Andrew Gresham’s Documentary Photos Expose Fashion Week’s Less Glamorous Side

In Visual Arts by Coury Turczynleave a COMMENT

New York Fashion Week starts Thursday, Sept. 10, unleashing dozens of the world’s most famous designers to show off their collections for spring 2016. As anyone who watches reality TV knows, NYFW is the ne plus ultra of glamour and drama, where the industry’s super-egos gather for a week’s worth of triumphant attention-seeking. But for local photographer Andrew Gresham, the runways of Fashion Week are only a temporary facade—the real stories take place backstage.

“It’s just this bizarre, concentrated mixture of the real world coming together and trying to transform itself into something fanciful, ‘glamorous’—the idealized fantasy,” he says. “It is both horrifying and beautiful at the same time.”

Gresham has been shooting Fashion Week shows since 2006, ostensibly on assignment for a now-defunct photo service called Fashion Wire Daily. While that job entailed shooting runways and celebrities at nearly 30 shows per season, he was much more attracted to the chaotic scenes found in dressing areas where the models are prepped before being thrust out for public display. Soon, he began shooting more and more photos that none of the wire service’s customers would necessarily be interested in buying—scenes of little elegance or style, but lots of sweat and struggle. In total, he’s attended eight Fashion Week extravaganzas—and has assembled a fascinating collection of photos documenting the work that goes on behind the scenes at the fashion industry’s biggest event. (Which, frankly, he doesn’t find very important in itself: “Fashion could go away and the world would keep on just fine.”)

His black-and-white images are so striking in part because they’re so unusual—to witness such previously pristine personages looking unkempt, stressed out, and frantic can be a bit jarring. We obedient media consumers are conditioned to accept a flawless depiction of beauty as the standard of the industry. Even the “offbeat” model or couture is polished to a high sheen. In Gresham’s photos, however, we catch the laborers tasked with that polishing—a subject perhaps too mundane for other photographers predisposed to capture beauty.

“I think my approach, especially after the first few times shooting it, was to show the other side—the between moments,” Gresham says, “the moments leading up to what is presented, the creation of ‘the model’ and, really, the banality of it all. We tend to romanticize industries that put on a good front, but the truth is it is still an industry and a lot of it is hard work, unglamorous, tedious, everyday living. I would look for those moments when other people were off photographing the more ‘obvious’ ones.”

Of course, anyone can point a camera backstage—the trick is knowing when to press the shutter button. Gresham’s photos reveal a knack for realizing the critical moment—a woman’s upraised eyes peering over a book, an attendant’s gaze of affection (or is it envy?) toward a prepped model, a floor director’s commandingly outstretched arm. And he finds details that intrigue: a disembodied hand amid the clutter of a makeup table, or a pair of shoes revealing messily painted toenails. And, yes, there are famous faces here as well—shot inches from the lens, rendering them more personal than haughty.

Gresham shoots with a digital camera, but sets it to black and white. Why use a format so synonymous with “arty” photography? To keep things simple, he says: “I just think it takes away a lot of the clutter of the color and focuses you more on the subject.” Gresham’s job these days, in Knoxville, is as a commercial photographer and designer at Asen Marketing & Advertising. He admits his reliance on black-and-white imagery for his personal work may be a reaction to the lush, colorful images he produces for his job. But either way, it works.

Although he’s not planning on attending this year’s Fashion Week—he’s had his fill—Gresham is still reviewing the vast stockpile of photos he’s gathered over the years. The portfolio you see here is a very small sample—some day, he’d like to have a gallery show, but until then you can see dozens more at his website, agreshamphoto.com.

In the meantime, he’s been taking photos of Knoxville from the seat of his car. He likes the idea of taking himself out of the picture, so to speak—of removing any pre-planned stylization, just pointing and shooting on the fly.

“I just wanted to do something simple and direct: You’re driving and you have one second to take the picture. There’s no thinking about it,” he says. “Your mind sees something, so you just shoot it, and you don’t realize what you saw until after you look at the picture: ‘Oh, that’s why I took it.’”

Coury Turczyn

Editor Coury Turczyn guided Knoxville's alt weekly, Metro Pulse, through two eras, first as managing editor (and later executive editor) from 1992 to 2000, then as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2014. He's also worked as a Web editor at CNET, the erstwhile G4 cable network, and HGTV.

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