Lit in theatrical chiaroscuro, Mario Sorrenti’s 1999 fashion story Drunk, Disorderly…Dead? Or Perhaps All Three displays the signs of Rebecca Arnold’s ‘fashion noire’[i], a turn to narratives permeated by disaster, depression and decay.[ii] Waxen legs sprawl over decorative rugs, and rotting wood; others lie across beds or beneath tables and scattered chairs. Sorrenti’s ambiguous narrative encourages viewers to pore over each page’s details, looking for clues that indicate the model’s demise.
The aesthetic of abjection displayed in Sorrenti’s spreads for The Face represent a larger shift in the cultural zeitgeist.[iii] A fear of death permeated the 1990s with conflict, genocide, disaster and AIDS all heavily broadcasted by mass media[iv], and the fashion scene simultaneously became disillusioned with the bronzed Amazonian supermodel of the 1980s.[v] The representation of beauty within the 80s operated within a realm of unattainable fantasy, where ‘the woman becomes her own fetish, living off her own beauty’.[vi] Fashion photographers, like Sorrenti, responded by turning to the work of precursors like Guy Bourdin (indeed, much of Drunk, Disorderly…Dead? Or Perhaps All Three resembles Bourdin’s 1975 advertisements for Jourdain shoes)[vii], whose imagery emphasized ‘the self-destructive impulse’ of self-absorption.[viii] Fashion photography’s flirtation with death and decay thus operates partly as a form of self-reflexive critique, and the models as contemporary memento mori.[ix]
The precedents for Sorrenti’s fashion narrative can also be located in pop culture’s fascination with the beautiful female victim.[x] While this interest is hardly unique to the 1990s, the technological advancements of the time, including the rise of forensic science, provided new ways to document and explore her demise.[xi] Sorrenti’s Drunk, Disorderly…Dead? Or Perhaps All Three plays upon these intertwined ideas of eroticism and death by using a distinctly cinematic and somewhat painterly visual language on images suggestive of the crime scene;
Conscious of the scene’s fictionality, the viewer is at a double remove from the subject; not only is the photograph a representation of an event, but the event itself is a representation.[xii]
Assured the imagery is a construct, the audience is able to indulge in the sinister narrative and ponder Sorrenti’s provocative title. In one image, a model dressed in virginal white lays on the ground of an abandoned outdoor setting, beneath a table where two red Solo cups lay overturned. The cups, a symbol of American party culture, indicate that perhaps the model is intoxicated; her Ophelia-like pose and stare suggest something more sinister.
The exploration of death and decay by Sorrenti and other 90s fashion photographers is also inevitably informed by the very medium of photography itself. The photograph is, as Barthes argues, ‘flat Death’, a kind of immortality, or death-in-waiting, that is also bound to its own materiality.[xiii] A photograph is thus a catastrophe ‘whether or not the subject is already dead’[xiv], and ‘there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die’.[xv] Fashion itself is also bound by time, with representations, trends and garments facing a perpetual cycle of death and recycle.[xvi] The rise of morbidity culture in 90s fashion photography thus cannot be more appropriate for the medium. Whether or not this was the intent of Sorrenti at the time of making Drunk, Disorderly…Dead? Or Perhaps All Three, the images and narrative are inexorably bound by the death and decay unique to photography.
Sorrenti’s 1999 fashion story incorporates the aesthetic of abjection prominent in the 90s; a response that incorporated a shift in the cultural zeitgeist, a resurgence of the beautiful victim, and photography and fashion’s very own qualities of decay. The result is a seductive and ambiguous narrative that indulges the viewer, demanding closer inspection and contemplation.
[i] Evans, C 2003, Fashion at the edge: spectacle, modernity and deathliness, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, p. 194.
[iii] Berry, J 2014, ‘Fashion Photography: From Heroin Chic to Narrative Glamour’, retrieved from Griffith University, Queensland College of Art, Learning@Griffith website: <https://bblearn.griffith.edu.au/bbcswebdav/pid-1010411-dt-content-rid-2625164_1/courses/2432QCA_3145_SB/Course%20Content/Week%204%20Contemporary%20Fashion%20Photography/Week%204%20fashion%20photo.pdf>.
[iv] Evans, op.cit., p. 198.
[vi] Arnold, R 1999, ‘The Brutalized Body’, Fashion Theory, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 487-502, viewed 18 August 2014, via Ingentaconnect database, p. 497.
[vii] Berry, loc.cit; Evans, op.cit., p. 193.
[viii] Arnold, loc.cit.
[ix] Foltyn, J L 2011, ‘Corpse Chic’, in Crouch, M & de Witt-Paul, A (eds.), Fashion Forward, Inter-Disciplinary Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, pp. 371-392, p. 386.
[x] ibid, p. 385.
[xii] Bright, B 2012, ‘The Transforming Aesthetic of the Crime Scene Photograph: Evidence, News, Fashion, and Art’, Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 79-102, viewed 18 August 2014, <http://www.concentric-literature.url.tw/issues/Mise-en-Scene%20Crime/5.pdf>, p. 85.
[xiii] Barthes, R 2010, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Hill and Wang, New York, p. 92.
[xiv] ibid, p. 96.
[xvi] Berry, J 2014, ‘Week 1: Introduction & Overview’, retrieved from Griffith University, Queensland College of Art, Learning@Griffith website: <https://bblearn.griffith.edu.au/bbcswebdav/pid-1010408-dt-content-rid-2625154_1/courses/2432QCA_3145_SB/Course%20Content/Week%201%20Contemporary%20Fashion%20-%20Overview/Week%201%20fashion.pdf>.