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This image is the right half of a diptych inside the back cover of British Vogue March 2018. The left half, which I refer to but have not discussed fully, shows an adolescent boy in urban skate wear in a decaying urban setting. It’s an advert for Palace, a UK based skateboard and skatewear brand. I shall start with the image and then move out to some of the questions that I’ve considered whilst making this work.
We see a middle-aged man dressed in bright green trunks, snakeskin loafers, a cream leather jacket and gold jewellery. He’s seated on a stack of white china plates, as if on the toilet, a couple of which also feature in the other image of the pair. The location is a room with a wooden floor that’s covered with plain grey flooring with one corner cut, and he’s against a breezeblock wall, with no windows, painted white. It’s a portrait image and he occupies most of the frame with a bit of space around him. There’s a vertical margin to the left in which the models and photographer are credited. The brand name is visible on his trunks and also in the lower right hand corner of the advert. There is no other text.
This image speaks of a skater’s dad, especially because it’s paired with a photograph of a teenage boy. Perhaps he skated when he was younger, but now he is an adult, a dad, better off and skating less and driving more. There’s an “Only Fools and Horses” vibe to it. He’s knowingly taking the piss, on one hand, with his signet rings and finger-sucking; on the other there’s an ostentatiousness in his presentation. Snakeskin print loafers with gold monogrammed trim, loud trunks with the brand writ large on the outside (it was always dads that used to complain about visible underwear). His leather jacket looks butter soft and immaculately stitched and lined. It denotes extravagance – a cream leather will spend half its life at the dry cleaner. The shoes, jewellery (signet rings and necklace) and the “designer” underwear all connote extravagance, a touch of flash. The name “Palace” denotes wealth, royalty, opulence. The lack of other clothing suggests a sense of performance, of not being afraid to “let it all hang out”, a sense of fun. He has tan lines from his socks (lots of time outdoors, or sunshine holidays?) and sock elastic marks on his ankles. In many ways it’s an endearingly “dad” picture.
He’s “man-spreading”, spreading his arms and legs to fill and claim the space. Little finger in his mouth as his eyes look directly into the camera. The pinkie sucking is slightly disturbing – I’m not sure if it’s playing on sexualisedand infantilised female imagery or on the clichéd movie villains with cats in their laps and fingers in their mouths. I’m intrigued by what is either a single varnished nail or a bruise. We don’t quite see his nipples.
This is a photograph of Juergen Teller, a regular fashion photographer for Vogue, and the other image of the pair shows his son, both images made by Teller. This opens a vast range of meaning and now we have to explore further both inside and outside the frame.
Why is such an extravagant advert for men/boys skate gear in a premium women’s fashion and beauty magazine? Palace don’t cut any of their clothes for female skaters. Vogue readers, on the whole (I suspect), don’t skate. Skaters, on the whole (I suspect), don’t read Vogue. On first glance it makes little sense.
Palace is to skatewear what Vogue is to magazines however, with highly anticipated and quickly sold out collections so they both occupy premium niches in their respective fields.
Vogue readers are very familiar with the fashion photography work of Juergen Teller, and many of them will have considerable influence over the clothes worn by the men and boys they love and the finances to indulge this influence. Teller works with charm, and recognises that a shared joke, a shared moment, will result in the viewer mentally transposing their partner and son for Team Teller, with the hidden hope that as well as carrying off snakeskin loafers their menfolk will also acquire a little bit of that Teller patina, that fashion photographer glamour. In exactly the same way that they see Teller’s Vogue photographs of models in beautiful clothes and imagine transposing themselves into the image via the purchasable clothes. I suppose they could also transpose themselves with the invisible Mrs Teller, with the same outcome.
The shared joke now becomes not just about himself, but also about years of perpetuating the clichés of fashion photography – improbable outfits both revealing and concealing, the cults of the model, the brand and the photographer, flirting with and seducing the viewer.
Teller is normally behind the camera, we see his work, but we don’t see him. In this work he’s in front of the camera, in his pants, and he doesn’t care. He’s there with his wrinkles, his belly, his sock marks, in Vogue, depicted in a way that we would never see a female model, or a female photographer. His near-nakedness and twinkling eye demand intimacy and invite us into the ad with him, we become part of it for a moment. He’s subverting something right there. Liz Hoggard wrote in the Observer “although here he’s not “on the slab” – he’s having a blast in his middle-age and is inviting theYou can almost hear the reproachful chorus of “daaaaad” from his children, one of whom is shown in more typical skate garb in a more grunge, urban and less affluent setting on the page opposite, referencing a younger and possibly more current skating experience. It speaks to the change from boy to man, son to father, a shared love of skateboarding even though we don’t see a board in either image. It thus associates that cross-generation passion with the Palace brand, giving a sense of quality, of timelessness, of heritage, rather like the connotations of the word “Palace” itself.
The plates were harder to assign meaning to, appearing in both images. Were they another way into the image for female viewers, referencing the domestic? Or perhaps a nod to cockney rhyming slang – “sitting on the porcelain potty”, “plates of meat”, “my old china”? It turned out to be more literal – “Teller” is an old German word for plate and it’s a device that Teller has incorporated into other work too, literally putting himself into the work. He has a large canon of self-portraiture work, triggered by wanting “to know how does it feel to be photographed, how does it feel to be photographed by me?” He is skilled at seamlessly conflating person and product for advertising work, reputedly telling Victoria Beckham that she was “a product” as he photographed her legs emerging from a Marc Jacobs carrier bag.
I think the last word should go to an OCA peer who glanced at the first draft of this post and thought that the photograph was of my husband. She’d picked up on the directness, the intimacy, and the cheekiness of the gaze, it’s hard to believe that the look was delivered to a camera set on self timer or an assistant with a remote shutter release. This is one of the qualities that makes the image so engaging to consider.