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Publication: The Face, 2002
 

Vision Express: The Contax T2 is every fashion photogrpaher’s secret weapon.

Photography's killer application comes in one size these days: small. The Contax T2 is a dinky, titanium-bodied camera developed as a luxury compact for the amateur market by German manufacturers Kyocera in 1984, and currently no camera among the billions on the market can quite match its cachet. It rolls around the palm like an iPod, glints prettily in the sunlight and though it appears built for snap photography, it's now being used to produce some of the fashion world's most iconic pictures.

Traditionally, fashion photography has been a matter of size: since its Forties inception, the format has developed into a game of big models with big hair in big locations with eleborate set-ups, all shot on large-format film with cameras the size of toasters. As a medium, it works on establishing a sexual dynamic between the model (usually female and attractive) and the photographer (usually male and not so unattractive).

So you don't need a GCSE in Freudian Psychoanalysis to understand why big cameras have been fetishised for so long. When it comes to penis substitutes, cameras are even less subtle a metaphor that fast cars. But, like whistling at your object of lust from the driver's seat of a Robin Reliant instead of an Audi TT, the current hard-on for the T2 signals a less aggressive, more feminized and intimate strain of sexuality informing photography - which is great news for would-be celeb photographers insecure about the size of their manhood, and even better for the growing numbers of female photographers, none of whom suffer from penis envy at all.

The T2 is know as a point-and-shoot for obvious reasons. Its packs the intricacies of standard SLR cameras into a smaller box and, like it says on the tin, you simply point and shoot. And though it's now discontinued - Kyocera's T3 is its smaller, lighter successor - it's the archetypal camera in a growing movement of compact camera use whose other models include the Yashica T4, Rolei AF35M and Ricoh GR1V.

Peruvian photography magus Mario Testino carries a pair of T2s at all times. Germany's Juergen Teller crafted compact-camera use into an art with shoots for Mark Jacobs, his Go-Sees coffeetable book of hopeful models and new More study on the model Stephanie Seymour. And New Yorker Terry Richardson is currently using a Yashica T4 to produce some of fashion's sexiest imagery. FACE photographers like Donald Milne, Neil Massey, John Spinks and Frederike Helwig and Pierre Bailley all add to the roll-call.

The vogue for compact cameras has occurred concurrently with a broader shift in fashion photography's principal aesthetic: a move into photography that appears to be taken on rudimentary equipment with the least fuss in the briefest possible time. It's a brutally honest, unworked, grainy informality based on 'normal' subjects presented with all the gloss of rain on a car windscreen. Like Juergen Teller's blurry, inscrutable portraits of Sophia Coppola for his recent Marc Jacobs ad campaign, or Terry Richardson's blurry, inscrutable and conspicuously bestial campaign for fashion house Sisley, it amounts to fashion photography as verité, an oeuvre seemingly so sloppy and amateur-looking you'd assume shots had been submitted by members of the Bognor Regis Camera Club, instead of top-ranking global lenspeople.

Set against an opposing school of technicians including David LaChapelle, Nick Knight and Sølve Sundsbø, who conjure elaborate fantasies with complex digital equipment and epic set-ups, photography's new point-and-shoot informalists are the business of trashing orthodoxies: photographers dispense with the complicated contrivances of the studio set-up and dismantle the formal barriers between the photographer and subject. Literally, the snapper points and shoots: in the street, the studio or anywhere inspiration strikes. The edited result is sexy, intimate pictures with a subtle documentary-style slant.

None of which is to suggest that Terry Richardson has a small willy. Fashion's reigning court jester, the lanky New Yorker is photography's own Keith Moon. Like his father, once down-and-out smudger Bob Richardson, Terry sticks to convention like chipfat to Teflon. Working at the current confluence of sex and photography, his pornographer/stud/'serious' auteur routine hints strongly at carnal knowledge of his subject. He wears a creepy moustache and dresses like the perv outside the school gates. He shot a picture of his mate shagging an inflatable sheep for THE FACE's 2001 Sex issue, a session which took a whole 20 minutes to complete. Then he starred on the cover of NY anarcho-style mag Vice with wearing leather underpants and a pair of strippers. It was a self-portrait. In a famously prissy milieu peopled with control freaks, tortured artists and primadonnas, he is Rock, and that's why fashion loves him.

'Ninety per cent of the images I've ever taken have been done with a small camera,' he says. 'You don't have to focus it or do a light reading, You can't fuck up. And because you don't have full control over it, they allow for accident. They seem like the kind of cameras human beings - the people - would use. Power to the people, man!'

Are people surprised when you take out a small camera? Do they assume you're taking the piss?

'Not when I pull out the camera. It's when I pull out my cock!'

But seriously, folks...

'...not anymore they don't, anyway. People used to make fun, but I've done it for so long they know it's my thing. Those cameras aren't invasive. It's less formal.'

A shoot with Richardson is fun. He gags constantly, shoots with two compacts at the same, holding one between the legs. When he was commissioned by British Vogue's Creative Director Robin Derrick to shoot Maggie Rizer in the Caribbean for their April 2001 edition, Terry somehow forgot to pack his cameras. So he completed the shoot with disposable cameras he'd bought for $15 in the airport duty free. He was extremely happy with the results - red-eye, blurred figures, the lot.

It speaks volumes about the faith Vogue has in Richardson's work that they published the shots. Power in the fashion industry operates in a delta whose points are magazines, couture houses and celebrity photographers. To snare highly lucrative commissions, photographers need magazine shoots to showcase ideas. Aware that iconic images are needed to shift units, fashion houses then bosses rework the ideas into ad campaigns, for which photographers' fees can reach. Magazines, in turn, survive on ad revenue. The circuit is rarely broken.

Evidently, fashion tsars like Gucci's Tom Ford and commissioning editors like Robin Derrick see eye to eye: 'When I did the last Gucci campaign,' Richardson recalls, 'Tom Ford said, 'you used those cameras?', meaning a Yashica compact. I said, 'yeah'. He was like, 'cool!'. In the end it's all about the image, not about how you get it. It's about being honest.'

'It's not about technique, it's about mystique,' Richardson theorises. It's more about capturing something. Many photographers use big cameras which are very controlled. What I like about snapshot camera is that half the time the shutter doesn't go off when you need it to. You don't capture what you see, but you capture the feeling. It's looser, it's not premeditated and it allows for accident.'

Whether or not it's accidental, it's the atmosphere of seedy intimacy that has won Richardson plaudits, at a moment when fashion photography is blurring into pornography. Key to Richardson's skyrocketing status is his relationship with his subjects - usually pretty girls - and key to that is the use of camera technique that inveigles rather than invades.

It may be no coincidence that French photographer Pierre Bailley got to shoot the ad campaign for Mark Jacobs's Stain Boy T-shirt range because he's currently Jacobs’ boyfriend, but either way, the shoot epitomised the honest immediacy of the point-and-shoot oeuvre. The whole project, incidentally, took half an hour to complete.

'Very straightforward, very spontaneous, no bullshit,' says Bailley. 'That's what my work is all about. Working with a T2 you have deeper emotions than you would with a larger camera. They're small, so they're less intimidating. A compact breaks down a lot of walls. It breaks a cliché of a photographer with huge equipment and a shoot where everyone is stressed out and running around. It's like holding a pass to intimacy.'

Vogue's Robin Derrick agrees. 'Snap cameras, rather than elaborate technical cameras, put the emphasis back on the photographer as auteur rather than as technician. It becomes about them and their life, not about their technique. Their technique is no technique. With point-and-shoot cameras, what become interesting is what you point it at. It's all about what they bring to the shoot other than the equipment. I don't give a damn what equipment they bring - it's a vision thing.'

***

For the amateur as for the pro, the basic appeal of point-and-shoot archetypes the T2 and the T3 is simply explained:

'It's really fast,' says the photographer Donald Milne of the T2 appeal thus: You can shoot tons and tons of film really quickly. But basically, it's a really appealing object - and photographers like gadgets.'

Furthermore, the T2 and T3 are cool, stylishly retro objects with casing of a Titanium, a light but incredibly tough metal, unlike most compacts which are built in plastic. Like SLR (single lens reflex) cameras, they use standard 35mm films, but have the advantage of being lighter, smaller and infinitely less conspicuous to use. At 105mm by 63m by 30.5 mm, the T3 is hardly much bigger than the Canon's bijoux Ixus camera, and weighs enough to give a feeling of strength. Meanwhile, there's little sacrifice of flexibility with the compact over a standard SLR: the T3 features both automatic and manual focus, shutter speeds ranging from 1/1,200 Second to 180 Seconds and two automatic exposure Modes. Fashion traditionally relies on large format shots - transparencies 10in x 8in or 5in by 8in in size which deliver the level of quality demanded by magazine reproduction. During the Seventies and eighties, however, 35mm was adopted as an alternative. And while the T2 may not have been the first compact 35mm camera to match the SLR in image quality, it was among the first to put everything an SLR can do into a compact format.

Key to its uptake into the fashion world is the quality of its lens, the high-performance Sonnar T* 35mm F2.8 developed by venerable Swiss optical manufacturers Zeiss. It's relative expense compared to other cameras in the deluxe compact market is largely down to this. Zeiss practically invented modern lens technology, and the Sonnar is built from five pieces of glass made of finely-ground silicon and applied with multiple coatings to ensure contrast, focus and, most importantly, sharpness of image.

Kyocera began developing the T series in 1974 in response to the boom in amateur SLR use. It's sleek design was conceived by the German Porsche Design Group, whose founder F.A. Porsche designed the archetypal roadster. Te company promptly sold 250,000 of the T2, and discontinued the line. Cameras now sell for around £500 apiece, assuming you can find a one second-hand.

***

Meanwhile, the genealogy of grim realism as incarnated in the fashion and art work of compact devotees like Teller, Richardson and Corinne Day stretches way back through pioneers including Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, and then to angsty documentarists of Fifties and Sixties USA like William Egglestone and the Swiss Robert Frank. But New Yorker Goldin is arguably the biggest influence on fashion photography in the past 15 years. In 1986, at the age of 33, she published The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency, a photobook depicting what she termed 'her tribe': transvestites, performance artists and lowlives at sea in a world of darkness, drugs and decadence.

London-based photographer Corinne Days early-Nineties' 35mm work on Kate Moss ran with Nan Goldin's baton. Her shots of Kate Moss, shot in dismal colours and dismal surroundings blueprinted 'grunge' style and stirred up the 'heroin chic' controversy that continues to work tabloid editors into a lather a full decade on.

Meanwhile, Juergen Teller took a further leap into a world of the brutally honest. Campaigns for Miu Miu, Blumarine and Marc Jacobs, and his backstage at Helmut Lang studies were all shot on compacts. Teller works two cameras simultaneously, allowing the flash of the first to charge while shooting with the second. While he's one of fashion's most courted auteurs, his austere, underexposed style owes far more to social documentary than it does to glossy fashion work.

Similarly, photographer Nobuyoshi Araki used compacts for his AKT Tokyo book, a snap-photo project which charts his wife's death from cancer, and his visit to a prostitute the following day. His female contemporary Heromix, also Japanese, uses the same techniques for her fanciful, pornographic studies on schoolgirls in various states of undress.

'This style is basically a recontextualisation of documentary practise,' says the photographer John Spinks, who previously assisted Teller. 'The equipment is rudimentary but the lie is far more sophisticated. It appears to be verité but it's not. It can be as set up and contrived and as much of a fantasy as the other way. A lot of the work is in the edit.'

There's undoubtedly some irony at work here. The technique now closely linked with the T2's popularity began as socially-conscious documentary work on America's working-class. Now it's used to sell expensive frocks to rich people and arty porn to the middle classes. But fashion itself has never made any bones about its raison d'etre: to sell caricatured fantasies of sexuality. The compact revolution is built on photographers using different kind of chat-up to achieve the same result, an approach based less on machismo, technique and sizeism, and more on sincerity, honesty and fun.

But that's enough theory for now. Where Richardson, Teller and Testino are leading, others will follow. Photography's big willy style is over. Terry Richardson is quite happy about the size of his knob, incidentally.

'I'm perfectly proud of my manhood!' says the man with the word 'T-Bone' tattooed just below his belly button. 'I don't a need a big camera to compensate for anything. But photography is always sexual. The shutter opens and allows light in. That's the pure essence of it, someone giving you something. That's the deep penetration.'

© Kevin Braddock 2002


 
 
 
All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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