now, and what I’m doing here is part of that process. I make it real that by flipping the pages of a commercial magazine you can experience some of the same processes you would do if you were in a gallery or an exhibition space. The mediums obviously have expanded.”
Cotton is particularly skeptical. The intersection of art and fashion, she says, doesn’t always produce interesting work. She is less interested in the magazine’s collaborations with artists than in pure fashion pictures: “In my opinion it’s always lesser work when an artist does fashion,” she says, noting that Philip-Lorca diCorcia doesn’t challenge himself when shooting for Freedman. “Fashion photography is so much more interesting when someone is in it, obsessed with it,” using the very tools of the industry to comment about it. “Juergen Teller’s advertising images for Yves saint Laurent will be some of the most brilliant fashion images ever. They raise questions about porn, commercial culture and beauty. The last time it happened was with Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin poking fun at the fashion system.” Cotton sums up, “the art and fashion thing happened in the nineties and two thousands. It’s so over now.”
On the fashion side, Freedman’s work was also criticized. “When you do something controversial you have to make sure that it’s going to translate into sales,” says Baron. “It can’t be too gloomy; even though it’s an artistic take you have to feed your people in other ways. You have to find a balance. Whatever is off the mark needs to be just thrilling enough and not something that’s going to cause you trouble. At one point the advertisers who put money go, ‘what do you do for me?’ and you have to answer to the advertisers. You can’t just shoot a Dolce & Gabbanna dress and only show the shoulder. And you can’t do a magazine with just Brad Pitt on 50 pages because you turn the pages and you get it, but there’s another 20 to go.”
Critics have also observed that Freedman’s balancing act has been too obvious and that the commercial images often clashed with the riskier ones. W was not quite mainstream, not quite indie: Although some images echoed the grunge aesthetic of the London scene, they didn’t have the crude sex, the drugs, the conceptual approach or the dishevelled aesthetic. As Kate Scheyer of Vanityfair.com put it, Freedman “maintained a racier-than-Harper’s Bazaar but not-quite-French Vogue balance for years.” The front of the magazine, which featured fashion news and articles about jewellery, fashion, beauty and socialites, also differed in tone from Freedman’s shoots. “There has always been a disconnect between what the magazine stands for editorially and on the creative side,” says Baron. “Freedman was very esoteric and very forward and the editorial team was on another planet, showing old socialites page after page.” In a recent blog entry for Nymag.com’s Daily Intel, Chris Rovzar wrote, “In fact, multiple current and former workers at the magazine described the day-to-day workings of the title to be conducted in separate “fiefdoms,” led relatively independently by Creative Director Dennis Freedman (art and design), Executive Editor Bridget Foley (fashion), and Deputy Editor Julie Belcove (words).”
When W launched its annual Art Issue in November 2006, Freedman may have pushed the limits a bit too far. Originally, he says, it was commercially driven. “We became known for our engagement with the art world,” he says. “It was part of our identity and part of our success with advertisers and readers.” It was the publisher’s idea to start an art issue, but Freedman wanted to commission original work rather than only write about art. For the first art issue, he brought together a creative team made up of Richard Tuttle, an artist; Mario Sorrenti, a fashion photographer; and Jacques Soteau, a choreographer. For several days they experimented together. “I had just gone to see a documentary called ‘The Ballets Russes’,” remembers Freedman. “I love dance and it struck me that the Ballets Russes worked with artists to make their sets and it was this extraordinary collaboration and I left thinking that this is what I wanted to bring to the magazine.” The cover, a psychedelic vision of a fairy-like woman emerging from a blue cloud, wearing wings and a satin headpiece with petals with watercolor effect and bright hues of red, pink, green and yellow, evoked an exalted dream. Text in the issue described the shoot, Eden, as “a sensuous living installation based on the efforts of landmark dance company the Ballets Russes.” A DVD about the shoot, made by filmmaker Chiara Clemente, was included. Freedman also commissioned original work by Richard Prince and published unknown pictures Bruce Nauman had made in the sixties. He asked Teller to illustrate an article about Jeff Koons and commissioned Stephen Shore to shoot the world of Brice Marden. What is traditionally the fashion photography section of the magazine included no fashion at all, but featured six pages of Gucci ads.
The issue hardly found universal acclaim. Charlotte Cotton felt that Freedman was once again recycling an old trend. Marc Ascoli, wondered why there needed to be a separate issue featuring art, pointing to W’s perceived unsteadiness. On the fashion side, many didn’t understand why Freedman treated the magazine as an art gallery. “It’s ok to mix art and fashion,” says Baron, “but acting as a curator and producing an art issue in a magazine that should be producing fashion issues is dangerous. People buy the magazine for fashion. This is a business. It’s very important to know that when you have about 100 pages of ads, those brands expect to be featured in the magazine.” Still, for some brands, Dennis Freedman’s distinct vision is extremely appealing, and he was increasingly called to work on campaigns for Dolce and Gabbana, Calvin Klein Jeans, and D&G with Steven Klein, Helmut Lang and Celine with Bruce Weber, and a Coty Fragrance for Marc Jacobs with Juergen Teller. In 2007, he established his own agency, Dennis Freedman Studio. Running a commercial studio while working for a leading magazine can seem like a conflict of interest to outsiders, but in the industry it is common practice – Baron, who now oversees French Vogue and Interview, also shoots advertising campaigns. “The idea of journalistic integrity is a noble one but…,” says Svensson, pausing, “every stylist does campaigns on the side. I mean everyone does things on the side. So you can’t survive very long in this industry if you can’t separate the two.” For Charlotte Cotton, the ethical issues aren’t so important: fashion is all about mastering the game of power. When editors fight for in-demand photographers, the fact that they also book them for high-paying advertising jobs strongly impacts the decision.
Fashion is, after all, a multi-billion dollar business, and everyone is keeping the wheel spinning. As Angelo Cirimele, editor of Magazine, puts it, “in the end, most photographers are making magazines not to talk about current inspirations or do interesting work, but with the goal of getting booked for advertising campaigns.” The financial reality of the industry makes these incestuous links necessary. One shoot for W pays several thousand dollars, whereas an advertising campaign for Prada pays several hundred thousands; most indie magazines don’t pay their photographers at all. Juergen Teller’s major source of income, for example, is his advertisings for Marc Jacobs.
So maybe Freedman was right to set up his art direction studio. In 2009, as the recession deepened, luxury brands slashed their budgets. Among the news that several magazines were closing, the future of fashion publications became precarious. W took a serious hit. The industry had changed since the nineties. Brands now targeted emerging markets in Russia and Asia; they slashed their American advertising quotas. As brands now had fewer ads to place, the ones that served them the best, like Vogue or Elle, stayed on top of their list while W was first to suffer. Several luxe magazines featuring art and fashion on expensive glossy paper such as Pop, Another and Love, also ate a share of the market. W had lost 45 percent of its advertising income in the course of the year and rumors circulated on the blogosphere that it was “dysfunctional” and “ailing.” Freedman could no longer spend hundreds of thousands on shoots; the magazine wasn’t generating the money to justify them.
That year Freedman’s vision was celebrated, maybe for the last time, with the International Center of Photography’s Weird Beauty exhibition. For their first Year of Fashion, the museum featured a survey of the strongest trends in contemporary fashion photography and included several shoots from W.
Drawing on the downturn’s aura of general disgust with excessive consumerism Freedman asked Maurizio Cattelan, the Italian artist known for his controversial sculptures, to create a photoshoot for the November 2009 Art Issue. Cattelan’s satirical work often targets religious, cultural and political institutions; La Nona Ora, a life-size wax sculpture of the Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite, especially offended the Vatican. His somber images for W expressed the mood of the recession – the disillusionment, the fear and anger, laced with his signature black humor. On the cover, Linda Evangelista – De Beers diamonds glittering on her ear lobes, neck and fingers – grasped a torn piece of cardboard that said “it must be somebody’s fault.” She stood in a busy Manhattan street in a sober black dress, the kind worn to funerals. Her hands, fine and embellished by red painted nails and massive rings, clashed with the tattered sign she held. Her faced was strained in distress. Inside the magazine, a cropped shot of the model’s torso in a silk blouse revealed large sweat stains under the armpits. In another image, against the background of a lavish neoclassical ballroom, four models in cocktail dresses were piled one upon the other on a marble floor, faces down and legs in the air. On another spread, two heavily bejeweled hands held an oversized fatty steak in the shape of the United States on cutting board. In another picture, a woman lay in underwear on a lynx fur coat, praying. Her dressing room was empty but for bare hangers. Cattelan’s images, while polished and painstakingly composed, ridiculed the fashion system in unsettling ways.
Despite getting nominated for a magazine award, these incongruous images did not resonate well within the industry. “The timing of the latest art issue could have had repercussions,” says Freedman. “It was a tough issue. It was hard-hitting. It was a very disturbing set of images. I think if you are someone who sees a magazine as a tool to help sell the dream or get people to buy clothes, well that’s certainly not going to do it. I mean if anything it’s going to make you question why you’re buying clothes: Are clothes an unnecessary tool or are they a sign of a decadent society?”
W’s fourth Art Issue also commissioned fifteen pages of drawings by controversial comics artist R. Crumb, called Varieties of Women. Crumb’s violent, rough style depicted different women as grotesque, hypersexualized characters. On the first page, two colossal prehistoric women roar. On another page, a German peasant finds her husband cheating on her and beats him up. Some drawings presented images of girls in his high school yearbook, accompanied by legends such as “Barbara Wilkins, Low-life wild girl, big, robust, well developed, liked boys…cheerful, not a good student.” Crumb also drew playmates with enormous breasts and featured vulgar language such as “check it out sucker/get an eyeful/cream yer jeans.” Another comic depicted a woman soldier pulling a main with a leash, copied from the infamous photograph of Abu Ghraib abuses published in Time Magazine. The portfolio did not carry a single fashion credit and emanated dreariness and sarcasm.
“It is absolutely risky,” says Freedman when asked about the creative decisions he was making. “Given the times that we live in, the reality of the marketplace, the reality of advertisers needing support, it’s a very different situation than five years ago. It’s crucial to respond and adjust to this reality. It’s harder in recessionary times for sure, when there’s a great deal of caution and there’s more pressure on the commercial market to survive in the fashion world. I have to be aware of what my responsibilities are and I have to find a way to navigate in these conditions. I can’t be blind to the world.” As Philip Lorca diCorcia stated in early March, “It’s the end of an era. Things will never be the same again, there will never be big budgets and freedom to shoot.”
diCorcia was right, but no one quite expected the dramatic turn of events that followed. On March 17h a press release from Condé Nast shook the industry, announcing the dismissal of longtime editor-in-chief Patrick McCarthy and W’s move from the Fairchild trade division to the consumer magazine wing of Condé Nast. The W and Women’s Wear Daily teams, which had shared several staffers, would now be completely separate. A few days later Conde Nast announced that Stefano Tonchi, who had launched T, the New York Times’s style magazine, had been nominated as W’s new editor-in-chief. Tonchi, a multilingual Italian who has impeccable style, a stellar resume, and strong relationships with the industry, had helped the New York Times stay afloat by luring high-end advertisers to T. On March 30th Freedman announced his departure.
At the same time, W’s first Shopping Issue came out. Julie Belcove’s editorial was titled “Say Buy buy,” and shifted from her usual meditative style to a hysterical exhortation to shop. The special, called Wshop!, offer a plethora of different options for summer dressing with product-packed pages. The fashion pages feature an uptown, eighties inspired shoot, as well as a cover-story romance involving Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, stars of the upcoming film The Bounty Hunter. “Twist and shout, indeed,” exclaimed the introduction.
The Freudian slips might not have been intended, but the bye-byes, and twisting and shouting aptly describe the changes at W. As scoops leaked out to media blogs the magazine’s crisis went public. Blogs reported that McCarthy had failed to maintain strong links with advertisers. Tonchi was said to have spent the first week of his tenure at the Milan Furniture Fair, consolidating links with Italian luxury brands. He had announced that he planned to make the magazine less fashion obsessed – more of a general interest publication conceived for the Internet era. A heavy task awaits him.
As Freedman steps out, and with him the bursting celebration of creativity of the pre-recession days, John Fairchild’s prescient words in his 1989 memoir, Chic Savages, come to mind. “In the fashion business, it is almost against the law to tell the truth,” he wrote, “and anyone who steps behind the silk curtain to show how raw the business is can expect a rough time.” In the fashion business, as in most businesses, one needs to be wary of trying to change the rules of the game.
Filed Under: Portraits
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