Oliviero Toscani: Never Far From Controversy

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Legendarily controversial advertising photographer Oliviero Toscani wants us to imagine an archaeologist a thousand years from now digging up an issue of TIME, circa 2007. "Maybe on the cover he'll find a poignant photograph of AIDS in Africa. Then he'll open up the magazine and see a photograph advertising a shiny Mercedes." Through his pistachio green designer glasses, the ad man's ever-twinkling eyes widen. "And then he'll see a big spread on the lost children of Brazil, which is followed by a double-page photograph for Chanel perfume." Knocking his knuckles once on the table, Toscani, 65, lets out a short bark of a laugh. "Our archaeologist will wonder what the hell was going on back then!" This is the perspective behind his best-known advertisements, which have featured AIDS patients and death-row inmates in marketing campaigns aimed at selling bright wool sweaters and blue jeans. "All I've done is put a news photo in the ad pages," he says.

Depending on whom you ask, this odd fusion of commentary and commerce is either a clever form of social activism or blatant moral hypocrisy — arresting contemporary art as easy exploitation. No one, for sure, can deny Toscani's ability to grab your attention. Shocking is again how many are describing his latest creation, a billboard and newspaper campaign for an Italian clothing line that features a stark photograph of a naked anorexic woman. On Friday, the image was summarily banned by Italy's advertising watchdog, citing infringements on the organization's code of conduct for exploiting an illness for publicity purposes. Toscani told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he would sue for damages. On a recent afternoon at his office outside of Pisa, before the ban was announced, he was still absorbing the initial outrage that had ensued, from both fashion executives and those suffering from an eating disorder. Dressed in jeans and a blue checkered shirt, Toscani is a big man with a square jaw who doesn't sit still, something of an even more hyper Jack Nicholson. He neither casts off nor takes too seriously the criticisms, including the accusation that the outcry is exactly what he's aiming for. "Sure, you want to get people's attention. This is communication," he says. "But I still can't understand why people are shocked by something that obviously exists. It's like in a family that always avoids talking about its real problems."

After years as a successful fashion photographer, with a stint at Andy Warhol's Factory in New York, Toscani took on the Benetton brand account, turning out memorable ads of young people of different races and nationalities. His great breakthrough, though, can be traced to 1991, when he simply slapped the green Benetton logo on a photojournalist's award-winning image of a dying AIDS patient surrounded by his family. Since then, the son of a renowned Milan photojournalist has snapped his own striking frames of Balkan war victims, children from a Sicilian Mafia town and death-row inmates, the last of which set off widespread anger in the United States and eventually lead to his split with Benetton.

He shoos away critics who say social commentary, or even art, shouldn't be soiled by the job of selling products. "Communication has always been at the service of power. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel for the Pope. And is it not an advertisement for the Church?" he says. "If Frank Gehry builds a new headquarters for Coca-Cola, no one accuses him of trying to sell soda. He's trying to build the best building he can. And I'm trying to make the best image I can."

Top Italian contemporary art critic and curator Achille Bonito Oliva has long considered Toscani an important artist, and provided him with two large salas at the 1993 Venice Biennele which he presided over. "The function of art is to puncture the collective disinterest," says Bonito Oliva. "Toscani has turned on its head American pop art's optimistic idea of consumerism."

This latest campaign for upstart Nolita clothing is perhaps his most self-conscious and multi-layered, marketing a woman's fashion line in an effort to expose the problem of anorexia in fashion marketing. Toscani says people react to it because many suffer from a kind of "social anorexia" of deprivation and disappointment amidst the abundance of modernity. The nude image of the emaciated 26-year-old French actress in poses we are used to seeing struck by fashion models is indeed relentless in its rawness. Toscani says. "I always try to strip away and strip away until I arrive at what is essential."

Leaving the photographer's studio, another TIME interview of a communicator-cum-artist comes to mind. In the 1965 documentary Don't Look Back, we see Bob Dylan confronting a TIME reporter, saying the magazine has "too much to lose by printing the truth." When the reporter asks what is "the truth," the young Dylan snaps back: "A plain picture. Of, let's say, a tramp vomiting into the sewer. And next to the picture is Mr. Rockfeller, or C.W. Jones on the the subway going to work." Oliviero Toscani actually sees such photographic contrasts in TIME, circa 2007, though almost always kept distinct from one another. Ours is a world of deepening contrasts, brighter colors, and ever more confusion. Toscani doesn't offer any answers. But perhaps by putting selling and suffering on the same page, some good questions start getting asked.