Man at His Best

Opinion: Whatís the Big Deal With Coffee Table Books Anyway?

We are looking at you, Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly.

BY Yong Shu Hoong | Jan 24, 2017 | Books

My first encounter with Abercrombie & Fitch occurred unexpectedly at Tower Records in Pacific Plaza on Scotts Road. Only later did I realise that it is an American brand of casualwear with a presence in major cities around the world—including Singapore where it first launched a store in 2011. But way back in 1997, peering at an issue of A&F Quarterly in Tower’s magazine section, I had no idea at all that this was a catalogue disguised as a magazine (or a “magalog”, as coined by a marketing guru no less) to promote the A&F line of clothing for both men and women.

Closely linked to the Quarterly is the American fashion photographer Bruce Weber whose arty spreads of sometimes-nude and oft-scantily-clad male and female models have given the popular periodical its distinctive look.

Born in 1946 and raised in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Weber gained fame in the fashion industry in the ’80s, shooting memorable ads for the likes of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. His photography career continues to this day, with works regularly featured in reputable fashion and lifestyle mags like Vanity Fair, Vogue and Interview.

Aside from fashion photography, Weber has also shot many celebrities—from Hollywood A-listers like Michael Fassbender and Cate Blanchett to reality TV star, Kim Kardashian. He has published more than 15 books including Bear Pond (1990), featuring a landscape and figure study taken at New York State’s Adirondack Lakes region, and The Chop Suey Club (1999), featuring Peter Johnson, an athlete-turned-model that Weber discovered at a wrestling camp.

Now, in this internet age where images of all kinds are just a click away, who’d pay for these hardcover photo books, as lovely as they are in terms of design and binding? The truth is not all fans are camera enthusiasts looking to improve their portraiture techniques. They’re snapping up Weber’s books to get their eye-candy fix, despite price tags reaching hundreds of dollars (especially for out-of-print titles that have become collectibles).

Yes, artistic sensuality sells—even when no sex or full-frontal nudity is depicted. Some of Weber’s racier images featured in A&F Quarterly have incurred protests and been labelled as soft porn by community-focused groups in the US. But if you count yourself among the more open-minded, these are just part of his idealised dreamscapes celebrating a privileged American way of life involving the great outdoors, sports and recreation.

So the young and the beautiful will continue to frolic naked, usually in black and white, on a beach, or relax upon grass beside a tranquil lake. Sometimes, dogs are featured too, alongside the hairless pecs and sculptural abs of their shirtless best friends.

And as these images captured by Weber’s exquisite lenses are splashed across the pages for your viewing pleasure, a few questions might surface in your mind: are such consistent representations of beauty, without chaos and flaws, a necessary escape from our increasingly chaotic and flawed world? Or are they increasingly irrelevant in this diversity that we call real life?