Fashion & Art Meet in the Desert

Fashion & Art Meet in the Desert

How is fashion photography relevant in the desert of Kenya or the dunes of Namibia? Drew looks at his own work - and famed fashion photographer Irving Penn’s - to find out how the two are connected.

When traveling to create his celebrated editorial work for Vogue, Irving Penn would always find time to photograph the locals for portraits using the same style he applied in his fashion work.

In my phantasies [sic] these remarkable strangers would come to me and place themselves in front of my camera and in the clear north sky light I would make records of their physical presence, pictures that would survive us both and at least to the extent something of their already disappearing cultures would be forever preserved.

Excerpt from Irving Penn’s Travel Notebooks

Using whatver studio-esque background he could find, often a portable backdrop of his own design, Penn’s images from this time became known as his ‘ethnographic portraiture.’

He even referred to these portraits as some of his most gratifying work.

Prior to starting my independent practice I had the pleasure of assisting & learning from some of the greatest fashion photographers working today. The lessons garnered from working with, for example, Steven Klein & Mark Seliger are used in nearly every series I create no matter where or what I am photographing.

In Kenya, while creating my most recent series Desert Song and Warrior Studies , it was impossible not to use the tools & attention to detail borrowed from fashion photography.

Even though the Northern Frontier District is dealing with life-altering droughts, both men and women partake in very particular traditions involving ‘dressing up.’ Elaborate beaded necklaces, silver bracelets, headdresses, and more are all parts of daily life despite the near-disastrous of lack of fresh drinking water among other adversities.

I often use a portable backdrop, similar to Penn’s. When using it I find that people, despite where they are from or what they know (or rather don’t know) about being photographed, begin to feel more natural in front of the camera. Also, being removed from the villages and the intricacies of daily life allows for a freedom that isn’t possible with onlookers.

The [portable tent] studio became for us both a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, since I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives. It was not my home since I had obviously come from elsewhere far away. But in this limbo was in us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often I could tell a moving experience for the subjects themselves.

Excerpt from Irving Penn’s Travel Notebooks

Although no one had styled themselves with any knowledge or direct references to Western traditions, I couldn’t help but find incredible similarities in the way modern fashion shoots are styled – or the way we style ourselves daily. Necklaces were adjusted in flattering ways, and the draped red cloth prevalent in the area let the wearer’s natural beauty & form shine above all.

A lot of my work is about revealing global shared humanities.

To illuminate this theme, I often return to a style familiar from fashion photography, featured in both my Kenya & Omo Valley series, because it allows us to see & celebrate these commonalities. I look forward to continuing this type of ethnographic portraiture in the future as a form of tribute to these incredible cultures, especially those at risk.Fashion & Art Meet in the Desert

View the Full Desert Song Series 

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