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Fashion Photography – A Historical Perspective

fashion photography since 1900

Over the course of the century, the Fashion Photographer has metamorphosed from society portraitist into a media celebrity. The top Photographers wield immense influence and power in the multi-billion pound world of fashion. Although the photographers and their images may have changed, Fashion Photography remains based on the fact that something can be more beautiful in a photograph than in real life.

Fashion photography is not simply a form of news photography. Successful pictures do far more than simply record the clothes. They capture the zeitgeist and help to dictate what is desirable.

The evolution of fashion photography is inextricably linked with the development of photographic techniques, printing and the fashion industry itself. Until the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the sewing machine, fashion was exclusively for the wealthy. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that it began to reach a wider audience. Along with the emergence of the bourgeoisie came couturiers and fashion magazines. Charles Worth is credited as the very first couturier and was responsible for the idea of using live, moving models to show his clothes. The first illustrated fashion magazine, Vogue, was launched in 1892 providing the medium through which fashion photography could develop.

Originally, illustrators such as Christian Berard and Georges Lepape provided the images. Couturiers were initially distrustful of photographers, concerned about plagiarism at a time when exclusivity rather than publicity drove the fashion industry.

The first fashion photographer was probably Baron Adolphe de Meyer who was hired by Conde Nast in 1913 to take experimental pictures for Vogue. Early fashion pictures were essentially society photographs of aristocrats, actresses and society models wearing their own clothes.

It was not until the 1920’s that photography began to replace illustration. Photographic imagery and ideals of feminine beauty were heavily influenced by the movie industry. Work was studio based as location photography was not practicable. The clothes themselves were usually from Paris and the couture gowns were indicative of the fact that fashion was still very exclusive. The relationships between Photography, Painting, and Art were being explored and established. Some felt that fashion photography was a capitulation to commercialism and somehow not real photography. Edward Steichen, who joined Vogue in 1923, trained as an artist but symbolically destroyed all his canvases in 1918 to concentrate on photography Photographers such as George Hoyningen-Huene were more influenced by Art Deco and the Bauhaus than by Haute Couture. In these pioneer days, photographers were given a free hand and competition between the magazines Vogue and Harpers

By the 1930s fashion photography had become a distinctive visual genre in the Arts. Couture was still for the aristocratic but fashion itself was beginning to become less elite. Vogue had become an important arbiter of fashion, purveying elegant and tasteful images to its affluent readers who had the time, money and dedication to be well dressed. Development of hand-held cameras and faster film speeds (Particularly the 1/1000 Leica) made outdoor shoots feasible. The Rolleiflex camera and color film provided new levels of reality. Images by sport’s photographer Martin Munkaacsi and by the American Fresh Air School captured the new interest in outdoor activities such as swimming and golf. These vibrant, sporty images ran side by side with the more traditional Grand Dame studio photographs. The Surrealism Art movement had a huge influence and there was a marked shift from classicism to surrealism. Photographs by Man Ray and Horst P. Horst provided a fusion of contemporary art and fashion.
World War II effectively closed down the fashion industry. Paris became isolated by the French Occupation in 1940 and photographers such as Man Ray and Horst P. Horst emigrated to New York. The shift from Europe to the U.S.A. was coupled with the emergence of a youthful and sporty American look.

Readership of magazines soared during the war. Fashion became more practical and realistic, rationing forcing everyone to make-do and mend. Erwin Blumenfeld pioneered the use of the new Hasselblad camera, the wide-angle lens providing new opportunities in perspective and composition. Irvin Penn set new standards with exquisite, elegant images. 1947 saw a revolution with the introduction of Christian Dior’s New Look. Austere utility clothes were replaced by extravagant and feminine ensembles. Public demand was instantaneous and the New Look quickly became a post-war symbol of youth, hope, and the future. Glamour had returned.

The 1950s saw huge changes in society and the role of fashion. Years of deprivation and rationing fuelled new consumerism. A booming ready to wear industry facilitated a huge shift from elitism to mass market appeal. Fashions from Paris were transmitted to the general public through the medium of magazines. Photographers such as Clifford Coffin, who adapted the dentists Ring Light for fashion photography, covered the Paris Collections. Newspapers also began to feature fashion. Models were beginning to attain celebrity status as icons of beauty.

New, young photographers were vital. Injecting energy and redefining the acceptable boundaries of taste and nudity. Richard Avedon pioneered a semi-documentary style, a shoot with a story. Irving Penn’s strong, graphic images were instantly recognizable, often shot against a white background. Norman Parkinson’s career flourished, his natural and witty images having timeless appeal.
Bert Sterns lavish lifestyle and photographs of women as sex objects heralded the 1960’s and the growing New York Art scene.

The 1960s were years of major change in fashion and fashion photography. As Bob Richardson observed, “Sex…happened to fashion photography in the 1960’s”. Women’s roles in society were being questioned and the youthquake was having an enormous cultural influence. Fashion trends were not just flowing down from Paris but were coming up from street culture. In Britain, the terrible three David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Bob Richardson were instrumental in introducing spontaneity and sex into fashion photography. The development of the S.L.R. camera aided a more relaxed and realistic approach to portraying fashion and models. These young photographers saw themselves as superstars; the media humored them and gave them license to create as they wanted. David Bailey’s images of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy epitomized the fashions of the emerging ready to wear boutiques and captured the vitality of the decade. The 1960s saw the profession becoming extremely lucrative and photographers attaining celebrity status. Nova magazine, first published in 1965 reflected the zeitgeist and photographic vitality. The emphasis was more on art and atmosphere than the clothes themselves.

The fashion extremes of the 1960s (Space age, hippie, mini) paved the way for more realistic and wearable clothes in the 1970s. The U.S. recession and involvement in the Vietnam War helped to bring fashion down to earth and replace fantasy with realism. Blue denim became the uniform of the world. Social changes, particularly the changing roles of women, were echoed with a rise in successful female photographers. Eve Arnold, Deborah Tuberville, and Sarah Moon photographed women on their own terms. Not as male sex objects or idolized icons of femininity.

Aesthetic ideals were extended to encompass wider conceptions of beauty. Models such as the Somalian Iman and Hawaiian Marie Helvin rose to prominence. In America, the healthy, All-American model look was epitomized by Lauren Hutton and Christie Brinkley.

The 1990s have also seen the growth of digital imagery and manipulation. Photographers such as David La Chapelle and Andrea Giacobbe have used computers and visual art to manipulate pictures and produce surreal fashion imagery.
Globalization and developments in Information Technology mean that trends and fashions are transmitted more quickly. The pace of change in fashion is accelerating. To keep abreast of these changes, photographers on the cutting edge have to quickly assimilate avant-garde trends and appropriate stylistic markers into their work. The most successful not only has a distinctive personal style but are continually in touch with current trends. Because of the key role they play in marketing and advertising, the top fashion photographers have become hugely powerful in the fashion business. Colin McDowell, the fashion historian, and journalist comments “It is the fashion photographers who are the real power brokers in the industry, wielding an influence even greater than the top designers”. In an industry driven by publicity, the photographer is king.

What remains constant is that beautiful woman, desirable clothes and talented photographers make a powerful combination.

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