So, okay, let’s ask it: Is The Sartorialist an August Sander for the twenty-first century?
Being practiced at condensing conversations, Scott Schuman brought up August Sander almost at the utterance of the words “art critic” by the gallery manager introducing me to him last night. And being as how a traveling show of Sander portraits at the Goethe-Institut was one of the first exhibitions I reviewed for Art Papers, I responded viscerally and positively to the reference.
Actually, the globally famous photographer and blogger also brought up the names of street photographers and such projects as Bruce Davidson’s East One Hundredth Street, but only to compare them with Sander’s practice, and with his own, which is something like a blend of the two.
Sander was looking for social typifications, and that required photographing significantly attired Weimar Republic individuals in settings that represented their environment. The results were haunting works of art. The Sartorialist is also doing something more art-oriented rather than simple trendspotting/coolhunting, but the typifications he seeks out are ones of creative style, not social roles. Even so, Schuman considers it important (as do I) to contextualize the place in which the styles were individually generated, so the backgrounds in his photographs count for as much as the faces and clothes.
Okay, I’ll drop the sociology of knowledge “typifications” verbiage regarding August Sander. Sander was convinced he could show how different people’s self-perceptions were revealed by what they wore, because in the Weimar Republic, clothes really did make the man. (It was the 1920s, and Germany’s women also went in for self-definition that revealed profession and social rank more than personal preferences.)
Fashionistas around the world are as often as not trying to project an image that has nothing to do with their day job, and sometimes is meant to disguise social rank rather than advertise it. One notable exception is the distinguished businessman or -woman, whose fashion sense is meant to convey a blending of personal identity with professional demeanor. The professions also generate fashion trendsetters, of course, adept at combining the expected dress code with subtle transgressions that make for a creative projection of individual style in a visually repressed environment.
(This is my opinion, not Schuman’s, and I may be dead wrong because I’m missing the alertness to subtle social clues and signifiers that goes into serious coolhunting. I imagine the skilled trendspotter can guess income level and likely place of employment no matter how clever the individual thinks he or she is at obscuring it. Certainly the blog comments on a Sartorialist photograph, pointing out $1200 sneakers, are from fashion-informed individuals who can probably also tell what came from a last-season thrift store discard and what's being worn as a personal statement. This is not my area of specialization. However, I can see that The Sartorialist incorporates a lot more analytical savvy into the mix than most fashion enthusiasts or academic theorists would suspect—it just isn't expressed in theory-heavy terms. People are always doing and saying more than they believe they are doing and saying; it's what makes personal style so revelatory in the first place.)
So here is The Sartorialist, traveling the world making on-street portraits of strikingly attired individuals, and everyone is trying to figure out how to get The Sartorialist to notice them.
The fact that Schuman's portraits, like Sander’s, are serious art probably doesn’t matter to most of his would-be subjects. The instant global fame does. Motivations differ, of course, and some presumably do care about the art as well as the fashion.
Knowing that nothing I could do would impress The Sartorialist, I opted for the best projection of my individual identity with a decades-out-of-date look for the disheveled critic: a black Franz Kafka in Prague t-shirt worn with my one threadbare grey jacket. (It is almost time to hit Finders Keepers in search of the new autumn jacket.)
I was not surprised to see that the art and design students who worship The Sartorialist had turned out in their Sartorialist-pleasing best. The level of enthusiasm was gratifying.
William Gibson has devoted his newest novel—the logical conclusion to the trilogy that began with Pattern Recognition—to the topic of secret brands, anti-commercial marketing, trendspotting, coolhunting, and such, and I confess that if I had had time and money, what would have delighted me most would have been to show up in a denim jacket with a Gabriel Hounds logo, which coincidentally sounds like it is very close to the baby-headed bird logo of Susan Bridges’ now-defunct Big Angel Blowout. I don’t think I’ll have one ready in time for Gibson’s book tour appearance at SCAD on Monday evening, either.
There is much, much more to be said in that regard, but it will have to wait for a later post. Barring misadventure, I shall write a review of the show at Hagedorn that will discuss individual works from The Sartorialist.
In the meantime, please check out "Convergent Frequencies" at Krog and Irwin Streets tonight (Saturday) or Sunday evening, before it goes away. Matt Gilbert's computer-altered videos, collaboratively produced with live performance by musicians and dancers, blends with Nat Slaughter's extraordinary sound pieces and Matt Haffner's wall murals in a one-weekend-only pushing of the boundaries for this Southern city. Kudos to i45 and Possible Futures for creating a kickoff event for the season that was the only possible followup to Hagedorn's spectacular reception for the Sartorialist exhibition. Crossing paths there with Caroline Hust, fresh from her $10,000 Kate Spade Award as a freshly graduated RISD textile designer, it was very nearly possible to believe that Gibson is still as much in touch with the subterranean social trends of his time as he was in the days when he ruled the world of cyberpunk fiction.
Actually, I do believe that, but what do I know?