NEW YORK — Points for style matter in a show about style, and “Quicksilver Brilliance: Adolf de Meyer Photographs” is nothing if not a show about style. It runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 18. De Meyer (1868-1946) was, in effect, the founding father of fashion photography, making style the very substance of his work.
The first thing a visitor sees isn’t one of the 40 or so images in the show. It’s de Meyer’s tuxedo, and a very handsome piece of tailoring it is. A statement is being made, and style points have been earned in abundance.
De Meyer was a striking figure. He’s even more distant from us in spirit than time. Of titled German and Scottish descent, he was a baron. He was born in Paris, educated in Germany, and married a god-daughter of Britain’s King Edward VII. She was, in fact, rumored to be Edward’s illegitimate daughter. Their three-decade union was by all accounts happy and loving. It was also what the French call un mariage blanc : He was gay; she either lesbian or bisexual.
De Meyer also feels contemporary. Put another way, he looks ahead to our time. A portrait of the English society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell from around 1912 harkens to the 19th century: She could be a Pre-Raphaelite duchess. Yet a little more than a decade later, his portrait of the fabulous entertainer Josephine Baker could give Annie Leibovitz a run for her Vanity Fair money. As it happens, his photographs ran in the first iteration of VF.
A child of aristocratic times, de Meyer helped lay the groundwork for today’s celebrity culture. He was Vogue’s first staff photographer, hired in 1913. He had a short-lived couture line, Gayne House. After World War I, he wrote columns on fashion, interior decoration, and etiquette for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar (where de Meyer’s photographs also appeared). The show includes vintage copies of magazines from the teens and ’20s with his work.
De Meyer might be seen as the missing link between John Singer Sargent and Conde Nast. Whether dealing with those famous by birth or by achievement, he was, as an introductory wall text diplomatically puts it, “A master of photographic flattery.”
His photograph of the American socialite Rita de Acosta Lydig, taken around 1917, is like a platinum-print version of one of Sargent’s great portrait canvases. That’s surely no coincidence. Sargent did paint her, and de Meyer was very much attuned to artistic achievement.
This is another way in which de Meyer was a pathfinder: his keenness to combine fine art with high society and fashion. His protege Cecil Beaton called de Meyer the “Debussy of the Camera.” That wasn’t just because the lushness of his photographic textures recalls the lushness of the composer’s timbres. He took a series of photographs of the Ballets Russes’ famous choreographing of Debussy’s “L’après-midi d’un faune.” Their hothouse splendor manages to convey a sense of both decadence and upheaval.
Beaton also said that de Meyer “invented a new universe.” Fashion had been much more about wealth than style, per se. De Meyer helped change that. Couture, no less than ballet, could be a thing of true aesthetic interest. He was a technical innovator, too, doing such things as putting a lit bulb under a skirt or placing gauze on the camera lens. De Meyer led the life of a dilettante. There was nothing dilettantish about his work.
“Quicksilver Brilliance” shows the artistic context de Meyer arose from. His intense aestheticism was born of Whistler’s art as well as Sargent’s style, Japanese prints (Debussy cherished them, too), and the richly textured photography of Pictorialism and the Photo-Secession. Near that tuxedo are several Alfred Stieglitz photographs from the first decade of the 20th century. Stieglitz helped promote de Meyer’s work.
Arising from one context, De Meyer helped create another. That context, commercial and more circumscribed, allowed such younger photographers as Beaton, George Hoyningen-Huene, and Horst to flourish. The greatest exponent of the de Meyer tradition, as one might call it, would be Irving Penn.
It says something about the robustness of his legacy that it could also inspire, in contradistinction, the very different, in-the-real-world fashion tradition most famously practiced by Richard Avedon. “There’s always been a separation between fashion and what I call my deeper work,” Avedon said. De Meyer never made such a distinction. That both limits the work and enlivens it. He was so good at scoring points for style, why would he care about anything else?
QUICKSILVER BRILLIANCE: Adolf de Meyer Photographs
At Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York, through March 18. 212-535-7710, www.metmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.