Fashion Photographer (4)

When Did Fashion Photography Start?

Though the earliest known fashion photographs date back to the 1850s, in the court of Napoleon III, photography as an advertising tool did not become popular until the early 20th century, when fashion itself became accessible to a wider audience. The first fashion magazines, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue—both founded in the late 1800s—were initially illustrated by hand. 

It was not until Condé Nast hired Baron Adolph de Meyer (German, 1868–1946) in 1913 to shoot portraits of models, actresses, and aristocrats for Vogue that photographs began to be used in fashion editorials. The importance of magazines grew in the early 20th century as collaborations with designers increased. Ready-to-wear lines and department stores increased the accessibility of fashion, and trends were adopted and disseminated internationally. 

With the help of photography, rising couturiers in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, and Lanvin, became known for their distinctive styles. After the Second World War, fashion underwent dramatic changes, and numerous new designers emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. The fashion model took on a new importance, like Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, and others became household names. With these changes, new photography approaches ensued, and some of the most well-known names in fashion photography made their mark on history. 

By the mid-1950s, the contrived studio shots and staid elegance of models in earlier decades of fashion photography had given way to a new aesthetic that was more fluid, spontaneous, and energetic. 

Leading figures in this new generation included Norman Parkinson (British, 1913–1990), William Klein (American, b.1928), Lillian Bassman (American, 1917–2012), and David Bailey (British, b.1938). Arguably, the two most influential fashion photographers to emerge were Richard Avedon (American, 1923–2004) and Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009), both of whom embraced a minimalist aesthetic that profoundly impacted the genre.

In the 1970s, social changes, particularly feminism, influenced the fashion industry and how women were represented. More women photographers, such as Sarah Moon (French, b.1941), Deborah Turbeville (American, 1937–2013), and Eve Arnold (American, 1913–2012), brought fresh perspectives to publications such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Helmut Newton (German, 1920–2004) pushed boundaries with his provocative and overtly sexual images. The recession in the United States and the invention of jeans ushered in an era of more practical and casual styles for both men and women. From the 1970s to 1980s, the concept of ready-to-wear (or prêt-a-porter) took hold. By the 1980s, rampant consumerism had grown fashion into a booming international industry, fueled by advertising campaigns and television commercials. 

Supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, and Naomi Campbell were idolised for their seemingly flawless beauty, perhaps best captured by Patrick Demarchelier (French, b.1943). Men’s fashion grew into its industry as well, with photographers such as Herb Ritts (American, 1952–2002) and Bruce Weber (American, b.1946), known for their work for brands such as Armani and Calvin Klein, credited with bringing new perspectives to the concept of masculinity.

Fashion photography online or in print, in magazines, books, advertising campaigns or billboards, rules everything around us, regardless of whether we are aware of it and whether we like it or not. It expresses a vision of the photographer’s lifestyle, attitude, subjects, style, makeup, and hair and aims to attract attention. In this article, we will overview how it all began.

There’s also saying that fashion photography as a genre of photographic art was born in the XIX century, thanks to fashion magazines such as La mode pratique (1898), Harper Bazaar (1867) and Vogue (1892). These magazines were established due to the achievements made in the field of photography and screen printing. They used pictures instead of trendy prints on the pages of their magazines, the editors tried to beat the competition on the one hand, and on the other to draw the attention of the general public to the style and the selection of clothing that was offered to them. In this mission, the editors were helped by photographers, many of whom have become famous in fashion photography through this sort of cooperation. By the 20th-century, fashion photography has acquired a new status with the extraordinary rise of public interest. Designer shows and display collections become mega-events in the fashion world.

Until the late 30s, the centre of fashion and fashion photography was New York. The County attracted famous photographers of the time from all over the world. The race of fashion photography was picked up by New York City, the birthplace of fashion magazines. Many received notoriety in the “Big Apple” (the nickname of New York), such as Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, and a Hungarian photographer Martin Mukanshi. Mukanshi was the first person to introduce a motion in fashion photography, which was based purely on static and stereotypical poses.

Any picture – is a philosophy of its own, and fashion photography is no exception. A photograph in the fashion industry itself is unique because it combines both documentary and artistic work.

According to Barthes, fashion photography has three general trends. First – this is the literal representation as photos in the catalogue depicting clothing. The second is associated with romanticised demonstration, where fashion refers to a sort of history where real life becomes art. The third trend – is a fashion to the point of absurdity. The model is shown in an irregular situation or an unrealistic comparison, where there is no romance, no reason, and total absurdity reigns. Bart leans to the description of fashion photography as a certain exorcism in which everyone wants to achieve an “outrageous” photograph.

Because cameras and printing were an expensive pleasure, many early fashion photographers were wealthy and educated people. The earliest collection of fashion photography is considered a small book, published in 1856 by Adolphe Braun, containing 288 photographs of a Tuscan noblewoman at the court of Napoleon III and the Countess of Castiglione Virginia, in a variety of outfits. In 1909, the Journal Publishers Condé Nast bought Vogue magazine. He set a goal to make the magazine one of the most influential in the fashion world. To accomplish this goal, he invited European photographer Baron Adolf de Meyer for cooperation.

It should be noted that at the time, working for a fashion publication was considered a betrayal of the ideals of high art, for the sake of a simple commercial profit. In 1911, photographer Edward Steichen, supported by Lucien Vogel, Jardin des Modes and La Gazette du Bon Ton, decided to use the photographs to promote fashion as fine art. Steichen then took photos of dresses made for a fashion designer Paul Poiret, published in the April 1911 issue of the magazine Art et Décoration. Some believe that these photos should rightly be regarded as the first in the history of modern fashion. In 1932, thanks to cooperation with Steichen, the cover of Vogue magazine had a coloured photo. Since then, the magazine has been dedicated exclusively to photography. Its rival Harper’s Bazaar followed Vogue. Both companies were the leaders in the field of fashion photography during the 1920s and 1930s. Vogue, in particular, was responsible for the fame of many photographers like Meyer, Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, Toni Frissell and many others who transformed the genre of fashion photography into an outstanding form of art.

The Beginning Of An Era

Photographer in a session with a model

Many may believe that fashion photography’s history began when a culture fascinated by clothing collided with the invention of the camera. The result? The first photos of individuals wearing the latest fashion emerged. But perhaps more contributed to the evolution of fashion photography. For instance, when did photography begin to focus on fashion’s artistic beauty–the wearing and modelling of stylish, beautiful clothes? By studying fashion photography’s history, one can learn about the photographers, magazines, designers, and models who created a cultural movement today.

In the court of Napoleon Bonaparte in France in 1856, fashion photography originated when Adolphe Braun published a book that featured the photographs of Virginia Oldoini. Known as Countess di Castiglione, Oldoini was a Tuscan noblewoman who posed wearing the fashion of the day and became the first model of her time. But it was not until the 1880s that American fashion design blossomed. Magazine publishing and the retail industry grew as the fashion business matured, spawning international exchange of ideas and ready-to-wear lines.

Early 20th Century

One photographer important in fashion photography’s history was the well-known Edward Jean Steichen from Luxembourg. He popularised the practice of photographing the same model on a variety of sets. In 1911, Steichen took the job of a fashion photographer for ‘Art and Decoration,’ a magazine. His images drew attention to his models’ glamour. Moreover, he developed studio lighting by incorporating sidelights on the photography sets and became known as the modern fashion photoshoot inventor.

Due to the progress of printing processes during the early 20th century, fashion magazines such as ‘Vogue’ and ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ became capable of combining fashion photos with print. Accordingly, fashion illustrators who drew clothing lines for the magazines were replaced by fashion photographers. During this period, photographer, Man Ray, created a style based upon the surrealistic ideals made famous by the great painter Salvador Dali. Surrealism was a cultural movement spawned in the early 1920s that contrasted the subconscious’s dreams with reality in strange imagery. By altering the lighting used in his photoshoots with models, Ray explored the individual’s subconscious.

Another practitioner of early fashion photography was Baron de Meyer, known as the ‘Debussy of the Camera.’ De Meyer used unique soft backlighting and complimented each model’s sensuousness with formality. Further, he experimented with the Art Nouveau style by making each model reflect fantasy elements. Men’s fashions were just as popular during this period; however, the male models were not photographed as often as their counterparts.

Mid-20th Century

Following World War II, fashion photographers left behind their passion for classic lines and developed photography that focused on themes of uninhibited spontaneity and glamour. Working with designers, photographers began collaborating with designers seeking to launch successful clothing lines. For instance, designer Christian Dior created a new look for his models in which the curve of the hip was accentuated with clothing that was tight at the waist and voluminous below. His ‘New Look’ was extremely popular in North America and abroad.

By the 1960s, fashion photographers began to focus on free-flowing women’s fashion, symbolising a freer culture. Also, clothing was bolder and brighter due to exciting, contrasting patterns and colourful designs. Who can forget the photos of the English model Twiggy in her short dresses? This change from classic to trendy was an inspiration for the hippies’ look. Through the 1970s, photography of women’s fashions emphasised femininity and sexuality.

Evolution Of Fashion Photography

Nowadays, we take it for granted that fashion photography is an art form as creative and varied as any other, but it wasn’t always this way. Over the past 100 years, the medium has worked hard to establish itself as a valid and legitimate form of expression, so read on for a thorough history lesson in the movements that defined a genre.

As with all great advertising, some of the most recognisable fashion campaigns in history have become every bit as iconic as the brands they were first designed to sell. Somehow, these great examples manage to capture a designer’s spirit, voice, and aesthetic so perfectly that they add a whole new level of context to their brand. Whether it’s the model chosen, the styling of their outfit, the set design of the shoot or the photographer, great campaigns transcend the actual clothing and help tell a story all of their own.

But the art of a good photo editorial isn’t set in stone; fashion photography, like art, has movements defined by its leading talents and the prevailing cultural zeitgeist. To understand them both a little better and see how we arrived at where we are today, we’ve compiled a look back at some of the most important moments in the history of fashion photography over the past 100 years.

From humble beginnings at the start of the 20th century, the following is a trip through the glamour, rebellion, artistry, and commercialism of the past century to discover how an entire industry’s art was defined.

1910 – 1934: Edward Steichen and the Condé Nast Years

To many, Edward Steichen is the founding father of modern fashion photography. After a supposed dare by a close friend, Steichen undertook to promote fashion as fine art via the medium of photography. To do this, he took a series of photographs of the gowns created by renowned French fashion designer Paul Poiret, which were subsequently published in the April 1911 issue of art et Décoration magazine.

Widely considered the first modern fashion photographs, they conveyed the aesthetics, movement and details of the clothes as central to their approach. His style centred heavily on the model, in typical portraiture style, but used lighting and carefully planned studio setups to focus on the clothes and give them a lavish and elegant look indicative of the time.

Another crucial factor in widening modern fashion photography’s appeal came in 1909 when the successful publisher Condé Nast purchased American lifestyle magazine Vogue. In doing so, he created the world’s premier fashion publication — one that gave photographers such as Steichen, Cecil Beaton and Horst P. Horst a platform to showcase their work to a huge new audience. In 1913 he followed that up with Vanity Fair’s launch, and together the two titles spent decades fighting Harper’s Bazaar to become the top fashion magazine in America.

What Steichen and Vogue gave to modern photography were the blueprints for almost all fashion advertising to come in the years after. Steichen formed his unique visual vocabulary throughout the ’20s and ’30s, distilling classic renaissance imagery with cubism and futurism to create something fresh and exciting. His use of models, lighting and experimental studio techniques was completely revolutionary, and, for many years, his contemporaries had no other choice but to follow his path. His importance cannot be exaggerated; Steichen changed the face of fashion photography, and his innovations are still being used to this day.

1934 – 1944: the Revival of Harper’s Bazaar and the Design Laboratory

For many years, Harper’s Bazaar lacked the edge needed to compete with the Condé Nast publications. However, the magazine’s fortunes changed in 1934 with the appointment of Russian photographer Alexey Brodovitch to the role of artistic director. With him in place, Harper’s Bazaar started down a new path that would forever change the landscape of fashion photography. He implemented radical layout concepts, used typography in bold new ways and had a vivid imagery approach. It was his mix of elegance and innovation that transformed the fortunes of Harper’s Bazaar, securing its long-term future.

However, Brodovitch’s influence was more resonant than simply the pages of the magazine. In 1933 he started a course at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art called the “Design Laboratory,” where he taught the full spectrum of modern graphic design principles. In attendance were young photographers such as Irving Penn, Eve Arnold and Richard Avedon. It would be these students that would go on to shape fashion photography on an almost continual basis for decades to come, all helping extend Brodovitch’s legacy long into the future.

1944 – 1960: Avedon and the Great Outdoors

One of Brodovitch’s early students at the Design Laboratory was Richard Avedon, who started his career in 1944 as an advertising photographer. Avedon quickly found a fan in Brodovitch, who spotted his talent and sent him to Paris in 1946 to cover the latest collections from the premier fashion houses. Young and full of energy, the images Avedon captured for Harper’s Bazaar represented a new fashion photography direction.

Avedon’s style was all about one thing: movement. He replaced the static, lifeless poses of the Steichen era with photographs full of verve and vitality. He shunned the studio, preferring to work outdoors or on location. Capturing lively street scenes and bustling parties, his models were photographed at the moment, showcasing their natural femininity; the flowing clothes seemed somehow to be an elegant extension of their bodies.

This set a new course for fashion photography and, throughout the ’50s, Avedon’s style was much imitated. Motion and spontaneity were hallmarks of this new direction. He inspired photographers such as Henry Clarke to use the city’s streets as a backdrop for his images. In the great outdoors, a new sense of life could be breathed into photographs, with the beauty of the models and the clothes they wore directly mirrored in the overall composition’s dynamism.

1960 – 1970: the Divide 

Avedon’s move to shoot his models at the moment was a real turning point for fashion photography. David Bailey used this style extensively to capture the new and exciting times of swinging London in the ’60s. Bailey’s photography for British Vogue built on Avedon’s ideas but gave them an even more youthful feel, while his carefree approach linked model, setting and lifestyle like never before. Prolific photographers of the present day, like Mario Testino, owe a lot to work like this.

But there were some, such as fellow Brodovitch student Irving Penn, who continued to stick to the studio’s traditions. His famous cover for the April 1950 edition of Vogue featured model Jean Patchett in contrasting black and white. With tone and angle set in opposition, the result is dramatic, yet tranquil and this image in particular sums up his approach to fashion photography. Although his style was starting to fall out of favour during the ’60s, Penn changed the face of fashion photography in subtle but far-reaching ways for many years to come.

1970 – 1980: Return to the Studio and the Rise of Sexual Controversy 

Capturing movement outside the studio’s confines had been the modus operandi of many photographers throughout the ’50s and ’60s. But, by the start of the 70s, a resurgence in studio work was well underway. Taking cues from photographers such as Steichen, Beaton and Penn, this new movement was defined by its use of female nudity, overt sexuality and surrealism.

Once again, Richard Avedon was riding the crest of this new wave. Having signed a deal to move from Harper’s Bazaar to Vogue in 1966, he decided to return to the studio for much of his fashion photography work. Referencing the previous two decades’ glamour and freedom, his shoots for Versace throughout the ’70s and ’80s were inventive and exciting. His trademark use of movement was still present, as was his celebration of vitality and confident female sexuality.

Somewhat contrasting Avedon, there was Guy Bourdin, a Parisian who relied on sexual imagery to tell a different story. While his critics say that Bourdin reduced the female body to its most erotic parts, often promoting violent and misogynistic views, his supporters argue that he created his unique surreal mysticism brand. His advertising work in the late ’70s (including shoots for luxury footwear brands Charles Jourdan and Roland Pierre) often portrayed women as weak and controlled — a strict counterpoint to contemporaries’ works Helmut Newton and Avedon. However, his imagery is undeniably captivating, and the use of bright colour staged surrealism and sex has influenced modern fashion photographers like Terry Richardson.

1980 – 2000: the Age of Rampant Commercialism


The ’80s were the start of a brave new frontier for fashion photography. Commercialism, a force that had laid somewhat dormant for much of the previous 60 years, suddenly reared its head. Fashion was starting to have a broader appeal as Europe, and America’s burgeoning middle class took more of an interest in what they wore. They had more money to spend, and savvy fashion labels like Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Ralph Lauren were only too happy to take it.

A standout campaign from 1981 featuring a 15-year-old Brooke Shields personified this perfectly. Shot by the omnipresent Richard Avedon, Calvin Klein jeans’ ad saw Shields proudly declare that nothing came between her and her Calvins. It was a line that came straight out of an ad man’s notepad, but it caught the public’s attention. Almost overnight, it made Calvin Klein jeans a highly desired product.

One man completely at home in the studio and finding a new demand for his work was Irving Penn. Throughout the late ’80s, he teamed up with Japanese designer Issey Miyake for a compelling and ground-breaking set of advertising campaigns. Taking influence from Steichen’s simplistic approach and blending in his subtle surreal tones, Penn took Miyake’s futuristic designs and exaggerated them with large, embellished silhouettes, using the pattern of the fabric and the contortion of the human body to showcase Miyake’s creations in a whole new light.

Penn was extrapolating Steichen’s blueprints, pushing the relationship between product, model and photographer further than anyone had done before. He had stayed true to the studio, even when his peers were shunning it. He had used this time wisely and was advanced in his use of lighting and considerate in his shots’ sparseness. This approach has since inspired a whole new generation of fashion photographers to look beyond the normal and push the boundaries of what can be achieved, conceptually, in the studio.

The ’90s produced a slew of classic ads. From the strong female role models portrayed by Donna Karen to the American dream represented by Ralph Lauren, the ’90s were seen by many as the golden age of the ad campaign. Alongside sex, labels used supermodels to focus their campaigns around, finding an obvious link between their natural beauty and aspirational products.

Once again, Calvin Klein was at the forefront of this new movement and turned up the heat in a particularly famous campaign from 1992. Featuring Mark Wahlberg paired with a fresh-faced Kate Moss, the unassuming black-and-white shot by Bruce Weber captured this new direction’s essence. The simple image of them both, topless, sporting branded underwear, was all that was needed to get the message across. And it worked. Calvin Klein saw a huge uplift in sales, turning them into a globally recognised brand.

The 2000s: Hypersexuality

As mankind has thoroughly established over the decades, sex sells. But, while people like Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin had used imagery for its sex appeal extensively in the ’70s, the 2000s ushered in a new age of hypersexuality that was designed as much to shock as it was to sell clothes.

One man not afraid of using the flesh to push his products was Tom Ford. For Men, the iconic campaign for his first fragrance was shot by Terry Richardson in 2007 and blended Ford’s penchant for sexual imagery with Richardson’s stark and instantly identifiable flashbulb aesthetic. Bourdin was a huge influence on this work; the highly manipulated studio shots, use of colour and slightly sinister portrayal of female sexuality are all present. Strategic placement of the perfume bottle leaves little to the imagination, and the campaign caused a lot of controversies and a lot of exposure for Ford.

Another campaign from the Tom Ford sable was released in 2003 whilst the designer was working for Gucci. Stylised and simplistic, this ad, shot by Mario Testino, garnered a lot of attention as it featured a female model with the Gucci “G” shaved into her pubic hair. Less about the clothing and more about the preening, it was a bold move for Ford, but one that once again proved the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Although not averse to using sexual imagery in his advertising, Marc Jacobs strode a different path in the 2000s alongside longtime collaborator Juergen Teller. Teller’s distinctive photography style played a huge part in Jacobs’ promotional campaigns and differed hugely from his contemporaries’ glamorous, highly stylised shoots.

One standout example from 2003 featured Hollywood actress Winona Ryder. Having recently been arrested for shoplifting from the Saks department store in Beverly Hills, Ryder arrived in court wearing a Marc Jacobs dress. Spotting an opportunity, Jacobs hired her, and the now-infamous ensuing photoshoot encapsulates his irreverent take on design with a devil may care attitude.


Fashion photography assumes many forms, as the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred between commercial and artistic work. A certain sense of surrealism characterises the work of many contemporary artists whose use of digital manipulation offers an escape from everyday reality through the glittering world of high fashion, celebrities, and beautiful people

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