Fashion Photography, the Art, its History and Evolution

Fashion photography is an essential part of the fashion industry. Remarkably, while it is key to selling, it serves an even deeper purpose. From its early history, fashion photography is used as an effective means of storytelling. Historically, photography has transcended beyond selling — it is an intricate art form. Thus, photographers must create a dialogue by portraying the designers’ artistic visions, capturing the spirit of the times, or creating controversy. By incorporating visual aspects that elicit emotion, fashion photography has kept the fashions and other important issues relevant, long past the “shelf – life” of the trends. Read on below to learn about the history and evolution of fashion photography.

The earliest origins of Fashion Photography took place in 1911 when the publisher of Jardin des Modes and La Gazette du Bon Ton, Lucien Vogel, challenged photographer, Edward Steichen, to present fashion as a form of art. Steichen succeeded — this lead to the release of a series of photos for the magazine Art et Decoration in which models were posed at the bottom of decorative marble staircases and in front of ornate mirrors, dressed in Poiret. As a result, Steichen’s innovative use of visuals told the story behind the fashions, hinting on the lifestyle of the designer’s target clientele. This, in term, made the garments even more appealing. This composition was entitled, ‘L’art de la robe’ – the art of the dress.

Edward Steichen - Fashion Photography - Shootfactory

Steichen eventually went on to work as a photographer for the publication, Condé Nast. Later, Steichen was regarded as one of the best and most highest – paid photographers in the world at the time. It is evident that Steichen’s background in fine art as well as his understanding of fashion as an art form is what lead to his success as a pioneer in fashion photography. From this point forward, fashion photography has remained an important tool for illustrating the story or inspiration behind the fashions — and the women wearing the designs.

Moreover, fashion photography is also considered a means of historical preservation. Each photograph provides contextual evidence of society’s values at the time it was taken. By the same token, the political climate played a role in shaping the way fashion photography was practiced. According to the Lens, a blog on photography, video, and visual journalism, after World War II, the evolution of fashion photography took a surprising turn. Prior to this, fashion photographers were careful to steer clear of suggesting their political views in their compositions. However, photographer, Henry Clarke, was one of the first photographers to use his work to hint at the changing role of women in society. Additionally, other experts in the field turned to themes such as parody and self – criticism in their compositions.

As with the fashions, the photographs succeeded in capturing the essence of the era. Likewise, fashion photography of the ’90s was influenced by the pop culture at the time. In particular, this included the ‘Grunge’ movement and featured undertones of capitalism and nonconformism. For this reason, it is easy to identify the time in which a photograph was taken.

Soon, fashion photographers brought reform to the industry. In fact, 20th century photographer, Richard Avedon, was known for bringing diversity to the world of fashion photography, as he championed the use of models of colour. Further, Avedon also challenged the established techniques in the industry, by instructing his models to show emotion. One thing is certain, there tends to be an element of controversy involved in fashion photography. Whether the controversial message is politically – motivated, or alludes to to other important issues, these photographs are meant to be thought – provoking. Similarly, photographers often add a sense of fantasy to their compositions. This is often achieved by contrasting the garments with abstract visual components, exotic animals, extravagant backgrounds — all of which are aspects that not only defy logic and reality, but evoke a conversation. Particularly, Avedon’s controversial photograph, “Dovima with Elephants,” certainly raised some eyebrows. The photo featured the striking model, Dovima, clad in a lavish Dior gown, along side two elephants. As explained by, Varsity, Avedon’s use of exotic animals beautifully illustrates the themes of fantasy, surrealism, freedom, and captivity. However, Avedon’s decision to use exotic animals did not come without consequence. Avedon’s critics raised the issue of animal cruelty in the field of fashion photography following the release of the photo.

Richard Avedon - Fashion Photography - Shootfactory

While some might wonder why the art of fashion photography has evolved into something so complex, that it takes the focus off of the garments — the shocking truth is that fashion photography is no longer about the fashions itself. While this approach might seem counter – intuitive, especially when it comes to selling, it is not unlike some of the techniques used in creating advertising campaigns. What is more? These photographs go beyond selling the fashions in the photo. In fact, there is also a hidden psychology behind them — the purpose of these photos is to tell a story that goes deep beyond the surface, so as to elicit a reaction. Thus, while the fashions might only stay relevant for a season, controversy keeps the buzz going, long after the styles fade.

Another monumental shift in fashion photography was influenced by the work of the late, The New York Times photographer, Bill Cunningham. In a stark contrast to the philosophy shared by many mainstream fashion photographers, Cunningham is noted for his refusal to photograph the rich and famous. As Cunningham once stated in an interview, “I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the cut, the silhouette, the colour. It’s the clothes. Not the celebrity and not the spectacle…” As a result, his candid photos featured ordinary, albeit impeccably – dressed women strolling around the streets of New York City.

Bill Cunningham Street Fashion Photography - Shootfactory

Indeed, this uncomplicated approach was incredibly influential to the field, as it gave the masses a staring role in fashion photographs. In addition, this popularised the genre of Street Style photography, which soon gained popularity with bloggers. Despite the simplistic nature of Cunningham’s unique approach to fashion photography, it is noted that his technique did not come without its own controversy. As a matter of fact, this controversial approach kept people talking about the fashions. Consequently, this inspired seemingly “ordinary” women to want to be a part of the street style craze.

It is increasingly evident that contemporary fashion photography has shifted its focus away from selling. However, the use of fashion photography is imperative for storytelling. Whether the concept of the portrait is used to hint about the inspiration behind the fashions, the intended consumer, or demonstrate a particular moment in time, it gives the audience something to think about — even while indirectly influencing sales.

From ‘L’art de la robe’ – The Art of The Dress in 1911, to the pages of fashion publications such as, Vogue, fashion photography continues to play an integral role in the fashion industry. Not only is fashion photography essential for selling, it is truly an art form that is implemented to capture the designers’ artistic vision.


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