Runway and Street Photography Shine at the Norton Museum – The New York Times


The Norton Museum of Art brings together giants of street and fashion photography in one sweeping exhibition.

“The Fearless Lola Walking the Lion King,” by Esther Haase, shot for Stern in Miami, 1999.
Credit…Nicola Erni Collection

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The two wall-sized black-and-white photographs instantly command your attention: Four fashion models striding directly at you. In one shot the women are clad in elegant jackets, trousers and skirts. In the other they’re wearing only heels.

The effect is confrontational and arresting.

“Spectacular,” said Stacey Singer, a jewelry designer from nearby Delray Beach, standing by the photos.

The two photographs by Helmut Newton, the renowned German photographer, set the tone for “A Personal View on High Fashion & Street Style: Photographs from the Nicola Erni Collection, 1930s to Now,” a sprawling, adventurous exhibition of fashion and street photography at the Norton Museum of Art that runs through Feb. 12. The exhibition overlaps with Art Basel Miami Beach, set this year for Dec. 1-3. The Norton is about 70 miles north of Miami, reachable by car or train.

The exhibition, on loan from a collector in Switzerland, features some of the biggest names in photography, including Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Bruce Weber and Peter Lindbergh. It pays tribute to pioneers like Cecil Beaton and Horst P. Horst and Gordon Parks, the first African American to work on the staff of U.S. Vogue and, later, Life magazine.


Credit…Ashley Kerr/Norton Museum of Art

The show reaches all the way back to the 1930s and showcases models who, during the height of their careers, seemed to be everywhere — including Twiggy, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Iman, Claudia Schiffer and Veruschka. The pictures, in black-and-white and color, and their subjects command perhaps even more attention in the museum than when they appeared in Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar.

In one photo, Naomi Campbell sits in a convertible with three Dalmatians. In another, a half dozen barefoot models frolic on a California beach in long, men’s tuxedo shirts, hugging and laughing. Other photos also have touches of the surreal: A man in an aviator cap sits in the cockpit of a biplane made of baguettes; a woman in pink walks a flamingo on a leash; colorful dresses dangle like fruit from a tree.

All of the photographs are from the Nicola Erni Collection in Steinhausen, Switzerland, about 20 miles south of Zurich. Ms. Erni and her curators worked closely with J. Rachel Gustafson, the Norton’s senior director of curatorial operations and research, in the selection and presentation of the exhibition. They chose 278 photos from the collection’s more than 3,000 works of fashion and street photography.

Ms. Gustafson said planning the exhibition took more than two years.


Credit…Ashley Kerr/Norton Museum of Art

Forty-one years ago, when Mr. Newton’s photographs of the striding models were first published in French Vogue, people were shocked.

At the Norton the other evening, Ms. Singer’s reaction was not shock but admiration. “I just love the juxtaposition,” she said. “I would hang it in my dining room.”

“You see something like this, and it really isn’t shocking,” said Victoria Nunez, a senior at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., adding that the internet and social media had desensitized everyone.

Cecilia D. Luna, a fashion and portrait photographer early in her career, has been published in Vogue, The New York Times and Forbes. She is giving a fashion photography workshop at the museum on Dec. 9.

“It’s very strong,” Ms. Luna said of the photos of the four striding women. “The way they’re walking, they look empowered. I feel women weren’t promoted that way, back in the day. But he does it.”

Still, she had reservations. “I feel it’s a bit outdated,” she said. “It doesn’t show diversity. It’s white women. Skinny women.”

Fashion photographers are often surrounded by models and celebrities, and in some cases have become celebrities themselves. They are among the highest-paid photographers.

Simon Levin, a tax lawyer in Miami who sits on the Norton’s photography committee, said fashion photography has often been considered commercial, elitist and “not artistic enough. But it’s developed. You realize that a great photograph is a great photograph.”

“It is a medium of art,” said Ghislain d’Humieres, director and chief executive of the Norton. “And for me, one of the most successful ways of interacting with the public and creating a dialogue.”


Credit…Nicoa Erni Collection

Fashion and street photography can be hard to tell apart. But the rules and objectives are different. Fashion photographers create the image they want, whether in a studio or on location. Their work is almost always used to sell something. Street photographers — like news photographers — shoot life as it happens, natural and uncontrived.

“They’re both social documents of their times,” said Bonnie Levin, a retired architectural designer and Mr. Levin’s wife and partner in collecting photographs and other art.

“Fashion photography,” she said, “idealizes the view of how one should look, or aspire to look. Street photography is how people really look.”


Credit…Nicola Erni Collection

Richard Avedon, one of the all time great photographers, best known for his work in fashion, was especially good at making his very orchestrated images look like street photography.

“He would shoot the model as if he happened upon her in the street,” said Philip Gefter, a photography critic, a former photo editor at The New York Times and a biographer of Avedon.

“He was creating spontaneity,” Mr. Gefter said. “But his photographs were not spontaneous. They were completely structured.”

One of Avedon’s black-and-white photos is the first thing you see in the show. It could almost be a street photo except for the camera’s focus on the model Dovima in a Dior gown. Avedon has framed her between a pair of circus elephants, rocking and tugging at their leg chains.

“You can feel the movement, almost smell the elephants,” said Mr. d’Humieres, on a walk through the exhibition one Saturday morning.

A few yards away, was a real street photograph: an unplanned, unmanaged shot of a young woman in white slacks, top and bare midriff in a New York City crosswalk. It is the work of Bill Cunningham, a staff photographer for The Times. He died in 2016 at 87.

The two men present an interesting juxtaposition in the show: Mr. Avedon did fashion photography that looked like street photography. Mr. Cunningham did street photography that was published as fashion photography.

Mr. Cunningham covered fashion shows and photographed models on runways. But he was best known for riding around New York on a bicycle and photographing people wearing designer outfits and clothes that made other fashion statements.


Credit…Ashley Kerr/Norton Museum of Art

Katie Sundby, an artist and art teacher from Coral Gables, stopped at a photo of a model wearing cowboy boots, fishnet stockings and an oversized olive green jacket emblazoned with the phrase “God Save The Queen.” She focused on the fishnet stockings. “I used to wear those in high school,” she said.

Henry Ristuccia, a retired partner at Deloitte, an international accounting firm, and an amateur street photographer, talked about the attitude of the exhibition.

“You see a lot of strong women in the show,” he said as the museum was closing one evening. “In most cases, they were not objectified. They owned the camera. They owned the moment. They owned the shot.”

For Ms. Luna, who is still getting established as a fashion photographer, the exhibition was like a seminar.

“All the photographers have different styles,” she said. “What I see in fashion photography that attracts me most is the magic of it. You can create anything that your mind desires. You create your own reality.”

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