Fashion photography has evolved through a series of stylistic innovations since its rise to popularity in the beginning of the 20th century. In its early days, there were no professional models posing for photos, but rather, celebrities and high society figures such as Irene Castle, Sarah Bernhardt, Tilly Losch and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The photos from this period are very similar to theatrical publicity or classic portraiture, but what distinguishes the photos is their focus on the clothing. In stark contrast, contemporary fashion photography has shifted to be more similar to pornography, having sexual innuendos be a staple of the genre. Whether one looks at early fashion photography or contemporary fashion photography, there is a common thread of commercialism, with photos not being produced solely for reasons based on one’s love for photography, but rather, with the intent to sell a product. A great fashion photo must enchant the viewer and make them fall in love with the outfit which is featured in the photograph, leading the viewer to consider buying some article of clothing which they do not need, but now want. That being said, great fashion photos are, themselves, individual works of art which carry their own importance. Fashion photography reflects more than just the clothing and the model, but also is a reflection of the times, offering information about the society and culture in which the photo was published.
Fashion Photography made its debut in Paris in the 1880s with photographs of the Countess de Castiglione by the Mayer and Pierson Studio, but, when looking at early fashion photography, I will mainly be focusing on two eras of fashion photography, Pictorialism and Modernism. Pictorialism was an artistic movement popular around the world from around 1885 through the early 20th century, and was adapted into a style of photography by Baron Adolph de Meyer in 1914 when he decided that fashion photography could be more than just a documentation, but rather an art, by focusing on creating a mood, rather than just photographing a garment. He achieved this by the use of more advanced lighting techniques, creating gentle atmospheres, and using a soft focus. Modernism was pioneered by Edward Steichen who replaced the soft focus and light atmosphere of pictorialism with crisp, clean, geometric lines, and using a sharper focus.
The soft focus of Pictorialism was executed as a means of devaluing the specific subject matter in order to stress the mood which the form of the subject created. The reasoning behind the implementation of photographic technique of softening the focus has similar roots to the ideas emphasized through the large, distinct brushstrokes of impressionist art. The softened focus could be achieved through a variety of techniques, such as stretching a thin layer of silk gauze over the lens, splashing water on the lens, shaking the camera during the exposure, or simply just leaving the lens slightly out of focus. Another key element to Pictorialism is backlighting. De Meyer used a light behind his subject in order to form an almost godlike light around the profiles of who he was photographing, creating a dramatic luminosity and romantic atmosphere. De Meyer also created a standard for how to pose models, with his most popular pose, the hand-on-hip stance, nearly becoming a cliche. De Meyer was hired as the first staff photographer for, what was at the time, a small magazine, Vogue. His style of Pictorialism would go on to be the most popular style of fashion photography until the mid 1920s when Edward Steichen would change the industry standard with Modernism.
Steichen’s Modernism had more in common with European Modernist paintings and the Art Deco style of the time, rather than the “outdated” impressionist paintings of the 19th century which were closely related to De Meyers’ Pictorialism. Like Pictorialism, Modernism focuses more on the mood of the photo, rather than the garment. Modernist photos were originally characterized as needing to be sharp, with strong lines, simple backgrounds and straight-edged geometric patterns, but would later come to be an umbrella term for all sorts of experimental fashion photography being produced at the time. Modernist photos featured women wearing loose fitting, corsetless garments, with far less adornment than the outfits featured in Pictorialism. Modernism helped define the contemporary woman at the time, the flapper. Heavily impacted by Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene developed another approach to Modernist fashion photography during the late 1920s which involved orderly compositions, precise set ups, and detailed backdrops, often heavily influenced by architecture and ancient greek art. Huene had a great influence on his student Horst P. Horst, who went on to take a less serious approach to Modernism. Horst still implemented many Greek motifs, but also included some more light hearted elements into his photos, such as trompe l'oeil. Other photographer such as André Durst, Harry Meerson, Helmut Newton, and Bert Stern would photograph in the style pioneered by Steichen.
Steichen’s style of photography dominated the fashion world through the 20s and 30s, but little known to the leading photographers at the time, there was a young man who would revolutionize the field of fashion photography and change it forever. In 1933, a Russian photographer, Alexey Brodovitch started to teach a class at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art called the “Design Laboratory.” In attendance to his classes were young artists including Irving Penn, Eve Arnold and Richard Avedon who would later become some of the most influential fashion photographers of the mid-20th century. In 1934 Alexey Brodovitch became the artistic director at Harper’s Bazaar where he taught modern graphic design principles. Twelve years later, in 1946, Brodovitch would endorse his former student, Richard Avedon, and help him become a staff photographer at Harper’s Bazaar. Richard Avedon had fresh ideas and was not afraid to break traditions within the field. During his time at Harper’s Bazaar, Avedon introduced new elements to fashion photography which would change the art forever. He strayed away from the static nature of fashion photography done in the past and moved out of the studio, into the outdoors. No longer did he have models sit in the studio, emotionless and indifferent to the camera, but rather, he photographed models in action, beaming with emotions, and filled with motion. His style was all about movement. He photographed models in street scenes, with exotic animals, at parties, and in nature. His photographs felt more spontaneous and less posed. Avedon continued this revolutionary style of fashion photography until the late 1950s when he was no longer satisfied with open air shooting, and moved back into the studio. Although Avedon returned to the studio, the work which he shot outdoors caused a shift in the industry which heavily influences fashion photographers today. From then on, starting with Avedon, fashion photographers have been shooting models in a greater variety of settings, both indoors and out, and with a full range of actions and emotions.
Avedon’s style of movement focused fashion photography shot outdoors dominated the industry until the dawn of 1970s when there was a widespread return to photographing models in the studio. Unlike Adolph De Meyer, Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, and Irving Penn’s practices within the studio, with a greater concentration on mood created through dynamic lighting and composition, the fashion photography around the 70s up through the 80s focused on surrealism, overt sexuality, and female nudity. Photographers continued photographing with movement and vitality within their subjects, as that had become ingrained in the nature of fashion photography, but the focus on the models no longer revolved around elegance, but rather the sexualization of the subject. Unlike De Meyer and Steichen who become largely irrelevant after their style of photography fell out of fashion, Avedon adapted to the times and moved from Harper’s Bazaar to Vogue, working in the studio for much of his work with fashion. Photographers such as Mario Testino, Helmut Newton, Patrick Demarchelier, and Guy Bourdin were all very successful during this period with there often sexualized and partially nude photographs which would set the scene for fashion photography to this day.
From the 80s on to the 2000s came the rise of “rampant commercialism.” Fashion photography was always done for commercial purposes, but never had it been so crude and blatant until this period. In the 80s came the widespread use of using billboards as a means for advertising. This movement was spearheaded by Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and soon every major player in the industry was buying up outdoor space to advertise. The rise of outdoor advertising, as opposed to advertising in a magazine, was largely inspired by Nike’s campaign during the 1984 Olympics, featuring Michael Jordan. Before Nike, the outdoor advertising scene was dominated by tobacco companies. Avedon’s motion and the sexualization of models that become so popular in the 70s were still present, but the approaches took in commercializing the art were even greater. As American and European consumers gained more disposable income the market for fashion ad campaigns grew. Billboards featuring large fashion advertisements became more commonplace and the role of the fashion photographer as a salesperson increased. Again, Richard Avedon managed to stay relevant, photographing some of the most important advertisements of the time. A great example of how fashion photography became increasingly tied to commercialism during this period is the success of the 1981 Calvin Klein advertisement for jeans, shot by Avedon, featuring a fifteen year old Brooke Shields flaunting her pants to the camera. After the release of this ad campaign, Calvin Klein jeans became an item of desire overnight.
At the turn of the 21st century fashion photography was still extremely commercial and, harkening back to the 70s and 80s, hypersexuality emerged as the popular mode, and this time, more sexual and shocking than ever. In the 2000s models began to be sexualized to near pornographic proportions. Photographers such as Terry Richardson, Mario Testino, and Juergen Teller would dominate the industry with extremely sexualized advertisements such as the 2003 Gucci advertisement which featured the Gucci G shaved into a model’s pubic hair, or the Tom Ford advertisement featuring their first fragrance for men, placed between a woman's breasts being pushed together by her hands, to envelop the fragrance bottle. Even the more modest top contemporary fashion photographers, including Steven Meisel, Alice Hawkins, Georges Antoni, Ben Hassett, and many more in the industry, consistently put out work that heavily sexualizes the model.
In 2010 the release of the mobile app, Instagram, revolutionized how we consume fashion photography. We no longer only see the photography done by those established enough to be featured in magazines or on billboards, but instead, everybody now has the ability to easily publish their work online, giving everybody the opportunity to see anybody’s work. This has lead to a greater diversity of content than ever before. Consumers of fashion have the ability to cater what they see, and there is at least a little bit of something out there for everyone. That being said, fashion photography online is also dominated by photographs with hypersexualized models.
Over time, Fashion photography has had a linear progress, becoming more and more radical, and taking more risks over time. It went from a media featuring elegant, yet reserved women to one that puts sexy, confident women on a pedestal. One can say that trends in fashion photography are a reflection of the times in which they were popularized. Modernism in photography was inspired by the modernist art movement at the time. Avedon liberated his models from the studio, and allowed them to express a full range of emotions, just as second-wave feminism was becoming a popular movement. Once the effects of the sexual revolution of the 60s become part of mainstream media and culture, we see the 70s take off with sexualized imagery. As consumer culture grew in the 80s, it boomed in fashion photography. Heading into the 2000s, with the rise of the internet, and having all sorts of uncensored materials instantly available to anyone, fashion photography became more sexualized than ever before. As the times change, so will trends in fashion photography.
“We sell sex.”
Considering the recent sexual misconduct allegations towards some of the world’s leading fashion photographers such as Terry Richardson, Bruce Weber, and Mario Testino, there will likely be great shifts in the Industry. Conde Nast already severed their ties with Weber and Testino and have further changed their policies to protect models from sexual misconduct. Tom Ford, American fashion designer and former creative director of Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci, said regarding the fashion industry, that “We sell sex.” Considering the current political climate, we will see if these sentiments change in the future. Maybe the fashion industry will, instead of promoting hypersexualization and “selling sex”, have a greater push to promote culture, empowerment, or other constructive ideas.