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Fashion Photography Part Two

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

In the meantime, Beaton had developed a more realistic style:

'The results of my experiments in this genre of photography were considered to prove that I had at last grown up, and had acquired a new sense of reality. "Reality" was taken up by editors as the "new thing"'.

A result of this change of direction was a contributory factor in the termination of his contract with Vogue in 1938. In the ensuing years he took many war photographs, and a famous example of the then, still prevalent idea of "reality" was this study (Fig. 7) of a model standing in a Paris courtyard. The look of the model and the clothes could almost be contemporary. She couldn't be further removed from the high fashion models of earlier years. The photograph is almost of snapshot character, with very little attention wasted on artful arrangement of forms. The face appears exactly central in the frame, which doesn't conform to traditional conventions. There are however, subtle evidences of the photographer's eye - the natural light coming from above is at just the right angle to scupt the model's face.

Personally, I feel that the photographer wasn't being honest with himself. A deliberate urge to throw out former principles and techniques, and go to another extreme, is perhaps a way of trying to prove his versatility or an attempt not to be typecast. Maybe the picture is a product of its time - after six years of gruelling war, people were weary, more concerned with making the best of meagre rations, whether food or cloth, than indulging in opulent fantasies.

By 1948, however, the elegance was back, revived by Christian Dior's "New Look" collection of 1947. This image (Fig. 8), epitomises the return to grand style, but in a plainer, more direct way than in earlier decades. Eight models are posed in a neo-classical salon, talking and drinking cups of tea from dainty teacups.

There are three sources, two shining in from the sides, and one very bright one placed behind the two models to the centre left. An additional, low key diffused light shines in from the left of the camera, illuminating very nicely the patterns of silken drapery. The lighting ensures a full range of tones from very bright to near black. Reproductions of this image in two different books turn out, on closer inspection to be slightly different. The poses are almost exactly the same, except for a couple of small differences.     

This must indicate that considerable effort must have gone into placing the models in definite and highly stylised poses, artificial some would say. As we will see, there was a reaction against this which would leave behind the famous pre-war photographers, and usher in a new, post war era of spontaneity.

Fig 9-12 Norman Parkinson, (born in 1913) a contemporary of Beaton, also photographed the beau monde during the twenties and thirties, but, as he explains, with certain differences:

'I was hardly aware of other photographers' work until I went to Harper's, when I learnt about Steichen, Hoyningen-Huene, Durst and Beaton. But the women in their photographs were a rarefied few, an elitist handful. My women behaved quite differently - they drove cars, went shopping, had children and kicked the dog. I wanted to capture that side of women. I wanted them out in the fields jumping over the haycocks - I did not think they needed their knees bolted together. There was always room in a magazine for the scent-laden marble-floored studios with lilies falling out ot great bowls of flowers. but there was also room for my sort of photography.'

(Norman Parkinson Lifework, page 35).

A good example of this type of portrayal are the next two pictures, both taken by Norman Parkinson in 1937. The first one (Fig. 9) has an irresistible quality of exuberance, 30's style and femininity about it, but why is the image so successful? It would have been difficult to pose the models carefully, though the photographer might have asked them to "act out" seeing someone on another boat, and waving.

In any case, the three poses are complementary, the left hand model is holding her left arm vertically, the middle one holding her left arm horizontally, index finger pointing upwards, the right hand model has a relaxed, leaning pose. The outstretched leg of the left hand model reaches over to the far side, close to the leaning model. The effect of the wind, the sense of movement and shifting balance, gives the image great dynamism, added to by the swathe of foam stretching from the bottom right to near the top left. But by what means was the photographer able to attain this pleasing arrangement in such unpredictable circumstances? Perhaps the gift of the photographer is to click the shutter exactly the right time:

'I was using, on location, my by-now faithful Graflex quarter plate camera, and was trying to make moving pictures with a still camera. many photographers who attempt this technique have come to realize that if you see on the ground glass the image you are striving for, and it is a moving or air-borne image, you are too late. The secret is to direct the shot and to have the luck to anticipate it. It was discovering that I had the exceptional good fortune to be able to do so that convinced me and I was hooked for all time on photography'.

(Norman Parkinson Life Work page 28)

Interestingly, the eyes of the middle model are exactly level with the horizon, and this is also a characteristic of the second picture by Norman Parkinson, showing a woman walking along a country track. The eyes are level with the horizon, adding an extra element of horizontality to the image. Again, the converging diagonals of the lane, going out of focus as they stretch into the distance give a sense of movement, added to by the brisk walk of the model. The pose is full of confidence. She looks directly to her right, along the line of the horizon, striding forward towards the camera.

The movement of the body and the texture of the material act together to dynamically portray the clothes.

A familiar and recurring issue in fashion photography, and perhaps photography in general, is the dichotomy between "realism" and "artificiality". At any one time, both have been in currency. The outdoor shots of Norman Parkinson were being made at about the same time as the posed and stylised studio works of Hoyningen-Huene. One photographer whose work was more at the romantic and impressionistic end of the spectrum was Lillian Bassman, a protegee of the legendary Alexei Brodovitch at Harpers, New York.

This image, dating from 1949, and entitled "New York", is timeless, almost contemporary in its look. With the depiction of a corset, we can see a return to more traditional, romantic vision of femininity. The image looks as if it was exposed sharp in the camera, but given a soft-focus effect at printing. There is slight double exposure, with probable use of a diffusing filter, or possibly an additional exposure was made out of focus. The pose has a sweeping sense of movement, the face and upper body are tipping forwards, the arms are pulling the strings backwards and upwards. The waist is tightly, painfully drawn in, to the extent that it looks unnaturally narrow. The tightness is contrasted with the looseness of the four hanging straps.

A moment is caught in time by the camera, a fleeting glimpse echoed by the reflection in the mirror.

At first the image looks primarily decorative, but in addition to beauty of form, a powerful feeling of constriction is expressed. Perhaps the fact that the photographer is female made her better able to empathise with how it feels to wear a corset.

Like Lillian Bassman, Louise Dahl-Wolfe also worked for Harpers Bazaar, and not long after her arrval at the magazine in 1935, was one of the first to use one-shot Kodachrome, which had just been brought onto the market. Many of her pictures feature swimwear fashion, and have a relaxed and luxurious feel, with tall, slim models in elegant, outstretched poses.

This shot by Louise Dahl-Wolfe (Fig. 12), made in 1950, has an attractive period feel due to the combined effect of the early fifties swimsuit style, and the yellowness of the colour balance, typical of early colour film. A familiar hallmark of this photographer is the reclining female model, the repeated curves of her body, and of the swimsuit material, set against the screen.

A rough division into vertical and horizontal thirds is visible. The bowl of fruit with tumbling exotic flowers recalls a still life. As if to contrast with the image by Hoyningen-Huene of the chic couple in swimsuits in an imaginary and unspecified location, this one is taken in a real-life place, as indicated by the map of Tunisia. The point of the star appears to indicate the exact place, a nice, cryptic touch.

The one photographer who more than any other came to symbolise the new direction which fashion photography took after the Second World War is Richard Avedon, who was born in 1923. He has been a leading figure in the world of photography since 1945, and is still active. He gained his first professional photographic experience in the Merchant Marine, taking ID photos. It was the innovative, 'in-and-out-of-focus' style of his shots of merchant seamen twins that caught the eye of Harper's Bazaar art director Alexei Brodovitch, and persuaded him to try some fashion photos for the magazine. Soon, Avedon came to be regarded as the number one young photographer, creator of the "NewVision".

Fig 13-16Junior Bazaar, a separate edition, aimed at young people, ran for 3 years up till 1948, and featured a new brand of fresh and innovative photography, much of it contributed by Avedon. In its use of movement, the "in-and-out-of-focus" effect, motion blur, cropping and the plain white background, we can see in this picture, (Fig.13) shot using Kodachrome, a startling break with many of the basic principles of photographers like Hoynignen-Huene, who by the time this photo was published, had given up fashion photography altogether.

Despite the apparently casual nature of the arrangement of the figures, the effect is very pleasing, and has a strong sense of circular, dance-like motion, a theme alluded to in the text. The profile of the model on the left forms a dark, chevron-like shape, pointing to the right - (the line of the back and rear of the dress forms a perfect arrow shape). The model is leaning back, looking up and laughing, whilst standing still, meanwhile the model further away is leaning forward, looking down whilst moving. The background model is looking down at the same angle as the foreground model is looking up. To balance the composition on the page, two leaf-shaped areas of dark colour have been added, again fitting in with the text. All in all, it is an attractive, vibrant image, which, at least in the case of the foreground model, shows off the clothes very well.    

His style is described succinctly by Cecil Beaton and Gail Buckland:

'His pictures showed young ladies enjoying life to the full as they preened and jumped with joy in their Paris confections. Avedon's photographs did not perhaps have technical perfection, and they were all the better for this, for they created the statement that he wished to make-of movement caught forever by his lens.'

The Magic Image, page 252

Dovima with Elephants (Fig. 14) is one of his most celebrated pictures. The image is well-crafted, but its main appeal seems to be that it was the first time anyone had taken a high fashion model together with elephants. It had a certain shock value. Richard Avedon's modernism, had sweeping effect on photography, and there was a consequent rejection of the earlier, more "classical" style:

'By 1945, Hoynignen-Huene's stiff, formal poses, perfectly attuned to the Neo-classicism of the 1930's, suddenly seemed anachronistic...The most devastating critique of Hoyningen-Huene's photography was delivered in 1944 by Dr Agha (formerly Hoyningen-Huene's art director at Vogue) who described it as "a cross between stagecraft, interior decoration, ballet and society portrait painting done by camera.'

Perhaps there is a parallel with the Post War Modernism in other areas of creativity, such as architecture, where older styles were thrown out, to be replaced by bold, but in hindsight unsuccessful creations. I personally have a very high regard for the 'classical style' of the 1930's but I also like the exuberance of the post war period. Each style has its place. No successful artist or photographer should be rejected because of the dictates of fashion. In a Post Modern age, all styles of the past are available in the present to be drawn on.

Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969) was an experimenter in photography, who made creative use of colour and lighting. This picture (Fig. 15) shows a remarkable use of texture and colour. A finished print appears to have been rephotographed with a series of coloured transparent bars placed on top of it. The effect is to play tricks on the eye, forcing us to look more closely in order to try and make sense of what we are seeing.

As if to confuse matters further, curled strips of cellophane have been added. The incorrect, but very attractive colour balance, typical of early Kodachrome, adds to the image's appeal. Though the model's face is cut into a series of distorted vertical strips, she still manages to look beautiful, at least, our eyes are able to reconstruct her beauty by applying our innate knowledge - maybe if this image was presented to a computer facial recognition system, it mightn't be able to recognise a face there at all!

The combination of a familiar subject viewed in a jarring and unfamiliar way is, for me, like being a child again, discovering new textures and lighting effects for the first time - I remember being especially fascinated with coloured transparent materials, as well are metallic reflective surfaces.    

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

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

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