Miami — The model is in black, prone and dirty on jagged rocks, netting draped around her legs like a dead sea creature.
There she is again, lying on her back in a feathered dress, and in close up, her hair and face sleek with oil.
A stirring photo spread in the August issue of Vogue Italia was inspired by the Gulf oil spill, leaving readers wondering if the magazine crossed from evocative to insensitive. Editor-in-Chief Franca Sozzani understands the debate stretching from blogosphere to beaches and said the motivation is straightforward.
“The message is to be careful about nature,” she said by telephone from Milan, Italy. “Just to take care more about nature. ... I understand that it could be shocking to see and to look in this way these images.”
The spread, featuring Kristen McMenamy, is titled “Water & Oil” and was shot in Los Angeles by a leading fashion photographer, Steven Meisel. In another of the photos, the gray-haired McMenamy is covered in oil, spitting up water while clutching her neck.
“They are teasing BP. It doesn’t offend me,” said Lauren Crappel of Houma, La., as she slathered sunscreen on a child while unpacking her car in a Pensacola Beach parking lot.
Virginia Contreras of Navarre, Fla., said the photos were making light of the disaster. “I think they are making light of the oil spill. Everyone isn’t going to the beaches and people have lost their jobs here because of the oil,” she said.
Sozzani said the shoot reflects the magazine’s effort to “find an idea that comes from real life. ... There is nothing political. There is nothing social. It’s only visually. We gave a message but in a visual way.”
Some bloggers weren’t pleased. Dodai Stewart, deputy editor of Jezebel, called the spread inappropriate.
“I didn’t feel it made a statement,” she said in an interview. “I felt that they used the oil spill as a backdrop. There was one picture that had feathers. ... What makes a stronger statement about oil-slicked birds is an oil-slicked bird.”
Miranda Lash, curator of modern and contemporary art at the New Orleans Museum of Art, said artists should be free to take on any topic.
“When I look at it, I feel pain. It evokes pain and a feeling of loss and sadness because this is going to hurt my region for a very long time,” Lash said.
Beth Batton, curator of the permanent collection at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Miss., said in an e-mail that the spread humanizes the condition of the Gulf coast animals and environment.
“Looking at Steven Meisel’s photographs, you know something is terribly wrong because, as sensual as the images are, the human mind understands the toxicity of the oil that has coated model Kristen McMenamy’s skin, hair, and feathery gloves,” she said.
On Twitter, type in keywords Vogue Italia and you’ll get various opinions.
Brandie Hopstein, who lives in New Orleans, tweeted about the shoot after seeing the photos days ago. “There is this oil spill going on. It’s not going to be slipped under the rug,” she said. “I happen to love the shoot.”
Julie Urban of Doylestown, Pa., said it’s too soon for photographs like these. “I was like, ‘What?’ I can’t believe they did that and the pictures are really graphic,” she said. “It’s just people dying and choking. There’s tar everywhere. It’s really disturbing.”
Angelia Levy of Silver Spring, Md., tweeted that the spread was “kind of iffy, but it’s provocative.” She said she wasn’t offended, and questions whether an American magazine would have run it.
“There is no way that would go down,” Levy said. “It seems distant for them so they can afford to have models rolling around in oil.”