Lately I’ve been reading more about the great fashion photographers and this exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum was just the perfect match.
‘Selling Dreams: 100 years of Fashion Photography’ is a small, complementary exhibition to the Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition and it’s the perfect brief fashion photography history lesson.
In the 1840s there was the first type of fashion photography, as seen in the portraits of the Victorian society; actresses and debutants posed for the portrait photographers of the time. It’s no wonder then that David Bailey has described a fashion photograph as “a portrait of someone wearing a dress”.
Fashion photography though isn’t just one thing, Irving Penn said that his role was “selling dreams, not clothes” and this is true, as photographers have pushed boundaries while combining their artistic instincts with the commercial demands. Either way, this exhibition pictures contemporary culture as well as the shift in women’s roles during the 20th century.
The exhibition is divided in 8 small sections, starting with:
-A glittering new century-
In the 1890s fashion magazines became more common, and included illustrations as photography wasn’t yet available. In 1909 Condé Nast brought out Vogue, a high-class fashion publication that wanted to capture the spirit of New York, London and Paris through photography and beautiful models. In 1911, American photographer Edward Steichen took pictures of models wearing Paul Poiret dresses, which were published in the magazine Art et Décoration. Steichen later said they were the “first serious fashion photographs ever made”.
Irving Penn, Lisa Fonssagrives wears harlequin dress by Jerry Parnis, American Vogue, 1950. Penn’s use of lighting and printing techniques creates amazing compositional clarity, which is evident in his early work for Vogue.
Edward Steichten, Mrs E.E. Cummings (Marion Morehouse), Vogue 1930 (left) and 1927. Steichen described Morehouse as the ‘best fashion model I’ve ever worked with’.
Surrealism had an impact on fashion magazines in the 1920s and ’30s. Thus, new techniques were used by photographers attempting to challenge the perception of reality and amuse, or even disturb.
Ilse Bing, ‘Salut de Schiaparelli’, Perfume Advertisement, 1934. Bing was one of the first photographers to adopt the small-format Leica camera, often resulting in cropped details or off-centre compositions.
Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, Bettina Jones, Beachwear by Schiaparelli, British Vogue, 1928. Elsa Schiaparelli had close contacts with the Surrealists, especially Salvador Dalí. The surreal note in this picture are the legs on the top, an understated detail compared to the surrealism seen in other images.
After recovering from WWII, many new designers emerged, as people wanted to embrace glamour and femininity. That’s when Christian Dior’s New Look was launched in 1947, with its small waists and full skirts.
Erwin Blumenfeld, Three Times Peterson, Dinner dress by Cadwallader, Unpublished study, 1947. Blumenfeld favoured Kodachrome colour film, that made his pictures even more vivid.
Lillian Bassman, By Night, Shining Wool and Towering Heel. Harper’s Bazaar, 1954. Bassman wanted to evoke a mood more than depict the details of the clothes, which annoyed editor Carmel Snow who told her in 1949 “You are not here to make art, you are here to show the buttons and bows”.
-Shooting in the city-
In the 50s photographers adopted a more spontaneous approach. Models were taken out of the studio and the backdrop of the pictures was changed to the city’s skylines.
John French, Skater wears a Digby Morton fur trimmed velvet coat, city gentleman, Michael Bentley in the background, London, Daily Express, 1955. French pioneered high-contrast photography. He directed the whole shoot (above) but the shutter button had to be pressed by an assistant, whose hand is visible in the picture.
Jeanloup Sieff. China Machado, Jimmy Moore, Photographer Hiro and her children, fashion L’Aiglon, New York, Harper’s Bazaar, 1964. The moment captured by Sieff shows the lives of passers-by and the only person posing is the girl in the phone booth. But, the two men are Sieff’s fellow photographers James ‘Jimmy’ Moore and Hiro, who started their careers by assisting Richard Avedon.
In the ’60s women started campaigning against inequality. In fashion, the structured designs of the ’50s gave way to more youthful ones. David Bailey revamped the ‘Young Idea’ section of British Vogue.
Ronald Traeger, Twiggy wears Twiggy Dresses, Battersea Park, London, Unpublished Fashion Study for British Vogue, Young Idea, July 1967. The American Traeger spent most of the ’60s working in London were he shot Twiggy riding a moped. Twiggy was named ‘The Face of 1966’ and represented the optimistic youth.
David Bailey, Jean Shrimpton at 91 Heigham Road, London, 1961. Bailey together with Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan became known as ‘The Terrible Three’ and worked as assistants to John French early in their careers. This portrait shows Bailey’s then girlfriend in his family’s post-war home.
In the ’70s photographers tested the limits of acceptable fashion imagery. They included themes of femininity and sexuality as well as religion and violence.
Arthur Elgort, Wendy Whitelaw, Park Avenue. Personal picture taken on American Vogue fashion shoot, July 1981. This could be a paparazzi shot of a young film star in New York, but this woman is make-up artist Whitelaw. The photographer captures the woman’s figure and there’s also a man on the car watching her approach.
Helmut Newton, Cheryl Tiegs and Rene Russo (in George Peter Stavropoulos and John Anthony), Hawaii, American Vogue, 1974. The two women dance next to a volcano in their silk dresses. Newton’s pictures are usually charged with sexuality.
– Capturing real life-
In the ’80s, new magazines were created aimed at both sexes, that featured contemporary music, culture and emerging trends. They also promoted alternative types of beauty and people who weren’t usually models.
In the ’90s, the leaders of the documentary approach of fashion photography included Corinne Day, David Sims, Craig McDean and Jason Evans. They were very interested in everyday life and real people, and their flaws that made them unique and beautiful.
Corinne Day, Kate Moss for a fashion story ‘The Third Summer of Love’, The Face, 1990. Day is credited with shaping the early career of Moss, who was 15 when she posed for this photo. Day said of her work: “I want to make my images as documentary as possible, an image of life that is real”.
Rankin, Silver Ladies, Dazed & Confused, 1996. Rankin works primarily in the studio. Here he defies convention photographing an older model.
-Fiction and fantasy-
Today’s fashion photos are powerful and colourful that create a fantasy. Photographer Miles Aldridge describes the process as that of making a film:
‘If the world were pretty enough, I’d shoot on location all the time. But the world is just not being designed with aesthetics as a priority. What I’m trying to do is take something from real life and reconstruct it in a cinematic way … condensed emotion, condensed colour, condensed light.’
Miles Aldridge, Blooming #3 (above) and #4 (published in Numero), 2007. Aldridge shoots predominantly on film and uses digital post-production techniques for polished results.
Tim Walker, Lily Cole and Giant Camera, Italian Vogue, 2005. Walker was inspired for this shoot in a 1924 fashion illustration by Vogue artist Benito.
The free exhibition is on till the 4th of May.
Image source: courtesy of the V&A and personal