Water & Oil: Social Commentary or Tasteless Fashion?
For the last week, I’ve been struggling with the decision whether or not to post this photoshoot. Many of you may have already seen it. Those that haven’t will likely be surprised by it. It is meant to be provocative. Controversial. Striking. Powerful. But my question to you is: is it also in extremely poor taste?
Photographer Steven Meisel often references social issues within his photoshoots, so it is no surprise that he is the mastermind behind “Water & Oil.” The shoot, which is the cover story of the current issue of Vogue Italia, is meant to be an editorial on April’s tragic Deepwater Horizon explosion and the resulting environmental catastrophe. It is meant to raise awareness. As the cover story, it is also a vehicle to increase sales. And we all know controversy = increased sales.
Model Kristen McMenamy is the star of the shoot and represents the injured, oil-slicked birds that are among the innocent victims of the BP oil spill. Honestly, a part of me sees the artistry in these images. Meisel does an incredible job in interpreting the sadness, loss, and devastation caused by the spill. The images are haunting, and yet because of their very nature (that of a fashion shoot) there is something beautiful about them. Yet a larger part of me is sickened by them.
I am sickened by the idea that someone can create beauty out of this tragedy. Make no mistake – at its core this is a fashion shoot. It may be a fashion shoot WITH a message, but it’s still a fashion shoot. If it wasn’t, the model wouldn’t be wearing high-fashion pieces. She could be naked. She could be in her underwear. Instead, it has been reported that thousands of dollars worth of clothing were intentionally ruined for the shoot.
And the caption below goes along with the story (at least on Vogue Italia’s website):
“Kristen McMenamy in the “survivor” version, where she interprets in images the environmental drama that’s afflicting the Gulf of Mexico. She keeps her skin golden thanks to Self Tan Face Bronzing Gel Tint (to wear alone or with foundation): it takes care of the skin, while giving it a hint of color. Carbon, anthracite, and all of the earthy shades “dress” her eyes: Quick Eyes Cream Shadow, cocoa shimmer, a long-lasting cream eye shadow, worn with brown High Impact Mascara, and her lips feature a nude look. All by Clinique. Tulle dress with beaded embroidery, Ralph Lauren Collection. Rubber necklace, My Sister’s Art. Hair by Orlando Pita for Orlo Salon. Make-up Pat McGrath. Fashion editor Karl Templer. Set design by Mary Howard.”
So yes, add product placement, commercialism, and wastefulness to the issues I have with it.
Then there is the message that Meisel, and Vogue Italia, are trying to convey. The images are poignant and intense. They make you want to reach out and help the model, the same way you want to reach out and help the real victims of the spill. Yet there is no call to action for the reader. You are just left there- feeling devastated. With no way to help.
It seems to me that without that call to action, all Meisel is really doing here is glamorizing the aesthetic of tragedy. This tragedy:
If nothing else, the controversy surrounding “Water & Oil” will get people talking. So – what are your thoughts?
Update: Follow-up post here.
All images courtesy of Vogue Italia and boston.com