The History of Fashion Photography

This is a short history of fashion photography through the 1970s. Part II, the 1980s through the present, follows this post at the bottom and here.

Guy Bourdin, 1978

In order to discuss fashion photography, it should first be understood as a unique type of photograph, one that is simultaneously documentary and art work. In addressing fashion photography in his book The Fashion System, Roland Barthes explains that the world is a backdrop. That backdrop can be transformed into particular stages for specific theater themes. The theater of meaning in fashion then walks the line between the serious and the whimsical.

Barthes identifies 3 common strategies in the fashion photograph:

1. literal representation: the catalog shot displaying the garment

Tom Kublin, Balenciaga, 1953

2. romanticized: fashion becomes referential, a story where real life becomes art like in acting out dreams

Chris Von Wangenheim, Vogue, 1979

3. mockery: a model in an outrageous situation using unreal juxtapositions, unlike the previous there is no romance or reason but total absurdity

John Rawlings, Vogue, 1954

Barthes describes fashion photography as an exorcism in which everything in the photo is made “outrageous” so that the garment alone seems real and convincing. Fashion photography also ultimately creates a disappointment of meaning by its establishment of mystery that has no resolution. It produces meaningful signs but does not offer explanation. I have tested Barthes theory with contemporary fashion photos here.

Many early fashion photographers were connected to wealth and the literary society as cameras and photo printing were costly. The first collection of fashion photographs is considered to be a small book of the Countess of Castiglione in various looks from her own closet, taken by Pierre-Louise Pierson in 1856.

Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione, 1856

Advancements in cameras and printing eventually led to the development of widespread fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Baron de Meyer (1868 - 1946) called "The Debussy of the Camera", was born Demeyer Watson and came to London and married into the title Baron de Meyer. His main characteristic was use of backlighting and the soft-focus lens. He was very considerate of composition with complementary vertical elements, grounding his images with a sense of authority and formality. However, the whimsical element is also present, as each image seems to reference a fantasy. A relationship to the larger artistic style of Art Nouveau is also evident.

Baron de Meyer, 1920

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 then worked with Conde Nast during the 20s. He worked primarily with model Marian Morehouse, wife of the poet E.E. Cummings. Steichen is said to have established the glamour of fashion photography. He delivered drama and sought out celebrities for portraits. He also developed studio lighting by adding side lights to a central key light.

Steichen, Model Marion Morehouse and other in Kangere, 1926

Steichen, Evening shoes by Vida Moore, 1927

Steichein for Vogue, 1928

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 to the end of WWII. He was born in St Petersburg, but moved to Paris in 1920, where he first did illustration and then photography with a classical emphasis. He moved to New York in 1935, and worked mainly for Harper's Bazaar.

Hoyningen-Huene, Vionnet dress, 1931

Hoyningen-Huene, July 6, 1929, for Vogue & 1930

Horst P. Horst (born 1906-1999) was a friend of Hoyningen-Huene, and also had a fascination for classical imagery. He made a detailed study of classical poses, using Greek sculpture and classical paintings, paying special attention to the positioning of hands. Much of the early fashion photography emphasizes the body with the clothes.

Dali costumes for Vogue, 1939 and cover, 1940

Martin Munkacsi (1896-1983) was a Hungarian Jew who photographed Berlin street style until 1934 when he fled to the United States. He then worked for Harper’s Bazaar shooting both fashion and celebrities.

Munkcacsi, Haper's Bazaar, July 1935

Cecil Beaton (1904 - 1980) was based in London. Like Horst, he also used elaborate studio props and experimented with surrealism. Beaton took on the rich and famous more than any other early fashion photographer. He sometimes considered a portraitist.

Beaton, Paula Gellibrand, 1928

Beaton, Charles James gowns, Vogue, 1948

Beaton, Twiggy, 1967

John Rawlings (1912-1970) was an important staff photographer for Conde Nast. He shot 200 Vogue and Glamour covers, leaving 30,000 photos in the archive.

Rawlings, Vogue, July 1947

Rawlings, Vogue, 1953

Rawlings, Mary Jane Russell, Vogue, 1953

Louise Dahl-Wolfe also worked for Harper's Bazaar as one of the first female fashion photographers. Not long after her arrival at the magazine in 1935, she was also one of the first to use one-shot Kodachrome, which had just been brought onto the market.

Dahl-Wolfe, Harper's Bazaar, 1951

Dahl-Wolfe, Harper's Bazaar, n.d.

Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969) fled to the US after making collages of Hitler. He was an experimenter in photography, who made creative use of color and lighting, as well as cut outs. He worked for both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and experimented with film.

Blumenfeld, Vogue, 1949 & 1950

Blumenfeld, Harper's Bazaar, 1950's

Blumenfeld, film stills

Irving Penn (1917-2009) rose to popularity in the 1950’s by working with Vogue. He emphasized the clean, carefully composed image which made him successful at accessory and beauty shots. He is also known for working with the body and portraits.

Penn, Colette, 1951

Penn, Top Models for Vogue, 1947

Irving Penn, Mouth, for L'Oreal. NY, 1986 and Kate Moss, 1996

Norman Parkinson, (1913-1990) worked at Harper’s Bazaar. A contemporary of Beaton, he 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 of great bowls of flowers. but there was also room for my sort of photography." Parkinson was based in London and is recognized for reality location shooting.

Parkinson, Queen, 1960

Parkingson, 1961

Parkinson, Jerry Hall, 1975

The one photographer who more than any other came to symbolise the new direction of fashion photography after the Second World War is Richard Avedon. He gained his first professional photographic experience in the Merchant Marines, 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."

Avedon’s 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." Richard Avedon's modernism, had sweeping effect on photography, and there was a consequent rejection of the earlier, more "classical" style. For more photos see

David Bailey has long been one of the most famous commercial photographers in the world. He has worked for magazines and newspapers from Vogue to the Daily Telegraph, photographing most of the key cultural figures from the worlds of pop music, literature and theatre with a simple and dramatic style. He has remarked that his approach was inspired by the the style and free expression of working girls in dance halls. Bailey continues to have a successful and high profile career as a photographer and film maker.

Bailey, Catherine Deneuve, 1966

Jean Shrimpton in coat by London of Sloane Street, British Vogue, January 1964

Fashion photography in the 1970's had a greater liberation that reflected the era. Not only were the models more uninhibited but the photographers were challenging the conventional boundaries. Helmut Newton, born in Berlin, Germany, in 1920. He received his training in Berlin, but spent time in Australia and Singapore. He held an Australian passport and lived in Monaco and Los Angeles where he died in a car accident.

 "Few photographers have managed to polarise the art scene on such a regular basis as Helmut Newton. It is split into those who are his fans, and admire his photographs, and his embittered opponents, who denigrate him as a fashionable passing craze, or as a woman-hater." Quoted in "Photographie des 20. Jahrhunderts.

 His pictures, mostly set in expensive hotels, or on the streets of the chic capitals of Europe, feature tall, long-limbed women, often nude, some androgynous. Each picture features an action or situation, inviting viewers to imagine the before and after for themselves.

Newton, 1976

Newton, Big Nudes, 1975

Newton, Big Nudes, 1975

Newton, Kylie Bax, 1996

Guy Bourdin was a contemporary of Newton working France. His advertisements for Charles Jourdan shoes raised the question of what is actually being sold.

Deborah Turbeville was born in England and was an editor of Harper’s Bazaar before becoming a photographer in the same era as Newton and Bourdin. She also emphasized a sexualized female form but with a softer focus.

Turbeville, Bath House, 1975

Chris Von Wangenheim also worked during the 1970's in Germany. He is best known for his work with Dior accessories.

Above and below for Dior