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History of Fashion Photography Essay by Aidan O'Rourke Part One

There is a contradiction in fashion photography: In theory, its purpose the same as that of a catalogue: to depict the clothes and help to sell them. In practice however, fashion photography has been used as a vehicle for self-expression by some of the world's greatest photographers.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Written by Aidan O'Rourke and submitted as part of the Advanced Level Examination in Photography Summer 1997

Often, the creative desires of the photographers are at odds with the intentions of the editor, as Anna Wintour, fashion editor at Vogue, illustrates:

Our needs are simple. We want a photographer to take a dress, make the girl look pretty, give us lots of images to choose from, and not give us any attitude. Photographers - if they are any good - want to create art.

Through this tension have come about some of the most memorable images in the history of photography, transcending the time in which they were made, and representing that time for us today.

I became actively interested in fashion photography when, in 1991, I saw an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, detailing the development of the genre in the post war years. I found many of the images extremely captivating and interesting. Though I had enjoyed the fashion photography of contemporary magazines such as Harpers and Queen and Vogue, I had never before seen so many original prints from earlier decades and I responded to them with enthusiasm, hoping to introduce elements of their technique and atmosphere into my own photography.

I intend to use this piece of writing as an opportunity not only to learn more about the history and development of the fashion photograph, but also to analyse, by the use of many of my favourite images, what it is that underlies their timeless appeal, and, from the point of view of a student of photography, the techniques the photographers used to achieve their desired effects.

The precursors of fashion photography go back to the eighteenth century, when images of fashionable clothes were printed in magazines and often hand-coloured. Paris was at that time a centre for the production of such magazines, many of which were imported into England. Figure 1 shows a typical example of such an image.

Fig 1-4The technique of photography was developed in the 1830s, but it wasn't until much later that the métier of fashion photography came into existence. The earliest popular photographic technique, the daguerreotype, could not be used for mass printing. A later technique enabled the production of the "Carte de Visite" which were made for individuals and which also depicted famous theatre and music hall personalities of the age. It wasn't until advances in halftone printing techniques that fashion photographs came to be featured in magazines. This happened in about the first decade of the 20th century.

Baron de Meyer (1868 - 1946) called "The Debussy of the Camera", had wealthy, though not aristocratic origins. He was born Demeyer Watson, of a French father and a Scottish mother, and grew up in Saxony. He came to London and married into nobility. He was given the title Baron de Meyer and set out on a life of extravagant entertaining

His main characteristic was a wonderful use of backlighting and the soft-focus lens. In Fig. 2, we see many of the characteristics of his style. Though static, the pose is natural, and the picture is arranged using a strong pattern of vertical elements, giving a sense of authority and formality. We can see a clear use of the "rule of thirds" in the placement of the curtains and chair.

What strikes us as being special to Baron de Meyer, however, are the glinting reflections from the background material and the jewels. The overall key is a light grey, the only dark areas being around the sitter's face, arms and lap. It's interesting to note that the chair is hardly a suitably aristocratic-looking piece of furniture, but perhaps he chose if for its colour, more than anything else.

Edward Jean Steichen (1879-1973) was born in Luxembourg, but his family moved to the USA in 1881. With Alfred Stieglitz, he founded the Photo-Secession Galleries in New York. He first photographed fashion models in 1911 for the magazine "Art and Decoration", and worked with Conde Nast during the twenties. This photo (fig. 3) was made for American Vogue in 1920, and shows Marian Moorehouse, wife of the poet E.E. Cummings, wearing a Chanel gown.

The arrangement of rectangular shapes shows the influence of constructivist art, which was influential at the time. The vertically placed white rectangular card has been carefully positioned to show the shape of the falling drapery, which shows signs of considerable retouching. A piece of horizontally placed black card provides further contrast.

The head and shoulders stand out from the mid grey of the wall, and the toe of the shoe, pointing elegantly downwards, protrudes into the area of white on the floor. A white and black vertical band just to the left of the model, divides the upper part of the picture, and completes the background. The lighting is a combination of general light plus sidelighting, on both sides, giving the flesh tones a mid to high key, contrasting with the solid blacks.

This image skilfully uses very simple props to create an elegant arrangement of forms, modernist in flavour, but classical in order and arrangement.

George Hoyningen-Huene (1900 - 1968) was another of the aristocratic practitioners of early fashion photography, and did most of his most memorable work between the mid-twenties and the end of the Second World War. He was born in St Petersburg, but moved to Paris in 1920, where he first did fashion illustration and then photography. He moved to New York in 1935, and worked mainly for Harper's Bazaar. He spent the latter part of his life in California.

The famous swimwear ad by George Hoyningen-Huene (Fig. 4) is familiar to contemporary eyes, having been used recently in advertising for perfume. It displays a combination of chic and classicism typical of the age. The image shows a meticulous attitude to detail and arrangement. The models are placed very carefully, with close attention to the effect of light and shadow. The combined outline forms a pleasing U shape, similar to a Greek vase. By illusion, the scene appears to be outdoors, but on closer inspection, we can see that, like most fashion shots of the day, it was taken in a studio, and the "sea" is an area of light grey, with the "sky" and faintly painted clouds above it. A very realistic effect of daylight is achieved by a strong, single light, placed to the above left of the subjects.     

If you went to the sea and took a photo of it around midday, the sea would almost certainly appear much darker. The effect of this unnaturally light background is twofold: it makes the models stand out, but more interestingly, it actually simulates how we would see the background in harsh sunlight without sunglasses- very light and slightly fuzzy, due to the smarting of the eyes. The visually inaccurate, but psychologically correct portrayal of the background gives this image its mysterious appeal. The enigmatic quality is heightened by the fact that the models stare away from us, so that we can't see their faces, and appear to be looking at something out on the "sea", to the right, and beyond the frame of the picture. What are they looking at? What are their faces like? And where exactly is this seaside location?

Fig 5-8Horst P Horst (born 1906, lives in New York) was a friend of Hoyningen-Huene, and also had a fascination for classical imagery, indeed he made a detailed study of classical poses, using Greek sculpture and classical paintings, paying special attention to the positioning of hands. In his studio, he used all manner of props, such as plaster statues, mirrors, crumpled paper, using them to both neoclassical and surrealist effect.

This photo (Fig. 5) of Helen Bennet is a good example of an image with a strongly classical effect. A single spotlight shines down on the model from the top right. The edges of the spot place shadows on the edges of the pleated cloak, which is exhibited, peacock-fashion in a wonderful display of light and shadow. The model is standing in front of a column, and we can see the shadow of the spotlight forming an arc just to the right of the model's face. The light falls on the face to form a perfect jaw line, with just the right amount of shadow on the cheekbone (although this might have been retouched).

The pose is statuesque and painterly, reminiscent of the paintings of Alfred Moore. The background is a graduated dark to lighter grey, made apparently by a diffused light placed behind the base. Around the base, there are three pieces of Greek-style plaster sculpture, though these are partly cropped out of the picture. One criticism might be that this arrangement looks botched and amateurish, and that the photographer couldn't make up his mind whether or not to leave out the base altogether, but decided to crop it half way! In my opinion this doesn't matter, as the main focus of the image is the model, and her outfit. In his use of props, he was only trying to create an effect of the antique, not, as perhaps in a painting, a detailed and accurate recreation of the real thing.

Cecil Beaton (1904 - 1980) was a contemporary of Horst P Horst and Hoyningen-Huene, and was based in London. His exhibition in 1927 at the Cooling Galleries, London established him as a major photographic figure. Like Horst, he also used elaborate studio props and experimented with surrealism. In the picture of Miss Mary Taylor (Fig. 6), the image is dominated by two large and highly ornate oval-shaped hanging decorations, with flowers and patterns similar to peacock tails. The left hand one is closer to the camera, and is to the model's right. The right hand one is hanging behind the model, and the edge intersects her face at eye level.

According to traditional rules of composition, the model is too low in the frame, but, like others pictures by Beaton, it is not intended to be a portrait, but an arrangement of forms, patterns, textures and tones, in which the model is included. The decorations, which were probably made up specially for the shot, and don't resemble anything I've ever seen elsewhere, dominate the image, and almost have a life and character of their own, subjugating the model. There is a light source coming from the right, illuminating the rear wall, and the model's face. A less intense, more diffuse light on the left fills in dark to mid grey shadows on the model's face and lights the front of her garment. The placement of the fingers adds an extra element of theatricality to the image.

An interesting development during the 1930's was a change in Beaton's attitude towards the romanticism and indulgence in his earlier work. This quotation from "The Best of Beaton" written in 1968, gives us the photographer's insight into the changing mood:

The posed, static hands with the pointed index finger and arched wrist acquired an overnight vulgarity; the celestial expression in the eys suddenly became a joke shared by everyone except the sitter. The earlier pictures appeared over re-touched and altogether too artificial with ladies with forced rosebud simpers and impossibly goldern curls.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-08-08

Aidan O'RourkeAidan O'Rourke has been active in photography and online media since 1995. He has documented the development of the local area in his Eyewitness website (1997-2005) and as a contributor to books, publications and the Manchester Evening News. He runs his Eyewitness photography walks in Manchester, Liverpool and other locations. He offers one-to-one tuition in Photography and Languages. He is a high-level speaker of German and can offer photography walks and tours through the medium of German. Visit www.aidan.co.uk

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