This has been the “Summer of the Spill.” Since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion on April 20, 2010, the epic BP oil spill has oozed into imaginations trying to grasp the ecological and economic toll on the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Corporate engineering efforts to cap the spill often seemed to be based on consultation with Wile E. Coyote. Even pictures from space of the devastation seem more surreal than actual. In a fashion spread in the August issue of Vogue Italia, fashion photographer Steven Meisel takes on the tragedy in a controversial fashion shoot titled “Water & Oil,” which features model Kristen McMenamy posed in scenes as if she were part of the wildlife caught in the murky pool. Meisel’s photos represent the first artistic attempt to put this event in intelligible images. But, is this really just a slick new way of attracting the public eye? Is Meisel being insensitive? In other words, is he being (pardon the pun) crude?
Meisel dresses the androgynous McMenamy in black throughout, as if the omnipresent oil weren’t enough of a clue. Netting wraps around her legs in one picture (shown above), as if fishermen had freshly hauled her ashore—a dark mermaid from the polluted depths of the Gulf. In perhaps the most controversial image, McMenamy wears a feathered dress fouled by inky oil and indicates her choking by coughing up a mouthful of water, which Meisel freezes in midair on film. Critics condemn that image of dying waterfowl as insensitive and claim that the costume and choking make light of the dark reality. In my opinion, if there is any comedy, it’s a very dark model. This is the grotesque bordering on the comic, but still firmly standing in the grotesque. Meisel is trying to show us that the situation is so sad that you almost can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the valiant yet futile efforts to clean it up. By putting a beautiful woman in the position of a bird, Meisel shortens the chain reaction between wildlife and humanity and gives us a clearer picture of what’s really at stake when we talk about the BP spill.
Meisel’s never been one to shun controversy. He photographed Madonna, a personal friend, for her book Sex in 1992. I’ll always remember Madonna’s hefty tome of pseudo-pornography sitting on the shelf behind book store counters beckoning the curious with its taboo overtones. Model Karen Elson followed Meisel’s advice to shave off her eyebrows, thus winning her the nickname “Le Freak.” Fashion and photography for Meisel have never been about the beautiful, but rather about the bemusing, the befuddling, and the bewitching. The photos of “Water & Oil” cast a spell by recontextualizing something we have been reading about ad infinitum for months in a never-ending cycle of seeming success followed by inevitable failure. Meisel recognized that spill fatigue and decided to snap us out of it to see exactly what’s happened, and is still happening. It’s slick in a way of repackaging tragedy into a glossy magazine, and it’s crude in its grotesque bluntness, but it’s also effective in making us pay attention to the world around us as it suffers from our carelessness.