SELF-HELP (2024) - RT 11:00
CHITCHAT (unfinished): A strange meditation on gossip.
Kids Of America a series of ID spots for MTV (1998). The first films I directed. Verite portraits of music fans. Shot across the country on beautiful Super 8 by Tobin Yelland.
The Banality of Glamour and Wild Risks in the Pursuit of Beauty.
The Photography of Mark Borthwick by Aaron Rose
I recently had the pleasure of standing behind Mark Borthwick as he took a photograph. Since I work with creative people on a regular basis, this shouldn’t have been particularly exceptional. Over the years, I have collaborated with and observed the process of many photographers, but this time something was different. I remember it vividly. We were standing outside in a park in Brooklyn. It was a sunny summer day and the Japanese noise band The Boredoms was playing. At first Mark’s process was nothing unusual. He leaned forward, found his frame, and then snapped—standard photographic procedure. It was what happened afterward, however, that made this moment so memorable. He leaned back up, and with a quick snap opened and closed the back of his camera, thereby exposing the film (and the image he just shot) to glaring sunlight. Now, anyone who has even the most rudimentary knowledge of photography knows that the biggest no-no is exposing your film to light. I remember gasping and thinking, “Oh, my god! He didn’t just do that!” But he did, and of course, when I eventually saw some of the photos from that day, they were absolutely beautiful. You see, Mark had been practicing, and through the simple act of trial and error, he had found a technique. He had realized just how much light could get in and what effect it would have. It was amazing. It was new. It was irreverent . . . and it was typical of an approach he has continued to take toward the medium of photography that for over fifteen years has left me drooling over his images.
I was first introduced to Mark in the early 1990s. At the time I was married to Susan Cianciolo, a wonderful clothing designer and frequent collaborator of his. Before that I had been involved in a very different scene, and the fashion world didn’t really enter my social sphere. I must admit that at the time the lifestyle and personalities involved in fashion were a bit off-putting to me, but when I met Mark I didn’t feel that way. There was something about his personality and approach to his work that transcended scenes. I looked at him as much more than simply a fashion photographer. He was an artist. He was a freak. He was an original. Creativity oozed from his every pore.
An exhibition/performance we created together a few years ago is a wonderful documented example of the way Mark interacts with clothing. The concept for the event, which was titled All Events Are Even, was first employed in a rough-sketch form for a photo shoot with Chloë Sevigny. From there he developed what would eventually become a gallery event. Essentially, the installation consisted of a huge pile of donated clothing that was placed in the corner of a stark white exhibition space. Mark claimed his inspiration for the piece came from visiting the Paris flea markets and seeing people rummaging through mountains of secondhand clothes. To him, this act represented the essence of fashion and the inspiration that lies at the heart of dressing. In the case of this event, however, the clothing was far from secondhand. Instead, Mark pulled on all his connections in the fashion industry to obtain new garments from the likes of Yohji Yamamoto, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton, as well as items from the collections of young avant-garde designers such as United Bamboo and Imitation of Christ.
The concept was simple. Mark set up a small studio in a section of the gallery where visitors could stand and be photographed. The only direction he gave was for the participants to rummage through the heap of clothing and put together outfits based on total creativity. The stranger the combination the better, in fact. Once they were dressed and “in the studio,” he assisted each person, adding his own styling and compositional elements to the work, and then photographed the results. The end product was a truly inspiring experiment in dressing and personal expression, but also an investigation into the nature of personality. By giving his subjects the opportunity to frolic in a pile of clothes (whose cumulative worth was probably hundreds of thousands of dollars), he created an incredible dynamic. First, the participants were able to become children again and approach the act of “dress-up” from a wonderfully innocent state of mind. Second, piling everything in a corner and essentially stripping this very expensive designer clothing of its monetary value also made a strong social statement. In this modern world, where so much emphasis is put on labels and prestige, Mark managed to create a situation where it didn’t mean anything. The garments had to be assessed and judged simply on the merit of their construction or whether they would be fun to wear in a photograph. They were stripped of their sociological significance so the creative mind could run wild, which, in my opinion, is the heart of all style. This concept, as evidenced in the resulting photographs, and also in most of Mark’s work to date, is something that he obviously agrees with.
One of our first collaborations was a small project room gallery installation centered around a body of work he created for his first book Synthetic Voices. Rather than making a series of color prints for the exhibition, which would have been expected from a fashion photographer, as well as quite simple for him to have done, he chose rather to hang a grid of literally hundreds of small plastic sleeves (of the three-ring binder variety) from floor to ceiling in the gallery. Inside each sleeve he then placed a fashion photo, or a collage, a short typed text, a drawing, a page cut from a newspaper along with various other pieces of found or created visual ephemera that he found interesting. The end result ended up looking part scrapbook, part journal, and overall an extremely personal statement about his vision as an artist and photographer. Sometimes the images were from his professional work and included models in designer clothing, but just as often they were simple family snapshots or photos of friends. Even though the work was exhibited in quite a raw form, and sometimes simply stuck together with masking tape or school glue, there was something about the grid-like nature of the way the show was hung that his installation never looked sloppy. There was an order to his chaos, and though the material inside the sleeves was at times quite crudely assembled, the end result looked incredibly modern, and believe it or not, also quite glamorous.
Working alongside Mark, and watching the way his mind worked, and his ideas about how fashion photography could be created and presented, opened me up to a whole new way of thinking about these types of images. This particular scenario was far removed from the clichéd image I had of a fancy photo studio with skinny assistants dressed in black running around or sitting on leather couches reading Vogue and blasting techno music. We were creating art . . . and even though at the end of the day we were promoting clothing design, his approach to the scenario was much more akin to conceptual art than glamour photography. It was as though he had thrown out the rulebook. Glamour was redefined in Mark’s world, based much more on a personal, guiding intuition than any sort of preconceived notion. And it was fresh! Compositions were often collaged, strewn with found objects and newspaper clippings, drawn and painted over, and coupled with poems and abstract texts handwritten in his instantly recognizable handwriting style. Not only that, but one would think that in throwing out the rules, one would have to get rid of the basic ingredient of all fashion imagery: the clothes. In the case of Mark’s photographs, however, that could not have been further from the truth. Mark has always had such a sophisticated understanding of the construction and craft of individual garments that many times garments are contextually redefined in his photographs or made into other things so as to better show off the intricate details of their individual construction. His unique understanding of clothing is almost more akin to that of an architect than a fashion photographer. He will look at a garment, assess its most essential elements, and then create his scenario based on the most creative ways of showing off that garment while at the same time executing an interesting composition.
Since that time I’ve had the pleasure of watching Mark’s career and artistic approach develop and mutate in a myriad of ways. In addition to working on fashion campaigns for numerous designers, both established and emerging, and a string of international exhibitions, he has created album-cover artwork and videos in collaboration with Cat Power. Another project included generating a series of photographic stickers depicting black-and-white snapshot images of cracks in the sidewalk and random litter emblazoned with the logos of major fashion houses. These fake ads were then plastered all over the streets, from New York to Paris to Tokyo, in a striking commentary on the nature of branding and the banality of glamour. For a brief period, Mark even dropped photography altogether in favor of creating and producing musical projects that were recorded and performed across the world.
Which brings us back to that day in the park . . . a day when I saw an artist at work and literally gasped at the courage and faith he had in his craft and in his vision. Although I had known Mark for some time by then, I learned something very valuable that day. Not just about him, but also about myself. As a creative person, you must have trust. You must accept that at the heart and soul of every artistic experience lie an accident and an extreme element of chance. We all sometimes try too hard to control things, and the end result almost always ends up being the same old thing over and over again. Mark understands this well. Even though at times his indirect and unusual methods have perhaps made his work more difficult to comprehend . . . as evidenced in this volume, the results far outweigh the effort. Because an artist has had the courage to be himself, to look at photography from a different point of view, and at the same time take wild risks in the pursuit of beauty, we now hold undeniable evidence that it is more than worth it. This is a lesson that should not only apply to discussions about art, but should serve as a motto for life in general. You have to throw caution to the wind and let your heart go, even if sometimes your experiments don’t work out the way you want them to. Mark is a constant reminder of this, and I believe that is a great gift.