A Complete Guide to the History of Fashion Photography
Nowadays we take it for granted that fashion photography is an art form as creative and varied as any other, but it wasn’t always this way. Over the past 100 years the medium has worked hard to establish itself as a valid and legitimate form of expression, so read on for a thorough history lesson in the movements that defined a genre.
As with all great advertising, some of the most recognizable fashion campaigns in history have become every bit as iconic as the brands they were first designed to sell. Somehow, these great examples manage to capture the spirit, voice and aesthetic of a designer so perfectly that they add a whole new level of context to their brand. Whether it’s the model chosen, the styling of their outfit, the set design of the shoot or the photographer themselves, great campaigns transcend the actual clothing and help tell a story all of their own.
But the art of a good photo editorial isn’t set in stone; fashion photography, like art, has movements defined by its leading talents and the prevailing cultural zeitgeist. To understand them both a little better, and see how we arrived at where we are today, we’ve compiled a look back at some of the most important moments in the history of fashion photography over the past 100 years.
From humble beginnings at the start of the 20th century, the following is trip through the glamour, rebellion, artistry and commercialism of the past century to discover how the art of an entire industry was defined.
1910 – 1934: Edward Steichen and the Condé Nast years
To many, Edward Steichen is the founding father of modern fashion photography. After a supposed dare by a close friend, Steichen undertook the task of promoting fashion as fine art via the medium of photography. To do this, he took a series of photographs of the gowns created by renowned French fashion designer Paul Poiret, which were subsequently published in the April 1911 issue of Art et Décoration magazine.
Widely considered the very first modern fashion photographs, they conveyed the aesthetics, movement and details of the clothes as central to their approach. His style centred heavily on the model, in typical portraiture style, but used lighting and carefully planned studio setups to focus on the clothes and give them a lavish and elegant look that was indicative of the time.
Another crucial factor in widening the appeal of modern fashion photography came in 1909, when the successful publisher Condé Nast purchased American lifestyle magazine Vogue. In doing so, he created the world’s premier fashion publication — one that gave photographers such as Steichen, Cecil Beaton and Horst P. Horst a platform to showcase their work to a huge new audience. In 1913 he followed that up with the launch of Vanity Fair, and together the two titles spent decades fighting Harper’s Bazaar to become the top fashion magazine in America.
What Steichen and Vogue gave to modern photography were the blueprints for almost all fashion advertising that was to come in the years after. Steichen formed his own unique visual vocabulary throughout the ’20s and ’30s, distilling classic renaissance imagery with cubism and futurism to create something that was fresh and exciting. His use of models, lighting and experimental studio techniques were completely revolutionary and, for many years, his contemporaries had no other choice but to follow his path. His importance cannot be exaggerated; Steichen changed the face of fashion photography, and his innovations are still being used to this day.
1934 – 1944: The revival of Harper’s Bazaar and The Design Laboratory
For many years, Harper’s Bazaar lacked the edge it needed to compete with the Condé Nast publications. The magazine’s fortunes changed in 1934, however, with the appointment of Russian photographer Alexey Brodovitch to the role of artistic director. With him in place, Harper’s Bazaar started down a new path that would change the landscape of fashion photography forever. He implemented radical layout concepts, used typography in bold new ways and had a vivid approach to imagery. It was his mix of elegance and innovation that transformed the fortunes of Harper’s Bazaar, securing its long-term future.
However, Brodovitch’s influence was more resonant than simply the pages of the magazine. In 1933 he started a course at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art called the “Design Laboratory,” where he taught the full spectrum of modern graphic design principles. In attendance were young photographers such as Irving Penn, Eve Arnold and Richard Avedon. It would be these students that would go on to shape fashion photography on an almost continual basis for decades to come, all helping extend Brodovitch’s legacy long into the future.
1944 – 1960: Avedon and The Great Outdoors
One of Brodovitch’s early students at the Design Laboratory was Richard Avedon, who started his career in 1944 as an advertising photographer. Avedon quickly found a fan in Brodovitch, who spotted his talent and sent him to Paris in 1946 to cover the latest collections from the premier fashion houses. Young and full of energy, the images Avedon captured for Harper’s Bazaar represented a new direction for fashion photography.
Avedon’s style was all about one thing: movement. He replaced the static, lifeless poses of the Steichen era with photographs full of verve and vitality. He shunned the studio, preferring to work outdoors or on location. Capturing lively street scenes and bustling parties, his models were photographed in the moment, showcasing their natural femininity; the flowing clothes seemed somehow to be an elegant extension of their own bodies.
This set a new course for fashion photography and, throughout the ’50s, Avedon’s style was much imitated. Motion and spontaneity were hallmarks of this new direction. He inspired photographers such as Henry Clarke to use the city’s streets as a backdrop for his images. In the great outdoors, a new sense of life could be breathed into photographs, with the beauty of the models and the clothes they wore directly mirrored in the dynamism of the overall composition.
1960 – 1970: The divide
Avedon’s move to shoot his models in the moment was a real turning point for fashion photography. Those such as David Bailey used this style extensively to capture the new and exciting times of swinging London in the ’60s. Bailey’s photography for British Vogue built on Avedon’s ideas, but gave them an even more youthful feel, while his carefree approach linked model, setting and lifestyle like never before. Prolific photographers of the present day, like Mario Testino, owe a lot to work like this.
But there were some, such as fellow Brodovitch student Irving Penn, who continued to stick to the traditions of the studio. His famous cover for the April 1950 edition of Vogue featured model Jean Patchett in contrasting black and white. With tone and angle set in opposition, the result is dramatic, yet tranquil and this image in particular sums up his approach to fashion photography. Although his style was starting to fall out of favour during the ’60s, Penn changed the face of fashion photography in subtle but far-reaching ways for many years to come.
1970 – 1980: Return to the studio and the rise of sexual controversy
Capturing movement outside the confines of the studio had been the modus operandi of many photographers throughout the ’50s and ’60s. But, by the start of the 70s, a resurgence in studio work was well underway. Taking cues from photographers such as Steichen, Beaton and Penn, this new movement was defined by its use of female nudity, overt sexuality and surrealism.
Once again, Richard Avedon was riding the crest of this new wave. Having signed a deal to move from Harper’s Bazaar to Vogue in 1966, he decided to return to the studio for much of his fashion photography work. Referencing the glamour and freedom of the previous two decades, his shoots for Versace throughout the ’70s and ’80s were inventive and exciting. His trademark use of movement was still present, as was his celebration of vitality and confident female sexuality.
Somewhat contrasting Avedon there was Guy Bourdin, a Parisian who relied on sexual imagery to tell a different story. While his critics say that Bourdin reduced the female body to its most erotic parts, often promoting violent and misogynistic views, his supporters argue that he created his own unique brand of surreal mysticism. His advertising work in the late ’70s (including shoots for luxury footwear brands Charles Jourdan and Roland Pierre) often portrayed woman as weak and controlled — a strict counterpoint to works by contemporaries like Helmut Newton and Avedon. However his imagery is undeniably captivating, and the use of bright colour, staged surrealism and sex has influenced the work of modern fashion photographers like Terry Richardson.
1980 – 2000: The age of rampant commercialism
The ’80s were the start of a brave new frontier for fashion photography. Commercialism, a force that had laid somewhat dormant for much of the previous 60 years, suddenly reared its head. Fashion was starting to have a broader appeal as Europe and America’s burgeoning middle class took more of an interest in what they wore. They had more money to spend, and savvy fashion labels like Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Ralph Lauren were only too happy to take it.
A standout campaign from 1981 featuring a 15-year-old Brooke Shields personified this perfectly. Shot by the omnipresent Richard Avedon, the ad for Calvin Klein jeans saw Shields proudly declare that nothing came between her and her Calvins. It was a line that came straight out of an ad man’s notepad, but it caught the public’s attention. Almost overnight it made Calvin Klein jeans a highly desired product.
One man completely at home in the studio, and finding a new demand for his work, was Irving Penn. Throughout the late ’80s he teamed up with Japanese designer Issey Miyake for a compelling and ground-breaking set of adverting campaigns. Taking influence from Steichen’s simplistic approach and blending in his own subtle surreal tones, Penn took Miyake’s futuristic designs and exaggerated them with large, embellished silhouettes, using the pattern of the fabric and the contortion of the human body to showcase Miyake’s creations in a whole new light.
Penn was extrapolating Steichen’s blueprints, pushing the relationship between product, model and photographer further than anyone had done before. He had stayed true to the studio, even when his peers were shunning it. He had used this time wisely and was advanced in his use of lighting and considerate in the sparseness of his shots. This approach has since inspired a whole new generation of fashion photographers to look beyond the normal and push the boundaries of what can be achieved, conceptually, in the studio.
The ’90s produced a slew of classic ads. From the strong female role models portrayed by Donna Karen, to the American dream represented by Ralph Lauren, the ’90s were seen by many as the golden age of the ad campaign. Alongside sex, labels used supermodels to focus their campaigns around, finding an obvious link between their natural beauty and aspirational products.
Once again, Calvin Klein was at the forefront of this new movement, and turned up the heat in a particularly famous campaign from 1992. Featuring Mark Wahlberg paired with a fresh-faced Kate Moss, the unassuming black-and-white shoot by Bruce Weber captured the essence of this new direction. The simple image of them both, topless, sporting clearly branded underwear was all that was needed to get the message across. And it worked. Calvin Klein saw a huge uplift in sales, turning them into a globally recognised brand.
As mankind has thoroughly established over the decades, sex sells. But, while people like Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin had used imagery for its sex appeal extensively in the ’70s, the 2000s ushered in a new age of hyper sexuality that was designed as much to shock as it was to sell clothes.
One man not afraid of using flesh to push his products was Tom Ford. The iconic campaign for his first fragrance, For Men, was shot by Terry Richardson in 2007 and blended Ford’s penchant of sexual imagery with Richardson’s stark and instantly identifiable flashbulb aesthetic. Bourdin was clearly a huge influence on this work; the highly manipulated studio shots, use of colour and slightly sinister portrayal of female sexuality are all present. Strategic placement of the perfume bottle leaves little to the imagination, and the campaign caused a lot of controversy, as well as a lot of exposure, for Ford.
Another campaign from the Tom Ford stable was released in 2003 whilst the designer was working for Gucci. Stylised and simplistic, this ad, shot by Mario Testino, garnered a lot of attention as it featured a female model with the Gucci “G” shaved into her pubic hair. Less about the clothing and more about the preening, it was a bold move for Ford, but one that once again proved the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Although not averse to using sexual imagery in his advertising, Marc Jacobs strode a different path in the 2000s alongside longtime collaborator Juergen Teller. Teller’s distinctive photography style played a huge part in Jacobs’ promotional campaigns and differed hugely from the glamorous, highly stylised shoots of his contemporaries.
One standout example from 2003 featured Hollywood actress Winona Ryder. Having recently been arrested for shoplifting from the Saks department store in Beverly Hills, Ryder arrived in court wearing a Marc Jacobs dress. Spotting an opportunity, Jacobs hired her, and the now infamous ensuing photoshoot encapsulates his irreverent take on design with a devil may care attitude.
Celebrity endorsements and the celebration of wealth
Since Mark Wahlberg first posed for Calvin Klein back in 1992, big brands have been acutely aware of the attention a celebrity can bring to their campaigns. Strong females are a particular favourite, with fashion houses holding their rebellious and provocative spirit in high regard. Miley Cyrus for Marc Jacobs (much to the disapproval of Juergen Teller, who allegedly refused to work with the star), Lady Gaga for Versace and Lindsay Lohan for Miu Miu have all followed in the footsteps of Winona Ryder.
Current campaigns have also an increasing return to the nostalgia-tinged glamour of choreographed black-and-white shots. Hedi Slimane has repeatedly channelled ’70s era Helmut Newton for a large number of his campaigns for Saint Laurent, while Julia Roberts for Givenchy, Madonna for Versace and Mila Kunis for Miss Dior have all featured a similar monotone theme.
Perhaps the most dramatic shift in modern fashion photography, however, is the way in which campaigns are now being consumed. Between 2006 and 2013, the amount of pages dedicated per year to advertising in Vogue fell by 16%. In an age of Instagram and blogs, it’s clear fashion marketers have adopted a new strategy — one that includes a tacit acceptance that images may not ever make it anywhere near a glossy A4 magazine page, and may only ever be consumed on a scrolling social media feed. Content today is created in order to be shared, liked and retweeted. For many brands, lookbooks are the new ad campaigns — cheaper to produce, easier to consume and better suited for distribution across digital mediums.
Once the gatekeepers of the industry, today fashion magazines have been usurped by the internet. For some, this move is democratising, removing the elitism that the fashion industry old guard have long been accused of fostering. But, to many, it is the gentle dumbing down of a once proud art form that, thanks to the work of people like Steichen, Avedon, Newton and Penn, has long held great cultural and historical significance.