A Brief History of Fashion Photography
Throughout its history, fashion photography was often looked at as a mode of advertising, too vapid and commercial to be considered high art. Over the years, artists have proved this mindset wrong and continue to raise fashion photography to the legitimate art form it is considered today. Fashion photographers are given the difficult task of capturing the essence of a brand, publisher, or model, all while infusing their own unique style and vision. The influence fashion photographers have is undeniable as they continue to dictate what is considered “beautiful,” “scandalous,” and most of all, “fashionable.”
It’s impossible to talk about fashion photography history without mentioning Richard Avedon. Avedon rose to prominence in the 1940s as an advertising photographer. His spreads for Harper’s Bazaar in the ‘50s sparked a new direction for fashion photography – one focused on movement. Rejecting the typical static shots from a studio, he took to the outdoors and other divergent locations to capture the clothing being worn in a more realistic fashion. Avedon brought an end to the era of models being posed as mere mannequins. He placed more of an emphasis on the person in the clothes, shooting active models in exciting backdrops. Dovima with Elephants stands as one of the most important fashion photographs of all time. Dovima was one of the last models upholding former beauty standards of haute couture as high fashion began to gravitate towards models who looked more “girl next door.” The gown being photographed was also the first Dior dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent. Avedon’s choice to pose her in front of one of the largest mammals brilliantly highlights Dovima’s dramatic femininity and the delicate silhouette created by the dress.
During the 1970s, fashion photography began to shift from capturing movement to a celebration of surrealism and female sexuality. The emphasis on sexuality and at times, hypersexuality, has remained at the forefront of fashion photography for decades. As an industry established in modeling clothing, the shift to scarcity and nudity speaks to its evolution as an art form. The promotion of specific articles of clothing was replaced by an emphasis on the models and the artist’s vision. Fashion photographers helped change the way brands are conveyed and proved that selling an emotion or attitude can be just as successful.
By the ‘90s and 2000s, fashion photography was pulled back into the world of hypercommercialism and brand awareness. Photographers and fashion lines shifted from subtlety to an exaggeration of consumerism and the power of a logo. Brands like Calvin Klein and Gucci began combining the lure of sexuality with the conditioned effect of overexposure. Photographs such as Will Work for Couture by Tyler Shields, satirize the overt sexuality and advertising of high fashion and its success at winning over the masses. While brands once had to sell themselves to consumers, people are now willing to sell themselves to wear a logo.
As with any practice, fashion photography is subject to ebbs and flows of artistic trends. Photographers like Tim Walker are once again changing the tides for the fashion and art world. In his portrait of Solange Knowles for i-D magazine, the singer is almost completely covered in a black hat, gloves, and turtleneck pulled up to her cheekbone. The spread includes altered photos of Knowles seeming to disappear in a hubcap held around her body. In other photos, her clothing seems to recede from the eye as she’s posed behind similar colored backdrops. Walker challenges past trends of focusing only on clothing or solely on the model. He hides Solange, directing the viewer’s gaze to carefully defined features such as an eye, a bare shoulder, or the cowboy hats across her chest. Walker is able to retract the appearance of clothing without nudity and pushes the boundary of an interactive backdrop by having it physically consume the model.
Fashion photography demonstrates that what’s “fashionable” goes beyond the clothes the models are wearing. As these artists continue to influence the fashion world, their inclusion in the art world becomes more and more evident.
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