The art of the fashionable | The Telegraph, 27-01-2007

Money, photography and models are a combustible and increasingly interesting mix, as Drusilla Beyfus reports

Fashion photography can make or break a publishing venture, create a fortune for a brand or a face, persuade us to pay silly prices for a handbag, but is it art?

This question has long divided opinion. In general, the fine-art arena has turned a stony face towards the notion that fashion photographers are true artists. Fashion stuff is too commercial. It lacks a serious cultural history. It's all about selling product and is little more than ephemera. That's the nub of the case against.

Of course, these reservations don't apply to vintage or blue-chip prints whose reputation is reflected in sale room prices. Records have been set by Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton, among others.

However, a change of heart about the cultural standing of fashion photography, a shift that has in any case been happening in the capital, is gathering pace.

The National Portrait Gallery's forthcoming Face of Fashion exhibition presents six influential photographers whose work appears in the glossiest of pages: Corinne Day, Steven Klein, Paolo Roversi, the duo Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, and Mario Sorrenti.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum, the pop diva Kylie Minogue's showbusiness wardrobe mingles with the immortals in the decorative arts, and is displayed in photography and for real. And Michael Hoppen gallery has rounded up a collection of classic late 20th-century style shots to mark the opening of London Fashion Week.

It is interesting to see how these venerable arts institutions have all approached the fashion side. The celebrity aspect has come to the rescue.

The NPG has focused on the concept of the "fashion portrait", pinning its premise to Irving Penn's observation that, "A fashion picture is a portrait just as a portrait is a fashion picture."

The V & A has presented Kylie as a patron of leading designers such as John Galliano (corsets for the Showgirls tour in 2004), Dolce & Gabbana (white hooded jumpsuit for the video Can't Get You Out of My Head, 2001) and shoes by Manolo Blahnik, as well as presenting her own efforts in the field. She is photographed wearing a wonderfully narcissistic creation, a silk-screen printed show-stopper with reproductions of pages from magazines covered in her face, frocks and name.

Michael Hoppen displays '60s luminaries such as Twiggy by Ronald Traeger as she appeared in Vogue's Young Idea feature and Penelope Tree sporting exotic jewellery as seen by Jacques Henri Lartigue.

Hoppen distances himself from the art debate. "It was not in the brief of these photographers to produce something artistic, rather to produce what their editorial or advertising assignment dictated," he says.

All of which suggests a less wholehearted approach to fashion photography in its own right than is demonstrated in the US. The Museum of Modern Art in New York held a show, Fashioning Fiction, in 2004, devoted exclusively to the genre.

Sarah Bright, curator of the NPG exhibition, grasps the nettle firmly in her catalogue essay. "The fashion system which demands that portraiture is more often about performance and posing, and commerce than concept, produces images that could arguably reveal nothing of the sitter… yet viewed in a different context many of these fashion portraits do indeed reveal much of their sitters, their personalities, personas and the society in which they live"

That is true, in my view, only up to a point. The pictures fall into two categories: those in which the character of the sitter jumps out of the print and in which the fashion illustration element appears to take second place, and those in which one's first and last reaction is to notice what the model is wearing.

Corinne Day's well-known picture of Kate Moss is essentially a portrait of a friendship. An atmosphere of trust between sitter and photographer infuses the picture. Published in British Vogue in 1993, the model is depicted as a grungey waif posed in a loop of coloured fairy lights at her flat. The deep-scooped pink vest and lacy black briefs in which she is styled seem almost incidental.

Day has said: "When a relationship forms between the subject and the photographer, a natural interaction takes place making the images more intimate."

Intimacy is the last thing Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott have in mind with their study of Alexander McQueen's graphic design. The model is cast as a votive offering to high fashion. Her pose, her cool way with a cigarette, the mask-like make-up, and the exaggerated composition can be read as a portrait of a fashion, but the individual has slipped from view.

Sometimes it's fair to wonder exactly who you are looking at. Fashion photography is a highly interventionist art.

Paolo Roversi, for example, is shown to play with the gender of his sitters. For his advertising campaign for Yohji Yamamoto in the '90s, he portrays his sitter, Guinevere, as an androgynous figure styled in asexual clothes in one shoot, and in another for the same series she is characterised as all-female, an enigmatic figure in chic tweeds, cuddling a pet dog.

Digital technology has introduced new opportunities for fashion photographers. Polaroid images and the endless rolls of film that would have been part of the process in many of the pictures at Michael Hoppen have been replaced, for example, in Mario Sorrenti's images by digital means.

Sorrenti explains that during a shoot commissioned by W magazine in 2004 with the actress Julianne Moore, he and the star were able to follow the progress of the sitting on screen. They viewed the shots together and discussed them.

Susan Bright points out that digital technology can mean that fewer shots are needed: "Far from being the end of great fashion portraiture, this is just a different way of working and one that produces different kinds of images."

This marks, in a way, a step away from the personal – a trend that is reflected in many aspects of both editorial and advertising photography. The size of the crew involved in a major fashion shoot has grown to a point that is comparable to a small film production. Editorial budgets on these junkets can run to £20,000. If the shoot is for an international advertising campaign, leading photographers are in a position to claim very high fees.

The investment can pay off in aesthetic, as well as commercial, terms. The mix of money and imagination in advertising photography has produced some commanding images – such as those for campaigns promoting Louis Vuitton, Versace and Marc Jacobs – that can hold their own against the editorial shots in the NPG show.

The face of fashion has rarely looked in better shape than in the highly edited displays on view. The theme of a cross-over of fashion and celebrity seems natural for a society gripped by what Bright describes as "surfaces and effects".

None the less, away from the curatorial eye and back at the camp where real-life fashion pages are produced, practical priorities don't seem to have changed much over the years. In 1955, Audrey Withers, then editor of Vogue, wrote a memorable memo to Cecil Beaton: "I have unpleasant news for you. We have been forced to kill every picture you took for our April lead. We found these pictures unpublishable since they did not in any way embody or put over our theme which is What to Wear with What."

Anna Wintour, current editor-in-chief of American Vogue, has expressed her view that the magazine's needs "are simple". They want a shot of a pretty girl in a dress. But: "Photographers want to do art."

The jury is still out.

'Face of Fashion' is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020 7312 2463), from Feb 15. 'Kylie: The Exhibition' is at the V & A, London SW7 (020 7942 2000), from Feb 8. 'Fashion' is at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London SW3 (020 7352 3649), from Feb 6.