Steven Meisel’s ‘Role Play’ at Phillips London and New York

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Infamous for his ability to capture and regurgitate the zeitgeist of fashion, Steven Meisel is one of the most significant photographers of the twentieth century, having shot infamous fashion campaigns and editorials and launching the careers of some of the world’s most famous models has just had a new exhibition dedicated to his work open in London.

The pioneering radical’s work will be shown through a  collection of 25 of his most notable works is currently on show at Phillips Auction House London as part of his travelling selling exhibition celebrating his prolific career titled ‘Role Play’. 

Meisel’s complex photographs are often truly controversial; he juxtaposes fashion with politics to explore and criticise contemporary social tensions. Some of the themes he’s explored in his editorials consists of the likes of the Iraq war, female mental illness and plastic surgery. The July 2008 ‘All Black’ issue of Italian Vogue was shot completely by Meisel and featured an entire casting of black models which was created as a reaction to the lack of racial diversity in fashion imagery. When asked about the issue Meisel said, “obviously I feel that fashion is totally racist. The one thing that taking pictures allows you to do is occasionally make a larger statement. After seeing all the shows though I feel it was totally ineffective. I was curious—because it received a lot of publicity—whether it would have any effect on New York, London, Paris, or Milan, and I found that it did not. They still only had one token black girl, maybe two. It’s the same as it always was and that’s the sad thing for me.”

Meisel is credited as having launched the careers of the world’s supermodels through his discovery and promotion. His influence can be felt in the careers of Linda Evangelista, Noami Campbell, Christy Turlington, Kristen McMenamy, Coco Rocha and Karen Elson (he persuaded Elson to shave her eyebrows off and she was subsequently termed ‘Le Freak’). To be cast in Meisel’s Prada campaigns is one of the most desired jobs of the industry.

As well as Prada, Meisel has shot the campaigns for Versace, Valentino, Louis Vuitton, Dolce and Gabbana, Balenciaga and the controversial imagery for Calvin Klein. He can be considered one of the most hardworking photographers in the industry; he’s shot every Italian Vogue cover for the past 25 years. But perhaps what is the most important aspect of Meisel’s work is his bravery to force us to see what is wrong with the industry by shoving it right in our faces.

Meisel redefines genres through his work, most notably grunge. His iconic image of Kristen McMenamy and Daniel Blaylock from Vogue December 1992 is one of the works included in Role Play. Speaking on its inclusion in the exhibition Meisel said, “the portrait of Kristen McMenamy and Daniel Blaylock, from the grunge fashion story in American Vogue, is one of my favorite pictures. I’m excited to be showing it, particularly in its almost life size format, in the upcoming Phillips exhibitions. This image captured a real cultural moment of a music scene and fashion scene fusing together to create a new look. I remember Anna was thinking of killing the story. After all, it was a lot of black and white, an unusual casting, men in skirts – altogether a bit stronger than what was running in Vogue at the time. Alexander Lieberman, however, said it was one of the most important fashion stories ever and it ran in its entirety.

Having already shown in Paris, the photographs will be displayed in London until the 11th January and will then be on show in New York from the 23rd January-14th February.

Phillips Auction House Gallery 30 Berkeley Square, London

Read more information about the exhibition here. 

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