V Magazine’s Fall Preview issue gives us a shimmering vision of Penelope Cruz smouldering amidst iridescent neons and zingy saturated colours. Mert & Marcus’ photos, styled by Arianne Phillips, cast the accomplished Spanish actress turned global superstar as a smooth and sophisticated siren straight out of the days of NYC’s zenith of disco culture; the alluring pull of Studio 54’s mystique, Fiorucci’s fluorescent fame and the kind of slicked-down sophistication toying with androgyny that saw Jean-Paul Goude’s directional styling of Grace Jones, itself a variation on Yves Saint Laurent’s reinvention of the tuxedo for women, become one of the iconic looks of the era.
Both the cover and the stunning images that accompany the Mark Jacobs’ interview article within are a fine example of the zeitgeist’s continuing preoccupation with that strange period reaching its pinnacle in the years bridging the 1970’s and 1980’s. These ‘Last Days of Disco’ are unique in a number of ways, least of all for a certain nostalgia now pervading their common memory as a kind of bygone era of unbridled hedonism and strangely innocent decadence, something that is understandably amplified in NYC. At the end of the 1970’s it was the unchallenged global capital of sophisticated disco culture and yet only a few years later, it would be gripped by the AIDS epidemic that would shatter the simplicity of this new vision of liberating promiscuity and decimate much of the city’s most creative population.
If a lot of attention has been paid to the historical social factors that now make this period one that holds an interest for our contemporary societies, then perhaps too little attention has been spent looking at other factors that keep it at the surface of our communal consciousness as carried in photographic images.
Mert & Marcus, for example, are from an entirely different generation of photographers than those who shaped the image of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Yet they have often looked to the earlier achievements of photographers like Guy Bourdin in their work. In the stunning photos of Penelope Cruz, for example, the pervading influence of this earlier era is particularly strong. And, although we readily understand the social and cultural factors that drive an ongoing interest in the fashion and feel of the disco era, perhaps we neglect its particular hold for photographers.
The 1970’s is also the period when a number of developments on the technical side of photography and in reprographic technologies saw photographers presented with a whole new world of opportunities for using colour. Practitioners of entirely different schools of photography, from Walter Pfeiffer to Guy Bourdin, all enthusiastically threw themselves into exploring the possibilities. By design or serendipity, the palette of fashion at the time with its strong contrasts between slick black and bold blocks of colour came together beautifully in lush saturated photographs in which the colours actually seemed to vibrate on the page. What could be a more appropriate vision for the throbbing energy of disco?
The times in which we now live offer the ability to readily produce good-looking photos to millions through digital photography. It is therefore perhaps not too tenuous to suggest that the contemporary emerging generation of top photographic talent might be eager to remind itself of photography’s own history. And in one sense, this period ending in the 1980’s is perhaps the last period in which the divide between professional and amateur photographers could also be defined in terms of access to specialized technologies and the technical skills to use them effectively. One might even say that it is photography’s own ‘Last Days of Disco’.
Though contemporary professional photographers also make daily use of the digital technologies that have massively increased photography’s social access, they are perhaps keen to remind themselves – and us- that good photography is never a simple matter of mastering just one aspect of the craft.
Mert & Marcus’ cover of Penelope Cruz is undeniably a bold, sexy and memorable image of the famed actress. But it may even carry a cultural subtext that is equally engaging.