Those Empty Young Eyes

young elegant fashion model staring into camera

Recently, in American Photo, the photographer Robert Polidori reflected on the things he does not like about fashion photography: “One is the psychological stance. Eyes are the window to the soul, or at least to the psychological state. In the great majority of fashion photography in the past, say, 40 to 50 years, they have zombielike eyes. They look at the viewer-or at the photographer, who is the metaphor for the viewer-to-be—like, ‘I’m not looking at you. I do not value you.’ There’s a sense of denial that runs through it. I always wondered, why does denial sell clothes?”

As both a fashion lawyer and as a photographer, that touched a nerve with me. That empty stare of models in both advertising and editorial shoots has been a staple of fashion photography for about as long as Polidori suggests. It goes back at least as far as the “Sighs and Whispers” lingerie brochure photographed for Bloomingdale’s in 1976 by Guy Bourdin. Immediately controversial, it featured models looking lovely and catatonic in their perfect underwear. (I actually have a copy of that small but groundbreaking piece stored safely somewhere.)

The alternative to the blank eyes is the downright threatening “go thither” stare—as if the beautiful woman is either daring you to admire her and her clothes or pitying you for hoping ever to match her. As your basic straight and clueless guy (adjectives that, I am reliably told, are redundant in context), I also have to ask for what reason any of that sells clothes to women. (If anyone knows, please email us the answer, and we will consider it for future posts.)

I look at the women in fashion publications, and I reflect now on how completely different they are from those in publications aimed at straight and clueless guys. Take any well-done fashion editorial piece and compare it with say, the Playmate of the Month pictorial. Three messages are forcefully presented to women: First, to appeal to men, you do not need to spend all that much on clothes; indeed, if ever there were an illustration of the principle of less is more, here it is. Second, you do not have to be all that thin; the women in men’s magazines illustrate what evolutionary biologists have long been saying: whether they know it or not (probably not), men seek mates who have sufficient body fat to carry a pregnancy to term. The third thing you notice is that it really does pay to smile and to look interested in the guy who is looking you over. (Come on, admit it: your Mom told you that too, right?)

We get it that fashion photos for women’s apparel are not directed at men. Maybe that helps explain why we remain so clueless when it comes to choosing gifts for women. As to what our magazines say back to women, do we really feel comfortable sending the message that, no matter the season or what is showing on the runways, nothing equals the effect of a red thong and a pair of stilettos? And for evening, accessorize that with an engaging smile? I suspect women are no more interested in getting that message than men are prepared to understand why those lean and mean girls in fashion photographs appeal to potential customers. So much about romance will just continue to remain a mystery to us all.

Credit: Alan Behr