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The Evolution of Fashion Photography

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Fashion and photography are two arts that share an essential commonality: they are based on the image and the visual. It is noo surprise, then, that they have been so closely linked for two centuries. Yet like it's cousin, the painting, the foremost purpose of the photograph was the promotion of man, and not his clothes. As with portraits on canvas, it was necessary above all to highlight the protagonist. The outfit, the props and the decor were there only to reinforce its image and to convey its power or its richness - to stimulate the illusion to the maximum - not dissimilar to how Photoshop wants today to make us believe that the time has no ill effect Hollywood stars. The first such photographs appeared in the 19th century as an alternative to classical portraiture;

The nineteenth century and the emergence of a photography of fashion

One of the first to show interest in fashion in photography is Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione - incidentally the mistress of Napoleon III. This Piedmontese noble was prized for her beauty from adolescence, and nicknamed "La Perla d'Italia" (The pearl of Italy). It was after her arrival at the Court of France at the age of 18 and her scandalous relationship with Napoleon that the doors of the private salons of Europe opened to her. It was a fabulous opportunity to meet all the great people of the time, despite a controversial reputation, and the rumour of her as capricious and quite snobbish. However, her interest is not in her celebrity by itself, but in her relation to the early photography of fashion. Passionate about fashion and accessories, she liked to play with her finery and reinvent herself continuously. It is therefore quite natural that in 1856 she began to collaborate with Pierre-Louis Pierson, photographer of the Emperor who held a workshop with the Mayer brothers (Léopold Ernest Mayer and his brother Louis Frédéric). She was to remain his model and his muse forty years, a fact which allowed him present his portrait, Queen of Hearts, at the Universal Exhibition of 1867 in Paris.

Virginia liked to stage elaborate shots, playing with light and illusions, creating a dramatic backdrop, disguising herself and wearing incredible outfits for photos. Her sumptuous Queen of Hearts dress, worn during a masked ball and judged indecent with her lack of corset and her heart sewn at the level of the vagina, is a perfect example of her audacity and her love of style. There was no stylist for these photos, nor a concept of brand or "product". So it is not yet strictly speaking "fashion photography" but it is the beginning of a highlight of clothing and the search for individual style.

The countess and her son in a photo taken by the Mayer brothers and Pierson

At the same time, the German-French photographer Charles Reutlinger opened in Paris the first photo studio specializing in portraits of personalities, especially those of the entertainment world. Inspired by the pictorialist tendencies of painting, he creates varied and sought-after stagings, situated somewhere between exoticism and tradition in a universe full of reverie. He then reworked his photos with multiple effects. Models became an art form and the look became meticulously studied by artists and critics. In Reutlinger's work, there was a desire to touch the collective imagination, to bring the public to adopt a style and thus to create a certain massification of taste and sense of aesthetics. Here we find the concept of trends, and well-crafted since models are celebrities able to disseminate them and influence the public. It is this that truly marks the emergence of the fashion photograph.

Experimentation in the early twentieth century

After these nascent but promising beginnings in the previous century, photography continued to develop in relation to fashion and style. The photographers let go, test, propose, innovate and allow fashion to take a major stake in their objective. The three Seeberger brothers in particular founded a workshop in 1905 and focus first of all on the urban landscapes and neighbourhoods of Paris. It was in 1909 that they began to shoot fashion, subsequently immortalizing the most beautiful French creations of the interwar period. Many of their photos would appear in the magazine La Mode Pratique and in the worldwide presses. With this trio, the fashion leaves the studios and finally ventures outside. In the same fashion as the modern street style photographer, the Seeberger's revolutionize the subject by breaking the tradition of staged fashion photographs of gentry.

In parallel, the Franco-German photographer Adolph De Meyer follows in the footsteps of Reutlinger and his poetic photography to well calculated stagings. His work consists of light effects and contrasts, delicate blurs, smoky atmospheres and poses studied, always with a pronounced emphasis on the dress and the rendering of fabrics. His mannequins appear ghostly and airy in absolute grace. De Meyer would also become the first photographer for Vogue, a revolution which displaced for the first time the fashion illustrator of yesteryear.

A signature De Meyer shot - shirking absolute realism for an ethereal play of light

Finally, we were all waiting for it, there was Man Ray. Photographer but also painter and director, he is a complete and versatile artist. Literally "  man of the ray of light" , he integrated the ideas of pictorialism with staged elaborated in his photos and diverted the protagonists in a way - sometimes - farfelt. The most striking and famous example is his picture of Kiki de Montparnasse, his eternal muse, wrapped in a turban and transformed into a violin. Beyond the objectification of his models, Man Ray liked to experiment through the technique with a double exposure, impressions in negative - solarization. We do it with each selfie on Instagram, except that he had neither software nor phone and could not count on a single click to play with his photos. He was the force of initiation of many innovations in image processing. 

The 1920s and the advent of modernism

After the felted and overly poetic atmosphere of pictorialism of decades past, many photographers want to return to a simpler style, in search of objectivity. It was in the 1920s that we moved from a photography based on the imaginary to a photograph centered on the image itself. Photography of fashion does not escape this - it returns to a more refined approach. With Edward J. Steichen, the protagonists also know another evolution - the supermodel. They are no longer static but represent a living and dynamic body, a personality and a lifestyle.

Edward Steichen's world-famous 1924 shot of Gloria Swanson

Between the two world wars are also developing other concepts in photography in general, including photojournalism reports.

Mid-century: dynamic fashion

With Martin Munkácsi and Richard Avedon, the formerly concentrated and frozen models finally exhibition dynamism and movement, even in the static medium of the image. Both in the studio and outdoors, photographers wished to bring more flexibility and dynamism to their work while taking risks. Because movement is flattering for models, but also for clothes that seem to come alive. Unsurprisingly, a sporty climate is developing at the same time in fashion photography in the midst of this effervescence. Models gain autonomy and power, and their role becomes much more central and interesting because they must communicate the scenery and movement as actresses do. It would be in the 1960s that the world fashion capital moved from Paris to London, and the decade's expression became, to the French at least; 'swinging London'. 

Two examples of Richard Avedon's work - largely considered to be amongst the finest examples of mid-century fashion photography

The sexual revolution and the 70s onward

The 'sexual revolution' was a major turning point for the role of clothing in fashion photography: we no longer sought to cover the body but to reveal, sublimate and exalt it without restraint, so that nudity - partial or total - became almost ubiquitous. If it is a paradox, it is not the only one: the woman becomes an exposed woman, sensuality exploited under all pretexts, and at the same time she gains in power. From passive and delicate, she becomes domineering, powerful and manipulates men. She even assumes their roles by putting on clothes (tuxedo, tie) or attitudes (cigarettes, alcohol) that were once considered masculine.

Masters in the game of these new codes, Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton give themselves to heart and photograph without filter the woman in all its forms and all its curves. Following this ambiguity of roles and the suggestion of seduction between women and men, they end up integrating fashion photography. They do not escape the trend of hypersexualization either. Their nudity, however, is less obvious and plays more on the sportiness of the body through the exposure of the protruding muscles, as can be seen in the work of Bruce Weber or Herb Ritts. The 90s are much more sober after all this frenzy, and we preach a return to minimalism and basic with Peter Lindbergh for example. It's the decade of elegance and simplicity.

A photo of Louise Alexander by Guy Bourdin - exemplifying his taste for the sexual and vivid

 Like all the arts, fashion photography is continually innovating while regularly drawing on the past, reshaping what was to create the trend of tomorrow. Unsurprisingly, the limits are constantly pushed back in the technique as in the subjects, and provocation never goes out of fashion. The body of the woman has become a key to this phenomenon, we undress to promote the clothes, we break the codes of the genres, we censure then overexpose. What new paradoxes will present us with fashion photography in the decades to come?

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