THE AMERICAN APPAREL
Since August of 2012, I’ve been photographing the kooky, pungent, aggressive series of “American Apparel” billboards that proliferate everywhere in Los Angeles, provoking irritation and snarky admiration with every new iteration.
American Apparel is an LA-based clothing manufacturer, specializing in basic knit sportswear for moneyed young hipsters. AA’s controversial marketing campaign unfolds on smallish, six-by-twelve-foot billboards, often poised just above eye level. These signs don't live in a blue, uncluttered sky; they hunker down amongst the storefronts, cyclone fences, telephone poles and parking lots.
And, just as those billboards are quite literally “in your face”, so, too, are AA’s promotions: in photographs that often appear defiantly amateur in technique, young women lounge in provocative, faux-sexy poses that are often quite bizarre, looking at the viewer with doleful boredom. One wonders if AA’s visual agenda is subversive and groundbreaking, or just plain weird. Is it genius, or drek? Is it exploitative, or a sly comment on exploitation elsewhere?
The commodification of women’s bodies---and the sexualization of very young women---is one of the Top Five worst and weirdest things about our hard-hearted culture. Clearly, American Apparel is a proud participant in all that. But they didn’t create this state-of-play---there are many other competitors on the field. (Though few are as creepy.) AA simply “excels” at the game, in a very contemporary way that’s relentless and unapologetic and kind-of cutting edge, for better or worse.
But my particular interest is in the specifics of the social and urban landscape of Los Angeles, and about how AA’s pervy daydreams juxtapose with very visible aspects of that built environment.
What does it look like when all that ramshackle, ad-hoc, real-world crap wraps itself around the hyper-controlled fantasies of hip sexuality that fashion advertisers extol on their drive-by broadsides? The “conversation” that ensues---the dialogue between the graphic simplicity of those groovy-snarky-sexy corporate messages and the visually anarchic world they’ve been thrust into---is what this body of work interrogates. Like this silly, spectacular town, the evidence fascinates even as it appalls.