Coco’s Blog: A journey through Chadwick Tyler’s Tiberius

When I saw the images from Chadwick Tyler’s Tiberius gallery exhibition, I was speechless. They were far outside of anything I’d come to expect from a fashion editorial (which is what I first thought it was); I loved them simply because they felt new. The second time I went through them, I was slightly disgusted. My only frame of reference for the stark images of madness and hysteria were holocaust victims, abused women, and the hopeless inmates of Victorian asylums. The gritty black and white shots of gaunt, half-naked and vulnerable women became brutal and exploitative. The third time I went through them they led me to three revelations.

There has always been a lot of discussion around the WORN table about the monster known as Mainstream Fashion. Its visual cues seep into every aspect of media culture, from music videos to detergent ads, an homogenous human landscape of the pale and thin. We absorb more images in a day than our brains could ever consciously process, and we internalize them without analysis. But what are we really looking at? What are the messages underneath the bright clothes and perfect skin?

My First Big Idea
Trying to put Tyler’s exhibit into the context of fashion is both simple and disconcerting. I looked at the images and asked myself, “What do these pictures have in common with fashion photography?” The answer is everything – except the soft sell. The girls are young and beautiful, but instead of placid expressions and flattering glow they stand half-dressed and covered in grime, harsh overhead lighting accenting every bone and angle. They aren’t thinner than other models (indeed, they are models and representative of the industry) but they look painfully gaunt. Vulnerability that, in another context, would pass as limpid or passive is suddenly tinged with madness and desperation. Common poses that might be hidden by couture and setting suddenly seem brutal, insect-like. I caught my breath: Was this fashion’s Dorian Gray portrait? Is this what every shoot would be if we took away the Pretty?

I immediate went searching for more information about Tiberius. I wanted to know what Tyler had to say, but could find nothing. I went looking for critical reviews but, outside of a fairly mindless press release and some very ass-kissy raves from the usual fashion suspects, I had no luck there either. All I had left was Tiberius himself.

My Second Big Idea
I am not an historian. Outside of a few juicy bits here and there, I admit I’m not that interested. As a result, I apologize in advance for my lack of vocabulary and understanding on points of ancient Roman politics. What I managed to read was hard slogging, and what I took away from it could be totally wrong. Nevertheless, this is what I think I found out: Tiberius was the second Emperor of Rome (14 – 37 AD) and he didn’t want to be in charge. After almost a decade in authority, his growing disenchantment with Rome and politics led him to absent himself almost completely, leaving his friend and ally in charge. This man would eventually betray Tiberius by trying to seize power and the emperor, already isolated and angry, fell headlong into a spiral of madness, executing anyone he suspected had plotted behind his back. The Roman historian Tacitus describes the bloody purges:

There lay, singly or in heaps, the unnumbered dead, of every age and sex, the illustrious with the obscure…Spies were set round them, who noted the sorrow of each mourner and followed the rotting corpse…The force of terror had utterly extinguished the sense of human fellowship, and… pity was thrust aside.

Roman historian Suetonius describes Tiberius as paranoid and perverse, fearful and rapacious.

I caught my breath again. Could it be that Tyler was not only mirroring the madness of the emperor, but shadowing the emotion of a man who finds himself in a position he cannot abide? Could Tiberius be a commentary on the photographer’s own disenchantment?

My Third Big Idea
Of course this is all one girl’s train of thought and it could all be nonsense. It may be that Chadwick Tyler didn’t think about any of these things – or anything at all. Perhaps Tiberius is an ode to misogyny or, as one WORN editor wryly suggested, Holocaust Chic. But the thing about this exhibit is that it made me think.

All day long we suck the world into our eyes, we question so little. I do it all the time, flicking through magazines or clicking from site to site: Like. Don’t like. Next. How many things do I simply internalize, never asking why or how it will affect my view of the world or even myself? The fashion industry does a whole lot of dictating, quantifying what is beautiful or desirable. On the other end, fashion critics demonize media images as tyrannical, damaging to our collective self esteem. But I have responsibility in all this, too. Ultimately, my choice to question or not controls both desire and damage.

Tiberius reminded me that I ought to be seeing instead of just looking. That’s what art (and whatever the Canada Arts Council thinks, fashion is most definitely art) should do.

c.b.

Addendum
After all my mental gymnastics, I found Chadwick Tyler’s artist statement with a rather vague and disappointing reference to “the juxtaposition of the meticulous and the disheveled” and “farm kids”, along with this anticlimactic explanation of the title:

Tiberius. Could be a place, a clan, a harem, a community, a gloomy Roman emperor. I can’t say. I like the word.

Hee hee. So maybe I overshot my mark.
You can find the full statement here.

7 thoughts on “Coco’s Blog: A journey through Chadwick Tyler’s Tiberius

  1. After seeing some of these photos earlier, I am really impressed by your “mental gymnastics” – definitely reminded me of how easily we scan through things, not really allowing ourselves (or at least, myself) to question WHY we feel a certain way. Sometimes I think it is a lot easier to say, “that’s disgusting” than examine why it is…or possibly if we react certain ways to avoid causing offence. Definitely something to think about!

    And your comment about these photos possibly representing fashion without the pretty is interesting…especially as with some of the photos (i.e. the topless one), I could so easily imagine adding a little peasant dress and the image having that familiar urban-decay/decadence feeling. Either way, the photos seem much more conscious of the model than many shoots.

    Thanks for sharin’ your thoughts!

  2. Ugh. I share your disappointment with Tyler’s statement, G. It seems trite for a series that raised so much discussion amongst Wornettes. Though I don’t think they make a cohesive series, there are some stellar individual pieces. Sigh. This guy clearly got lucky with his muddled “vision.”
    The point you raised about these girls looking like couture models without the “pretty” is an interesting one. Take the topless girl holding a towel in the second last photo. Put a Lanvin dress over those knickers and phone Vogue. Seriously.

  3. I hate these. I hate that people consider this beautiful. They remind me of the hundreds of Holocaust images I’ve seen of terrified women that break my heart and are testimonials to the worst of humanity. But now with lipstick!

    I’m not saying they should not be shown, I don’t believe in censorship. But I think these are disrespectful, ignorant and maybe the furthest I’ve seen a set of images be from a celebration of women.

    I guess if you see them as a gross exaggeration of fashion photographym, pushed to an extreme in which you are meant to question the relationship to ugly and beautiful, the maybe are worth the conversation we’re having. I guess.

  4. I’m not sure I ever considered whether or not art should necessarily be either respectful or a celebration. While those are both absolutely valid avenues of exploration (depending on what you want to communicate or express), they need not be present to make thoughtful – or thought provoking – work.

    It’s difficult – in terms of fashion – when you’re working in such a loaded field. Perhaps because fashion is inherently personal and perhaps because we all internalize so many messages though fashion (often in the most formative years of our lives), it’s hard to distance ourselves from it as it is from other media. If I can look at Egon Schiele’s women and think their vulnerability is fragile and beautiful and expressive – why does Siri Tollerod’s ribcage push my buttons?

    Maybe part of the answer is context – maybe part is motive.

    If anything, looking at this series makes me think that, ultimately, a big part of what we see what we bring.

    g.

  5. It took my a while to answer basically because I didn’t and don’t really know know what to make of this. I see this editorial and the first thing I have to consider is, why does it exist? (not just this one in particular, but all photo editorials in general). Obviously this isn’t a magazine spread trying to sell us anything, rather it’s trying make us react, to strike an emotion.
    On that level it is successful – I don’t think anyone can argue that this isn’t controversial or thought provoking. But then, what exactly is it supposed to make us think? We’re seeing a group of models, all women, gaunt, covered in dirt, barely clothed, in some sort of solitary confinement; most of their expressions seem either defeated or like they want to escape. Unlike regular editorials, their thin-ness seems to be shown as a sickness rather than an ideal to aspire to. Just by looking at this pictures I can see an interesting point trying to be made – the feminist in me immediately wanted to see this as a dramatic reaction to the way women can be treated like shit; I mean, conditions have improved drastically in the last fifty years but in the [usually mainstream] fashion industry especially women are still objectified, exploited and taken advantage of. This could be saying “look how messed up and sexist the industry can be!” Like Forsyth said, what seperates the second last picture from a typical fashion spread other than a Lanvin dress? Why is it we get a gut reaction looking at these, but we can skim past the editorials seen in fashion magazines?
    Then I read the artists statement and my theory goes to shit. There is a line on that website you linked to that said [I'm paraphrasing] “vulnerability here is seen as the ultimate strength.” That’s it? We’re supposed to be seeing these victimised models as strong? We are surrounded by imagery in pop culture and the media that shows the domesticated, submissive, and yes, vulnerable woman as the ideal, so what makes this any different? After reading this statement, I no longer see the potential admirable qualities of this shoot; it still seems controversial but in a way that it reinforces the typical imagery seen in mainstream fashion, rather than pointing out it’s flaws.

  6. re Anna –

    Your whole comment makes sense. But I think the other thing to consider is this: Does it matter what the artist’s intentions are if the result is, in some way, productively thought-provoking? It was something I was thinking about when, after all my analyses, it seemed the artist had nothing useful to say (in my estimation). At first I was really disappointed but, after I chewed on it a while, I realized that it made no difference what his intention was. I chose to make these images meaningful… and, as the audience, I dictate success or failure.

    Say someone writes “love” on a piece of paper and throws it in the street: I could pass it by and ignore it, I could despise it as litter, or I could see it as a message from the universe. Whatever the writer’s intention, it is ultimately my reaction that defines it – everything or nothing. You see what I mean? However we choose to react, we have the power to decide what something (an image, a campaign, an industry) is – and so mitigate the power it has over us.

    Yike – I am loving this discussion/debate. I love seeing other sides of things and being motivated to defend or alter my position.
    You guys rule!
    g.

  7. g’s last comment made me think of a discussion we often have in one of my writing classes – about how, as writers (and this applies to any sort of creative work), we often can’t control what other people take from our work.

    At first it really bothered me, knowing that I could put something out there – something I’d given serious thought – and even though I know what it means to me, and what I WANT it to mean to other people, there is nothing I can do about what anyone actually makes of the work that I show them. But now I think I’m okay with it, because I think it’s enough that people are able to take SOMETHING from it, whether or not I will ever know what it is. Maybe it’s successful simply because people are bothering to think about at all.

    But after reading this post, and Tyler’s artist’s statement, there’s a part of me that is sort of uneasy – because it seems like the thought put into his work is nowhere near as extensive as the discussion that came out of it. But that’s silly, because I don’t know that we can judge the value of his work based on his intentions. The discussion coming out of it is definitely thought-provoking.

    I think that g’s right about how we are ultimately the ones who decide which images (or words) are meaningful to us, and how – but I’m not willing to let go of the idea that the artist’s intention has to weigh in somehow, too. I just haven’t figured out how.

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