History of Fashion Photography: Article by Aidan O'Rourke
Beehive hairstyle by Peter Cannon hairdresser
Woman at dressing table looking in the mirror
3D Stereo photo: Woman and chihuahua Oldham St Manchester
Model Renee on Thomas St Manchester Northern Quarter
Model Renee from Kraków with view of Tib St Manchester
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
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.
The 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
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
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?
Horst 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
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
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 OROURKE, Photographer Tutor
Published: August 8, 2005
Keywords: History of fashion photography, Hiro, Norman Parkinson, Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, early 60's fashion photography, 60's fashion, 60s fashion, 40's fashion, 40s fashion photography, 30's fashion photography, 30s fashion photography 1930's.
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