History of fashion photography

Fashion photography is a special genre of photography whose history is closely linked to the development of fashion magazines.

With the invention of photography, neophytes began to capture women in their finery. However, this photographic genre remained marginal and did not experience strong exposure in the early days. At the end of the 19th century, the first fashion magazines such as Vogue or Harper’s Bazar appeared. However, these magazines with fairly broad content, primarily promote fashion illustrations.

Cover of the firt Vogue, 1892
Illustration from Harper’s Bazar supplement, 1867

With the development of these magazines at the beginning of the 20th century and their specialization in the field of fashion, photography began to appear there. The rise of fashion magazines was notably orchestrated by Condé Nast, who bought Vogue in 1909 and launched the English (1916) and French (1921) versions of this magazine. He also launched Vanity Fair in 1913 and in the 1930s bought the French magazine Jardin des Modes. The latter was a benchmark in the fashion industry until his death in 1997.
At this time, photographers emerged who managed to establish themselves as the big names in fashion photography. Adolf de MEYER (1868-1946) and more particularly Edward STEICHEN (1879-1973) are retained as the first.
Steichen described his photographs taken in 1911, of Paul Poiret’s dresses for Art et Decoration, as "the first fashion photographs". In 1923 he became the director of photography for the Condé Nast group. He instigated a modern vision of photography influenced by the Art Deco movement. He incorporated artificial light into his productions and established himself as one of the first famous fashion photographers.

Edward STEICHEN, dresses by Paul Poiret, 1911
Edward STEICHEN, dresses by Paul Poiret, 1911

Adolf MEYER is him the first photographer under contract of Vogue in 1913. His style is marked by luminous photographs, carried out in studio and featuring models in elegant decorations. In 1922, he became the chief photographer of Harper’s Bazaar.

In the 1920s and 1930s, fashion photography was influenced by popular artistic trends such as surrealism. Thus, the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli worked with Dali and the photographs of Man Ray (1890-1976) found their way into fashion magazines. The latter is known for his quirky, theatrical and avant-garde style. He influenced many photographers such as George HOYNINGEN-HUENE (1900-1968) who joined Vogue Paris in 1926 after having been an illustrator for Condé Nast. The latter drew inspiration from ancient models for his compositions and proposed sophisticated staging.

Man Ray, The Violin of Ingres, 1924
George HOYNINGEN-HUENE, Divers. Horst and a mannequin, 1930

In 1923, 15% of magazine advertising illustrations were photographs, up from 80% in 1933. The rise of this genre of photography coincided with the emergence of portable devices. These allowed natural, realistic photographs taken in outdoor settings. The photographs of Erwin BLUMENFELD (1897-1969), taken on the beams of the Eiffel Tower, are representative of this movement. These photos were published in May 1933.

Erwin BLUMENFELD, Lisa Fonssagrives on the Eiffel Tower Paris, 1939

During World War II, the English and American editions of Vogue continued to appear, while the French edition did not. Cecil BEATON even photographed for Vogue UK in 1941, a model parading through the ruins of London with the caption: "Fashion is indestructible".

Cecil BEATON, Fashion is indestructible, 1941

Following the Second World War, French haute couture returned to the forefront. The actors of this revival are emerging couturiers like Christian Dior and his “New Look”, worn by new photographers like Irving PENN (1917-2009). Post-war fashion was voluptuous, elegant and colorful.
In the 1950s, fashion photography took a new turn. Photographers feel more free and want to represent a modern woman. For this, they explore the streets and do not hesitate to provoke. The work of Richard AVEDON (1923-2004) is representative of this period. His humorous and spectacular fashion photographs are offbeat. It offers surrealist scenes that strike and amuse the spectators.

Richard AVEDON, Dovima and the elephants, 1955

In the 1960s, fashion changed, fashion photography followed. Haute couture is in decline in favor of affordable ready-to-wear. Fashion photography then becomes more accessible and simpler.
In the 1970s, Helmult NEWTON (1920-2004) and Guy BOURDIN (1928-1991) proposed a new form of fashion photography by exploring sexuality and provocation. They therefore photograph sensual women in sometimes exuberant scenes.

Helmult NEWTON, Le Smoking, 1975: first tuxedo for women, by YSL (1966).

From the 1980s, the explosion of advertising and the rise of brands transformed the world of fashion. Indeed, it is they who will now model fashion photos and choose staging serving their sales. The artistic directors of the advertising agencies then orchestrated the photographic campaigns. Fashion photos must therefore represent society and reflect societal upheavals in order to gain the most customers.

Since the 1990s, editors of fashion magazines have established themselves as essential characters. They are the ones who now have the influence necessary to validate or reject collections and impose new photographers. Thus, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue USA since 1988, notably encouraged the emergence of Patrick DEMARCHELIER and Peter LINDBERGH (1944-2019). The latter is often presented as one of the best fashion photographers in the world. His photographs with simple staging are humanistic and enhance natural beauty.

Peter LINDBERGH, Kate Moss, 1994
Peter LINDBERGH, White Shirts, 1988

Likewise, Mario TESTINO raised the “chic porn” style to the top of fashion photography through his collaboration with Carine Roitfeld, then editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris.

Mario TESTINO, Gisele Bundchen, 2015