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Crossing the Line?

A Magazine Layout Featuring the Image of Suicide Raises The Question of Whether Fashion Photography Is Going Too Far to Appear Edgy and Ahead of the Curve

August 18, 1998|ROBIN GIVHAN | WASHINGTON POST

The instrument of the young model's death is his own black belt. He appears to have hanged himself in a doorway.

An unbuttoned white shirt and black blazer cling to his slender chest, which is covered in a film of sweat. A thin gold cross lies in the hollow of his neck. His pupils are dilated; his charcoal-black hair protrudes in oily clumps; his mouth flops open as if in a final, failed gasp for air. The image is sexually charged, suggestive of the aftermath of autoerotic asphyxiation.

This is a fashion photograph. It appears in the September issue of Spin magazine.

And already, the angry letters decrying the image have begun to arrive.

"We're getting a negative reaction. Readers are saying that it was in bad taste," says Editor in Chief Michael Hirschorn. "I'll admit it was in bad taste.

"If you've seen our fashion pages in the past and if you look at our fashion in the coming months, you'll see this was the exception rather than the rule."

Whether the photograph has artistic merit is a subjective question, but for many, particularly those who research teenage suicide, its content is dangerous and disturbing.

"I think it's quite abhorrent," says Marilyn Benoit, a Washington, D.C.-area child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice.

"I think that's really irresponsible," says Stuart Copans, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School.

The combination of adolescent obsession with the morbid, fashion's desire to push toward the edges of the accepted and the expected, and the act of suicide is a complex stew.

"The truth is there are a lot of suicidal adolescents out there. Most won't ever attempt it. But there is some evidence that if you make it sort of trendy or acceptable, there is an increase in the number of attempts and completions," says David Shaffer, president-elect of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "No one is saying the image would make a fairly normal kid think about suicide, but it could tip the balance for someone who is suicidal or has suffered a provocative setback."

Drawing Attention

The image, created by photographer Terry Richardson and styled by Haidee Findlay-Levin, is part of a series of 16 fashion pictures titled "Do You Understand: The Rhythm, the Rhyme, the Culture, the Time." They are nestled between a lengthy history of the Beastie Boys and assorted record reviews. The model's black jacket is by Helmut Lang, his white shirt by Organization for Returning Fashion Interest.

"The idea there was to really bridge the gap between fashion and music," says Findlay-Levin, Spin's editorial fashion director of five months. "We took four lines out of a DJ Krush song and left it fairly broad. The idea was to bring attention to where we are culturally."

Of all of the photographs, the hanging image is the most startling. And that is the point.

"I want fashion to be more conceptual, about ideas. It should be thought-provoking and interactive for the reader," says Findlay-Levin, who has worked with such controversial designers as Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. "It was done with a sense of irony and is a comment on where we're at.

"I'd rather people react to something like that than just flip past and say we're wearing gray this season," she says. "I think other images are far more corrupt because they're subliminal. This is in your face."

With a circulation of 520,000, which is up 5% over last year's, the publication bills itself as "the nation's leading music and youth culture magazine." About 67% of its readership is in the 18-to-34-year-old age group, but Hirschorn acknowledges a significant adolescent audience too.

"It's something we need to be more sensitive to," he says.

Context is everything. If the photograph appeared on a compact disc, it might not be quite so startling. Images of and references to suicide are relatively common in music.

" 'Fade to Black' by Metallica talks about what a lot of adolescents go through, things like abuse. You can argue that that is helpful," Copans says. "I don't think showing an attractive model hanging from a belt is helpful."

Fantasy Versus Reality

Fashion photography has always been about creating a fantasy world into which the consumer is lured. In virtually all forms, there is a patina of glamour. It is only when fashion steps out of the world of fantasy and proposes something more ambitious that it conjures controversy and uneasiness.

Consider fashion's recent volatile constructions of Hasidic and monastic chic, the disheveled glamour of grunge, the vibrant pastiche style of the African diaspora, the celebration of the childlike waif and the soigne hopelessness of heroin addiction.

These were broad trends that were seen throughout the industry, from Detour magazine to Vogue.

And whether the trends were distasteful, challenging or simply pretty, there was a belief on the part of the fashion industry that it was doing its job at its loftiest level: reflecting the culture at its best and worst.

"With heroin chic, it was already there. Fashion was just documenting it," Findlay-Levin says.

By no means is there a "suicide style" bubbling up in the fashion industry. Still, as more media outlets beyond fashion's inner circle turn their attention to interpreting the culture through clothes and models, there are likely to be more instances in which a fashion photograph takes on uncomfortable topics.

At fashion magazines, the clothes provide enough inspiration to make creative wheels turn. The nonfashion publications, when they attempt artful photographs of everyday clothes, have the more difficult task.

"You can't make a million great pictures with jeans and khakis and chinos. There's a limit," Findlay-Levin says. "When the variables aren't so enormous, you have to have a great concept, which makes the clothes exciting by association."

Masterly fashion photography is about the clothes. Combine clothes with politics or religion--or music--and something unsettling can emerge.

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