Fashion photography is one part fevered dream, one part visual spectacle and one part shoulder shrug — the same outré photo spread (in the same glossy fashion rag) that you flipped through last month. If you follow fashion, you expect to see provocative images, so there’s no real impetus to stop and be provoked.
Now imagine flipping the page and encountering an image that’s beautiful for beauty’s sake — no shock and awe, no heroin chic, no “so ugly it’s cute.” Instead, an image appears that’s so exquisitely pretty that if you didn’t know it was objectively beautiful, you’d think it was designed to mock the existence of elegance.
Unadulterated loveliness is rare in fashion photography. In most spreads, beauty is more synonymous with “women’s makeup” and “luxury goods available for purchase” than an image of pure beauty and visual delight.
Gorgeous images do turn up, of course, but they’re usually accompanied by deeper, more complicated visual threads. Fashion photography doesn’t exist to palliate the world’s ugliness.
Erik Madigan Heck’s work is the antidote. The Excelsior native creates fashion photos that are a paean to unabashed beauty, and his finest images are anthologized in a new book, “Erik Madigan Heck: Old Future” (Abrams, 2017). His pictures span different styles, from landscape portraits with haute couture as a distant detail to close-ups of stunning sartorial architecture. Readers might mistake the images for classical paintings until they read the jacket flap.
Heck’s images share many characteristics with the paintings of the Old Masters — radiant light, intimate interiors, sweeping nature scenes. In the book’s opening image, a woman wears a cornfield blue hat, a pared-down white skirt and a transparent shirt. She’s bathed in a gauzy light that looks like it’s streaming in from one of Vermeer’s windows.
Heck isn’t interested in the woman’s interior life, an approach that shares something with the French post-Impressionist Edouard Vuillard. “I don’t do portraits,” Vuillard once said. “I paint people in their surroundings.” For Vuillard, that intimate space was a sitting room or parlor. For Heck, it’s clothing.
Art history buffs will see other influences: Seurat’s lakeside scenes, Monet’s water lilies, Klimt’s gilded patterns, Degas’ ballerinas.
Heck, 34, describes his work as contemporary painting. “It’s not really photography anymore,” he said. “I think we need to stop using the word photography [because] the color process has become more like building up a canvas. I think it’s more appropriate to start describing the work away from the camera, because the camera doesn’t actually make the end result. It only gives you the base.”
Heck is in demand as a chronicler of celebrity life. He recently shot Adele for Time magazine, Oscar winner Tilda Swinton for Gentle Monster eyewear and Oscar nominee Naomi Harris for New York magazine. None of his celebrity portraits appears in “Old Future,” but they have a similar aesthetic feel, with blocks of brilliant color and uplifting swaths of light.
Heck grew up going to the Walker and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “The art museums had a big effect on me, for sure,” he said. “And I think being from the Midwest affects my ability to work with a large variety of different types of people. I think it’s the ‘Minnesota Nice.’ ”
Now based in New York City, he thinks of Minneapolis as “one of the best cities in the country. It allowed me to grow up to be who I am now, and I was supported by people who were mostly only positive about what I was doing.”
Heck sees beauty as the driving force behind art-making. “Without beauty,” he said, “we’re only left with irony.”
He considers fashion its own art form, which he discovered by flipping through stacks of his parents’ magazines when he was a teenager. His mom introduced him to photography when he entered high school. She would take him driving every Sunday afternoon and encourage him to shoot a roll of film.
If beauty is captivating because it’s rare, it’s also captivating because it has the power to transform our experience of the world. Beauty reminds us of new possibilities, brighter futures and the good in humankind. At its most transformative, beauty inspires us to be our better selves — and to foster beauty around us.
As we enter Heck’s world of sculpted clothing and fashion fantasy, the caution is to remember that beauty isn’t a synonym for good. As Tolstoy once said, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” Let it transport you, let it inspire you, but don’t let it excuse you from fighting for just causes and working hard to make the world a more habitable, hospitable and, yes, beautiful place.
“Old Future” is an escape — an escape to a much prettier present moment where, just for a moment, you don’t feel any pain. The trick is to remember to return.
Laine Bergeson is a Minneapolis-based health and style writer.