Fashion Essay

In this essay, I am going to look at how fashion photography and more over how fashion photographers have changed over the decades. Fashion and it’s love affair with photography is as strong today as it has always been, or has it?

Fashion plate showing women's costume. Hand-coloured etching, Paris, 1787. Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, London. CC-BY-SA.
Fashion plate showing women’s costume. Hand-coloured etching, Paris, 1787. Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

It was not until around the turn of the 20th century that photography was used in fashion. Even though the birth of photography was as far back as 1827 when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833) took the first photograph (, 2017)

Although photography moved forward throughout the Victorian period and society portraiture became ever popular. It was not until 1911 that a Luxembourger photographer, who had relocated to America in 1881, called Edward Steichen (1879 – 1973), produced thirteen soft-focused images for the magazine Art et Décoration (, 2017). The photographs were of models wearing dresses by leading French couture Designer Paul Poiret (1879 – 1944). These were considered to be the first serious fashion photographs ever produced.

Edward J. Steichen, editorial for Art et Decoration magazine, (1911)

Before this designs were only allowed to be sketched, drawn or painted as the designers were worried that a photograph would give away their trade and design secrets. Magazines such as Journal des Dames et des Modes and Le Costume Français, who had a limited readership, would use engraved illustrations to show the fashions of the day.

In the 1890s printing technology improved to the point that photographs and text could be laid out on the same page.  This allowed more fashion magazines to flourish and become more widely available to the general public.

In 1909, Condé Nast acquired the American magazine Vogue.  His intention was to turn it into a high-class fashion magazine that would sell globally. At the same time, Harper’s Bazaar was re-launched, Condé recognised the potential of innovative photography and, to this day, Vogue and Harper’s publish some of the most amazing fashion photographs seen in any magazines.

But what of the craftsmen and women behind the lens? They were initially the unsung heroes and heroines but who now are as famous as any model, magazine or painter. Where Edward Steichen led the way many have followed.  They have continually enhanced and pushed the limits of what a camera can do. The likes of Avedon, Unworth, Bailey and Newton were not happy with a simple snapshot, they needed to tell a story, or create a perception of a longed for lifestyle choice.  They pushed the boundaries ever forward. With every development and improvement in equipment such as smaller cameras, easier processing, portable equipment, they became more daring, leaving the studio behind and venturing out into the world beyond.

Richard Avedon Photographer (May 15, 1923 – Oct 1, 2004)

Richard Avedon (1923 – 2004) was probably one of the most well known of those pioneering photographers and has produced some of the most iconic images to adorn a magazine or a gallery wall. An obituary published in The New York Times said that “his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty, and culture for the last half-century”. (Richard Avedon, n.d.)

Avedon was surrounded by fashion from an early age, as his parents ran a successful retail dress business on New York’s Fifth Avenue simply called Avedon’s. Richards mother Anna helped kindle his interest in fashion and art and at the age of 12 he joined a camera club ran by the local YMAH (Young Men’s Hebrew Association).

“One evening my father and I were walking down Fifth Avenue looking at the store windows,” he remembered. “In front of the Plaza Hotel, I saw a bald man with a camera posing a very beautiful woman against a tree. He lifted his head, adjusted her dress a little bit and took some photographs. Later, I saw the picture in Harper’s Bazaar. I didn’t understand why he’d taken her against that tree until I got to Paris a few years later: the tree in front of the Plaza had that same peeling bark you see all over the Champs-Elysees.” (Biography, 2017)

This memory must have stuck with Avedon because, after a couple of years serving in the merchant navy as a photography assistant, where his main roll was taking identity photographs of sailors, he found himself in the company of Alexey Brodovitch, the revered art director at Harper’s Bazaar. Avedon and Brodovitch worked well together and formed a close working relationship and before long was taken on at the magazine as a staff photographer.

After being with Harpers for a few years, Avedon was despatched to Paris to cover the spring and fall fashion collections. Avedon was tasked with photographing the models away from the catwalk so went out onto the city streets of Paris. This is where he moved from the now traditional static model poses and injected movement emotion and the natural surrounding environment into his images, they became more than just a group of images, they were true individual pieces of art.

From the late 1940s through to the early 1950s he became famous for his elegant black and white’s showing the latest fashions set in the most picturesque parts of the French city. Streetcars, cabarets, and cafes were

Dovima with Elephants, 1955 – Richard Avedon, from the Photography Book

employed to best show the garments and sell a dream or a lifestyle to the intended audience.

One of his all-time iconic images was of one of the most famous models of the day stood between a group of elephants simply entitled Dovima with Elephants. It is a testament to his artistry and creative eye.

“He asked me to do extraordinary things,” Dovima said of Avedon. “But I always knew I was going to be part of a great picture.” (Biography, 2017)

As we moved from the 1950s into the 1960s a new breed of photographer started to evolve.  Young, enigmatic, handsome and, a little bit gritty. David Baily (1938 -) become synonymous with the era known as the swinging sixties, and some of his images are as important as the fashion and the music of that time.

Gone was the elegance of Avedon’s fifties and in swept a more direct almost reportage style of image capture. He preferred to use stark backgrounds and dramatic lighting effects, taking superstars such as the Beatles and the Stones and laying them bare in front of his Rolleiflex.  His 1960s-work portrayed the trend for breaking down the rigid antiquated class barriers by introducing a punkish feel into both artistic products and clothing.

His beginnings were much like Avedon’s in that his mother and father worked in the rag trade.  Herbert Baily was a tailor’s cutter and his mother Sharon was a machinist. But that’s where the similarity ends.  Bailey was an East End boy with undiagnosed Dyslexia and a motor skills disorder called dyspraxia. He left school at 15 and was short term employed in many menial jobs before he was conscripted into the Royal Air Force (1957 – 1958).

In 1959 Bailey joined the John French Studio as a photographic assistant and within a year he was a photographer for Studio Five.  Soon after he was contracted as a photographer for British Vogue magazine.

David Bailey The Kray Brothers, 1965

Baileys range was far and wide. From models of the time to famous group members, movie stars, royalty and even gangsters. He rose to prominence capturing images of a new generation of models such as Penelope Tree and Jean Shrimpton. To this day the name David Bailey is an iconic name even nonphotographers have heard of, this is a testament to the image of the man and the quality of his work. David Bailey was given a CBE in 2001.

As with all things, Bailey’s time passed and although he continued photographing work up to the 1990s he will always be remembered predominantly for his iconic medium format. Black and white images shot on his trusty Rolleiflex.

With the dawning of the digital age in the 1990s, photographers were finally released from the confines of the darkroom process and could review images in an instant. Also, the evolution of photographic software meant that things that were very time consuming or nigh on impossible in the darkroom could be created with ease, and allowed more freedom to experiment without the worry of not getting the required shot.

Portrait of Annie Leibovitz by John Keatley

One photographer that has embraced this age is Anna-Lou “Annie” Leibovitz (1949 -). Her early days as a photographer were spent working for the Rolling Stone Magazine. Within three years she had achieved the position of Chief Photographer.  In 1983 she moved to Vanity Fair.  She cited Henri Cartier-Bresson and Richard Avedon as her influences and has carved out a successful career combining commercial and personal projects.

Her images are bright colourful and bold often putting well-known faces in a situation one would not expect to see them in.  For example, in 2008 she photographed Whoopi Goldberg in a bath filed with milk. She is also the only American photographer commissioned to photograph Queen Elizabeth the Second in 2007 during her first state visit in 16 years.

On a sad note, Leibovitz was the last artist to photograph John Lennon on Monday 8th December 1980, just a few hours before he was killed.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, The Dakota, NY, December 8, 1980

In more recent times she has invested her time in a personal project called Pilgrimage, where she chose subjects that had a personal meaning to her. Be they sole objects, landscapes or living spaces. She is renowned as one of today’s top portrait photographers. However, Pilgrimage contains no people.

These photographers, and many more like them, developed a style of their own.  Some dark and moody, some happy and some very abstract but each helped to define a period and a style of their time.

Since the early days of Edward Steichen, fashion photography has certainly moved forward in a relatively short space of time. From large format frame cameras and slow speed film to the high ISO compact DSLRs of today, from slow darkroom processes to software that can transform and beautify with the click of a few buttons.

Are we at the end of the journey? I do not think so. As video quality and resolution improve we will probably start shooting at 24, 60, 80 or 120 frames per second then select the individual image from those frames. Though I wonder if that will mean the art of the photographer will be lost. Having shot on film recently I have embraced the slowness of the art of film photography, and the need to quantify the value of each exposure in one’s own mind.  Sometimes in our fast-paced society, we miss the little nuances that make a truly iconic image.


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