More Than Pretty Pictures of Dresses

By Bill Dobbins

Edward Steichen was one of the most successful fashion and advertising photographers of the 20th century.

The invention of photography in the 1830s predated the widespread publishing of photographic images in magazines and newspapers by several decades.  Illustrations generally took the form of woodcuts or lithographs and when photos did start to be more frequently published they tended to be more single images than photo layouts or picture stories.  But the use of photos in periodicals increased gradually through the 1880s and 1890s.

The first photos were printed in BW but soon they learned how to reproduce photos in color.  Melissa Banta, Curator of the Baker Library at Harvard Business School is quoted to an article in as explaining, Color photography made its appearance in magazine advertising in the 1890s through the process of chromolithography. Advances in the technology came in 1910, with the development of two- and three-color printing processes. In general, color printing was more complicated and expensive than black and white, and its results less reliable and ‘realistic.

George Hoyningen-Huene was not only a top fashion photographer but worked in Hollywood with a lot of movie stars like Ava Gardner.  Many fashion photographers have also shot extensively with celebrities.

The fashion industry was advertising its products before they had the ability to publishing photos, but once photography in magazines and newspapers became commonplace these companies became an important revenue source for all sorts of publications.  They took full advantage of the technology that allowed for printing color but BW remained a popular  format for fashion images – and still does.

Before magazine photography became commonplace, fashion was advertised with illustrations.

Vogue Magazine  was founded in 1892 but it was when the magazine was purchased by Conde Nast in 1909 that the industry began to feature more photography along with fashion illustrations and over time photos became a more and more important aspect selling, adversing and promoting the latest fashions to interested female consumers.  And as fashion photography became more important, so did the number of talented photographers interested in focusing on fashion as a subject.

By the way, anyone who liked the movie The Devil Wore Prada should watch the documentary The September Issue – a behind the scenes look at producing an issue of Vogue with Anna Wintour and featuring photographers like Mario Testing.

stella-tennant-by-mario-testino-for-us-vogue-september-2012Anyone who liked The Devil Wore Prada should see the documentary The September Issue – about Vogue, Anna Wintour and featuring photographer Mario Testing. Watching the movies back to back is an education in how magazines use fashion photography.

One of the earliest and greatest of the fashion photographers of the 20th century was Edward Steichen.  His photos of gowns for the magazine Art et Décoration in 1911 are regarded as the first modern fashion photographs ever published. (Wikipedia).  He was published in Vogue and Vanity Fairfrench, worked for many advertising agency and became known as the highest paid photographer in the world.  His earlier work shows models looking very stiff and award but he changed with the times – in may ways helped to change the times – kept up with technical  innovation and at the end of his career his photos were filled with elegance and energy.

Horst P. Horst had an interest in architecture and photographing interiors. The eye for structural composition showed up in his fashion photographs.

Another early fashion master was George Hoyningen-Huene, born in Russia to German and American parents.  Fleeing Russia during the revolution, by 1925 he was chief of photography for French Vogue.  In 1935 he was in New York City working for Harper’s Bazaar,vogue which had been published first in the 1800s and then reinvented in a version that made it a primary competitor to Vogue.  Hoyningen-Huene had an elegant style that made him extremely popular with Hollywood celebrities and he worked closely as a consultant with directors such a George Cukor.

Another top fashion photographer of the time who was both highly influential as well as a master of self-promotion was Cecil Beaton.  He is described in Wikipedia as an English fashion, portrait and war photographer, diarist, painter, interior designer and an Academy Award–winning stage and costume designer for films and the theatre. He was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1970.  Both Beaton and his photos were extremely stylish and elegant, as his photos in British Vogue clearly illustrate.  He had many famous friends among celebrities and royalty and was extremely creative in a number of areas.

Cecil Beaton was an English photographer equally at home shooting royalty, celebrities and fashion.  He used formal composition in a time before fashion photographers began using a more dynamic and fluid approach.

A favorite quote of mine from Beaton is from a book he published in 1972.  He describes riding along in a car and passing by a photo portrait studio.  As an internationally famous and financially well off photographer, his reaction was something along the lines of “there but for fortune go I.”

One of my favorite fashion photographer is Horst P. Horst.  He left his native Germany in 1930 to study with the legendary architect Le Corbusier.  He developed a relationship with Hoyningen-Huene, met Cecil Beaton and started working as a photographer for French Vogue.  His talent was obvious and his rise meteoric.  He was soon published widely in the magazine and had gallery exhibitions.  In 1937 he moved to New York City, became a Vogue photographer, an American citizen, fought in WWII and became a legendary fashion photographer.

One of Irving Penn’s favorite models was his wife Lisa Fonssanagrives.  This is an example of Penn’s ability to create formal, graphic posing.

What I like best about Horst is the graphic nature of his photos.  He also photographed interiors and can see the degree to which his architectural sense influenced the way he posted and lighted his models. I have always found the structured, almost geometrical, nature of his compositions to be highly attractive and impressive.

As we got into the 1950s there is a group of fashion photographers whose reputations had survived, endured and grown over time.  Irving Penn’s first photographs appeared in Vogue as early as 1943 and he continued to have a major presence in the publication thought his life.  Penn was very active in both fashion and advertising, as well as creating a lot of amazing personal work.  He was married to Lisa Fonssagrives, one of the top models of the day and Penn did many really impressive photos of his wife over the years.

Richard Alvedon freed up his models to be active and to move around energetically – that than to rely on formal structured poses.

At the end of his life, Penn did a lot of work experimenting with platinum printing, creating some of the most impressive BW prints using that technology ever.

A slightly younger but equally successful fashion photographer of the time was Richard Alvedon.  While Penn excelled at somewhat formal, very carefully composed photographs, Alvedon took a more fluid approach.  He worked often with a medium format Rolleiflex and encouraged his models to actively move around.  One technique he used was to have an assistant follow the model around in the studio holding a strobe and umbrella at the end of a long pole.  That way he could maintain the proper lighting on her no matter where the model life ma moved around on the set.

Melvin Sokolsky was a Harper’s Bazaar photographer when he came up with the idea for photos with models in a bubble. Prints of this series are still in demand to this day.

Richard Alvedon shot for many magazines, including Life and Vogue, but his best work was done for Harper’s Bazaar.  He was also the model for the character played by Fred Astaire in the 1957 movie Funny Face – and was the technical advisor as well.

Another veteran fashion photographer from that period is Melvin Sokolsky, a master photographer and film maker who is a personal friend and still working today in his 80s.  Sokolsky  was known for his fashion and advertising photos, was published extensively in Harper’s Bazaar and to this day gets requests for his famous “bubble series” – with models floating in air in giant clear plastic bubbles suspended in mid air.

Helmut Newton was the first mainstream photographer to introduce fetish, S&M and bondage motifs to fashion photography. His influence is frequently seen in contemporary fashion images.

One extremely successful photographer from the 1930s, who has continued to influence fashion and photographer to this day, was Helmut Newton.  A German-born photographer who worked for various editions of Vogue (and published nude photos of supermodels in Playboy as well), Newton is noted for having introduced  images which played on fetish, bondage and S&M themes, combining kicky and fashion as nobody has before.

As Alvedon was a role model for Funny Face, check out The Eyes of Laura Mars to see the influence and participation of Helmut Newton in this movie.

Guy Bourdin was able to shoot for major magazines and advertisers despite creating images that were to say the least odd, strange, kinky and bizarre.  In a more conservative age it is rare to see fashion images with this kind of shocking impact.

One fashion and advertising photographer who went even farther along the same path was French shoot Guy Bourdin.  Even by today’s standards Bourdin’s images can still be shocking.  He was famously difficult and very protective of his images, avoiding such promotions as gallery exhibitions and books, so he is not nearly as well remembered as he deserves to be.  But photographers and art directors can still learn a lot my studying his work.

Ellen Von Unwerth was a model who became a successful fashion photographer. The Helmut Newton influence in some of her work seem obvious.  

One thing that is clear and evident as I’m  looking at the photographers and  photographs I am writing about is the degree to which fashion photography can represent the era in which it images are created – whether this is intentional or not.  Certainly the fashions themselves show how the culture is changing.  But there is also the type of model that are photographed, the formality or lack of it in the shots, how elegant or informal, what agree of erotic overtones or lack of them.

Jean Shrimpton was one of the top models of the swinging 60s. Here in a photo by boyfriend David Bailey, on whom the photographer in the movie Blow Up was based.

The most successful models of the 30s and 40s don’t bear any resemblance to a Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy or Penelope Tree so famous in the 60s. In my opinion, there has never been a model that quite equalled the impressive, dramatic appeal of Veruschka.

Veruschka was a top model from the 60s and one of my favorites of all time. She is the model in the erotic photo shoot scene in Blow Up.

The 1980s was the era of the Supermodel such as Cindy Crawford, Cheryl Tiegs, Beverly Johnson, Elle McPherson, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss.  They become major celebrities, often appeared in the movies and “wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $20,000.” Over time supermodels have receded in importance since, in the 1990s, Vogue editor Anna Winter realized that celebrities such as movie stars brought their own vast following with them to the page of the magazine. So goodby supermodel, hello Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johanssen.  

Madonna has always been very creative when it came to still images and worked frequently in the fashion world.

Unfortunately, while from the 1970s on there have been many excellent fashion photographers and lots of highly memorable fashion photos, the industry has become more and more conservative over time and nowadays it is very difficult for a fashion photographer or art director to stay very far from the conventional.  Sometimes you see “shocking” images of a sort but they rarely represent any really advance or cutting edge ideas or techniques.  The same tends to be true of the movie industry, which had a creative high point back in the 1970s.  So much money is at stake nowadays and there are so many cooks in the kitchen, you are more likely to see Spiderman vs. The Transformers than a film as arresting as Bonnie and Clyde or Raging Bull.

Lady GaGa has a group of assistants working for her who do nothing but come up with creative ideas for photo concepts and ideas, props, costumes and locations for photos and videos.

It isn’t that great work isn’t being shot.  Nowadays with digital cameras and Photoshop it is easier than ever to do elaborate production at less costs.  It’s that too often this work is not being punished by ad agencies and major advertisers.  There is a kind of rule that art directors, story editors and other creative tend to live by: if you make conventional choices you won’t be fired if something doesn’t work.  If you take chances you could end up being blamed.

Stephen Meisel was one of the main photographers of the top supermodels of the 1980s. He was one of the photographers most influential in developing the career of Linda Evangelista.

The most imaginative and creative work seems often to be one by celebrities so successful that they are in no danger of suffering if something doesn’t work.  The first of these was Madonna, who totally kicked ass back in the MTV days.  Michael Jackson did the same thing.  Neither of these performers need to worry about “going too far” or breaking any rules.

At 5’7″, Kate Moss was too short to be a supermodel. But she was mentored by designer/photographer Karl Lagerfeld and became of the most success fashion models of her day.

Nowadays I see the same spirit with Beyonce and Lady GaGa.  Beyonce’s Lemonade is one of the most extraordinary music videos of all  time.  Lady GaGa is so creative and daring when it comes to photography, including fashion photos, that she is setting new standards and potentially giving new permission to the fashion industry to blaze new trails.  But the main barrier to creativity in fashion  photography involves financial pressures.

Photographer Patrick Demarhelier has had a long and distinguished career, working often with supermodels like Christy Turlington.

Creating, manufacturing and distributing fashion is more expensive than ever.  The magazines that promote fashion are all under pressure by the Internet and the move away from print publication.  We have hundreds of photographers competing for jobs and attention where there used to be dozens.  So there are more and more fashion and other photos being shot and more available for creatives to look at.  In fact, Facebook says they have 200,000 images being uploaded to their service every hour.

So just as is the case with music and the rest of photography, we have entered a very transitional time when it comes to fashion photography.  We are entering a Brave New World, and anyone who has read that book realizes this term does not denote hope for the future.

Arthur Elgort shoots a lot of models in motion in the street in the tradition of Richard Alvedon.  Another photo of Christy Turlington.

Earlier in the 20th century, models tended to have more conventional bodies.  They were often society women from the social register.  Toward mid-century there were more and more professional models involved but not with extreme bodies.  As we got into the 1960s designers began to realize that using very slender models allowed the clothes to hang more naturally and that only using models who wore very small sizes limited the number of samples they had to have on hand.

Tall, very slender models wearing size zero dresses have become the preferred type for designers because they kind of body allows the clothes to hang naturally.  Model: Alora.  Photo by Bill Dobbins

An art historian has pointed out that humans seem to like physical exaggeration.  In the earliest days of classic Greece, their statues of athletes had pretty much normal proportions.  Within a fairly short period sculptures were depicting more extreme, heroic proportions.  If you want a more contemporary illustration, just think of the body you find on a Barbie Doll.

In the past few decades the same kind of thing has happened with fashion models.  They have become to a large degree physical freaks – impossibly tall, slender, long waisted and long legged.   So photos of other models can be used for lots of things, but generally not in high fashion.  At 5’7″, Kate Moss is the one major exception – and she succeeded because designer/photographer Karl Lagerfeld decided to mentor her.

Since the end of the 1990s, fashion magazines and advertiser have increasingly turned from supermodels to movie stars Scarlett Johansson and other celebrities who bring their own followers with them.

So would-be fashion photographers not only need to learn how to shoot this kind of photos and have some way to cutting through the noise to get the attention of prospective buyers, they also need access to the right kind of models to put in their portfolios or else they will not be considered.  These models are available by testing with the top model agencies but making this kind of arrangement is becoming as difficult as selling photos or getting assignments from magazines and ad agencies.

This photo of model Dovima and elephants by Richard Alvedon is one of the most iconic of fashion images.

This is just another factor in the confluence of forces that will probably change the course and the future of fashion photography forever.  But at least we still have the great photos of the past to enjoy and admire.

Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles.  He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)






 This post is intended to educate and inform on photography and the history of photography and to lend critical insight into the nature and cultural impact of photographs.  Images are published pursuant to the Fair Use except to the copyright act.  If any copyright holder objects to this use the images in question will be promptly removed.