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Steven Meisel, Brilliant Photographer

by Ford Fischer

*Please note that any photograph may be clicked on the see the entire image at full size, which is essentially to see details discussed in their critiques.

Steven Meisel is one of my favorite photographers of all time for the same reason he is famous, the utterly controversial nature of his work. He was born in 1954 and as a very young child he already disregarded normal childish pleasures and preferred drawing women instead. He idolized the female form and fashion, and later went to school to study fashion photography. He began working for several fashion magazines, most notably vogue, where he photographer what were considered provocative and exciting shots displaying the art form both of modeling and of the clothes themselves. He also worked on quite a few album covers such as for the singles “Bad Girl” and “Fever” for Madonna and Mariah Carey’s single “Fantasy.” He also quite notably took the photography for the book “Sex” (See cover above) which was written by Madonna about her endeavors in sadomasochism. Since it was released in 1982, he has become quite popular in America and Italy, and continues to shoot photography today.

State of Emergency

The first of his photos I will discuss comes from one photo set he created soon after 9/11 for the fashion week issue of the Italian Vogue, also falling upon the 5th anniversary of the attacks. The full album can be found at

The above photograph serves as the cover to the album, and makes a very blunt “thesis statement” for what the album is about to portray. Essentially, it shows a woman having to remove an article of clothing while viewed by four individuals: a woman, a mostly off-screen person, a man, and a dog. The first thing we notice is the emphasis on the woman. Although she may not consume the majority of the picture, the emphasis is clearly on her; every other individual, even the dog, can be seen looking at her in a condescending manner. She is clearly an attractive and presumably successful woman given the formalness of her clothing and the fact that she intends on flying, but to strip her of the clothing she demonstrates that status with seems to be a removal of power in the photo. The focus is deep, meaning that there is a slight out of focus image of a person closest to the photographer, and all we see of him is his baton, and we can tell that he is facing towards her. The fast that we see from his hip’s view places the viewer into the perspective of these TSA employees, and furthers the invasive nature of what is going on. The viewer can also see that each character except the woman has a weapon, (plus the dog who essentially s a weapon in this context) further adding to the violence-minded state of thinking in post-9/11 America. The lighting also adds an interesting contrast between background and the woman being searched. Although there is a well-lit backdrop, the brightest portions are seen around the woman, and there is a slightly darker portion of wall behind the employees. This contrasts with the woman’s dark hair and creates an aura of beauty surrounding her, furthering the invasive nature of forcing her to strip, which adds a theme of sexual insecurity to the image. Overall, the poster makes for a great introduction to his album, which embodied themes of dominance of authority, emphasis of violence and power, sexual invasiveness, an the measures required to defend oneself. As a reference for these themes and how they were used throughout, see the examples below (each image incorporates one of the themes just listed respectively.)

Strokes of Genius

This picture appears in the gorgeous, colorful, and playful album “The Strokes of Genius” which can be found at

The beauty and bizarre nature of the photograph above is nearly unparalleled. This photo simply shows a nude woman lying down to be modeled in a rather sensual manner, and three women painting her in the foreground, with the background showing that they are in some sort of gallery. When initially exposed to this photo, the first observation would be the colors. Although there appears to be one painting in the background, which contains cold colors greatly contrasting with the rest of the picture, the room seems to be filled with gentle pinks and tans. All of the women are dressed in pink with little bits of red or yellow which adds a certain texture to each of their outfits, but they are all unified in their gentle colors. Beyond the colors however, is the perspective of this picture. In a room with three painters painting a naked female subject, one would conclude that the emphasis is on the subject and that the paintings are the art. However, we view this scene from behind the subject and look upon the painters without being able to view the paintings themselves. This gives the uncanny feeling that in fact the artists are the art. However, the artists paying the role of the subject and the audience of the photo being in the role of the subject of their paintings creates a subject out of the viewer, as if to say that the audience of this painting is the art and the painters are our audience. This reversal of role between artist and subject and audience makes a statement about art as a whole and its role relative to real life, and how the relationship between real life and art need not be a one-directional inspiration.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall Campaign


            This final photograph was from the “Mirror Mirror on the Wall” Lanvin ad campaign in 2009. Meisel once again outdid himself with the absolute stunningness of his images. The full album can be found at

This photo shows Iselinn Steiro so overwhelmed by the beauty of her own reflection, wearing a fabulous Lanvin gown of course, that the shear sexual tension between her and her own image in unbearable. The message is quite simple: buy our clothing brand and you will be extremely attractive. In fact, you won’t be able to resist yourself! Her outfit is rather simple, but the reflection ads to it. Whilst from the back we only see her black and grey blouse an the hanging of red velvet over her lap, from her reflection we can also see that the front of her blouse is pink and she is showing off a marvelous and expensive-looking necklace, adding to the elegance of the image. Additionally, our perspective from the back gives us a lovely view of the flowing and impressive beauty of her hair, which the reflection shows her face and makeup. While a typical photograph allows only one side of a subject, this one argues that there are two sides to a figure, and that in some cases that can be a very appealing fact. Another thing to note is the rest of the stuff in the room. While the mirror, chair, floor and handbag look fancy and consume more of the photo than the model, the viewers’ eyes are instantly drawn to the model due solely to her gorgeous colors and sexual mystique. The other colors in the room are grey and bland in comparison. Even the mirror’s image is obscured everywhere except the portion including her reflection. This gives the overall feeling that she stands out, and that buying the Lanvin brand of clothing helps her do that.

It should also be noted that the title of the campaign is “Mirror Mirror on the Wall” which is an allusion to Snow White, where the dark witch, would be told that she is the “fairest of them all” by the mirror. This photograph seeks to expand on that metaphorically to show that after buying Lanvin clothes, all you will need is a mirror to confirm that you are “the fairest of them all.”


About fordfischer

Ford Fischer is a student in the Fall 2012 class "Visual Literacy" at American University.

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