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Karl Lagerfeld’s exhibit of photographs in Florence reveals all the potential and all the limitations of the fashion photograph as art form. The best photographs carry tremendous but amorphous pathos, spreading roots around the vague hints at meaning provided by image and setting. The worst are too literal, demanding a specific story and trying to squeeze beauty from it - these become mediocre ads, and terrible art.

You may know Karl Lagerfeld only by his imperious Goth Teddy Boy style, or perhaps the book and Twitter account of his cat, Choupette. But Lagerfeld was a fashion wunderkind, and remains one of the most powerful people in the business today. He won the Woolmark Prize at age 21, began collaborations with Fendi at age 30, and by 50 was designing his own label as well as Chanel and Fendi. At 54, he began taking photographs, at the suggestion of Chanel’s image director. Thirty years later, a collection of them is being shown at one of the great temples of Renaissance art.

The exhibition, called Visions of Fashion, is presented by Pitti Immagine, in honor of the 90th meeting of Pitti Uomo. Confusingly, while Pitti Uomo the trade fair takes place at the Fortezza da Basso near the train station, Lagerfeld’s photography exhibit is at the Pitti Palace, across the river.

But this choice of location is no accident. Pitti Palace was bought in 1549 by the Medici family, whose patronage of the arts funded much of the Italian Renaissance. The photographs are displayed on backlit canvas mounted on floor stands. On the surrounding walls hang paintings by Rafael, Giorgione, and other Italian greats. The placement of the photographs presents them as as Art with a capital “A”. One large wall canvas, where you might expect some portrait of Leo X, is instead devoted to a triptych of portraits of Karl. That gives you a sense of where he thinks he belongs.


Three Karls.

The exhibit uses the space to elevate the images in less obvious ways. For instance, each room has a name, coming from the theme of its ceiling and wall frescos. The photographs in each room weave broad but alluring webs of allusion to these themes. In the Venus room, we have images of a painter worshipfully attempting to capture the beauty of his female subject. In the Saturn room, a teen ringing herself with angst. In the Iliad room, a face that could have launched a thousand ships. In the Mars room, a woman with a militaristic stare and high, armored collar.


From the Saturn room.


The Mars room.


The Venus room.


The Iliad room.


Few of Lagerfeld’s subjects seem to have been born heroic. Many of the settings are humble, though poetic. The genius of these images is that they find dramatic self-presentation outside of the yachts and palaces that feature in most luxury advertising. In this, they share less with the painters of the Italian Renaissance, and more with painters like Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Or with Coco Chanel, who rose from humble origins to define elegance for the rich and famous.

If these first rooms represent the first few chapters of a Victorian novel, with our heroine trampled upon but persevering with pluck, winning readers hearts as she bears her own, the room of evening wear represents the later chapters, where she inherits a fortune from some long-lost relative, and appears glimmering with the rare and honest charisma that upbringing and grooming cannot endow. The photographs hang ceiling-to-floor on translucent paper, waving among the chandeliers in a coy waltz.


The ballroom.


The one I would ask to dance. Only for fun; the answer is surely no.


Most fashion photographs are portraits of one model, maybe two, heightening individual, interior drama. We can join their world for a moment, but it is difficult to imagine what broader world they live in. But assembled in this ballroom, the subjects manage to maintain their individual magnetism without repelling their neighbors. The cast becomes an ensemble. We can imagine who might ask whom for a dance, which groups might conspire against others, whose mask might be removed by whom.

Weirdly, the entire effect is ruined once the storytelling becomes explicit. Which is, sadly, the fate of the final two rooms of the exhibit - the first tells the story of “The Voyage of Ulysses,” the second that of Daphnis and Chloe. The images in these rooms represent a regression from suggestion back to story-telling. The text of the story of Daphnis and Chloe is even displayed on cardboard in front of the photographs. There’s no imagination left to the viewer. We can’t enter the world of the image and have a conversation with it. We can only sit, stare, and seek the “right” meaning. There may be a test.

Worse, the images are drawn from stories that are mythical and epic in our imagination, and look cheap when portrayed by modern models in costume. It’s as if we see the friezes of the Parthenon in their original technicolor. The result looks like something that a substitute teacher might screen for a sixth-grade Latin class.


The Voyage of Ulysses.


More Voyage.


It would be easy to write off all the photographs as clever bait to hook the wallets of consumers who can afford Chanel. Of course, there’s that’s an argument to be made. But da Vinci had to appeal to the Medicis to get funding too. Almost all art is commercial on some level. At some point at the dawn of the Renaissance, painters broke out of illustrating by rote the same Biblical tales for the benefit of illiterate parishioners, and began finding individual humans within those stories, perhaps even letting them wander outside the script and into fantasies of their own. The best Lagerfeld images, like the most inspired couture, fulfill this promise - to put onto canvas an interior life, to then provoke the viewer to their own fantasies. If those fantasies include a purchase at Chanel, so much the better.

At the beginning of the exhibit, a neon sign displays a Lagerfeld quote: “I like fashion to be part of daily life.” Out of context, the quote seems to be a comment about fashion - that it is too stilted, too obscure. And it is partly that. But the photographs make clear that Lagerfeld’s vision is bigger. The quote is more aimed at daily life than fashion. Lagerfeld wants fashion to be a part of daily life like washing is part of daily life, like dreaming is part of daily life. The ridiculous life that he lives tells us that he means what he says. His photographs show us that he could imagine other lives of fashion, and even live them, if he had the time. While Choupette may have nine lives, Karl only has the one.