Italian Vogue is sort of like the Lady Gaga of fashion magazines. Each month you can barely wait to see what the magazine will look like this time. If each of the international Vogue’s has a personality, everybody knows Vogue Italy for its headline-making photo shoots. So when I heard that the August issue featured a spread called “Oil and Water” shot by Steven Meisel, and starring the 45-year old grey haired model Kristen McMenamy, I couldn’t wait to give away $22 in exchange for a free copy.
Shot in Los Angeles, the spread shows McMenamy doing her best imitation of dead birds. Her body blends right into the rocks, she’s one with the water, she’s fragile and somebody has their hand around her neck, forcing her to cough up seawater. She’s bruised and covered in oil, as if freshly washed ashore. There’s even an image of her standing with her face totally drenched in oil, soaked to the point that you can barely see if she’s human or something else. I suppose it goes without saying that the spread is disturbing, that it reaches for a kind of “ugly beautiful.”
No surprise that it created controversy, prompting Dodai Stewart of Jezebel to tell the New York Daily News that she “didn’t feel it made a statement,” thinking instead “that they used the oil spill as a backdrop…What makes a stronger statement about oil-slicked birds is an oil-slicked bird.” Like Stewart, other bloggers and Internet personalities worried that the spread simply glamorizes the oil spill, using the tragedy as a way to boost magazines sales. Admittedly, the editorial was choreographed to strike a chord, leading Editor-in-Chief Franca Sozanni to opine, “The message is to be careful about nature…I understand that it could be shocking to see and to look in this way these images.”
But I don’t really understand what’s so controversial about these images. Is it the deadness? Is it the use of an oil spill as creative material? Because I actually think issue is not that the images are “controversial,” but that they’re not classically beautiful. They don’t show woman as her best, airbrushed, most idealized self, as we think fashion images are supposed to show her. McMenamy is covered in oil and blood and dirt, and her gowns are all dirty. How could you possibly wear a Hussein Chalayan in the dirt?! Instead of beauty and grace, Meisel’s pictures are violent and demanding. And it seems like the world is up in arms when models are too skinny, too airbrushed, and then everybody complains when models mimic dead birds covered in oil. You just can’t win.
That said, I’ll admit that – as images – some of them are not that great. But I’m enamored by the cover, which shows a soulless McMenamy draped in a seaweed necklace, her gray hair spread about, a tuft of sinister steam boiling up from the Earth just behind her. This is probably the most classically editorial image from the entire shoot. Another favorite of mine is the one where she’s splayed out on top of a school of rocks, as if sun tanning, with a pool of black oil (or blood) crawling out underneath.
What I love about the spread is the audacity to take on something as recent and immediate as the oil spill, and to keep it ugly. American Vogue, for instance, would never, not ever, anywhere, anytime, do an editorial like this. It’s risky. It provokes controversy, and if there’s one thing American Vogue doesn’t like, it’s controversy.
But I also love McMenamy’s performance as a dead bird throughout the editorial. She manages to turn fabulous couture, accessories and shoes into devastatingly beautiful episodes, and on Meisel’s part it’s interesting how as a photographer he used a disaster as a way to interpret designer clothes. His images capture the despair and tragedy of the Gulf oil spill by showing how it doesn’t just affect wildlife or create endangered species, which sadly some people may only feign interest in. By using a model in place of dead birds, Meisel shows that we are just as vulnerable and affected by the spill as the wildlife now currently soaked in oil.