History Of Fashion Photography Essay Introduction

For the photographers who followed him, Edward Steichen left a creative wake of Mozartean dimensions. There was not much that he didn't do, and do extraordinarily well. Landscapes, architecture, theater and dance, war photography—all appear in his portfolio.

Born in 1879 in Luxembourg, Steichen came with his family to the United States in 1881 and started in photography at age 16, when the medium itself was still young. In 1900, a critic reviewing some of his portraits wrote admiringly that Steichen "is not satisfied showing us how a person looks, but how he thinks a person should look." During his long career, he was a gallery partner with the great photography promoter Alfred Stieglitz. He won an Academy Award in 1945 for his documentary film of the naval war in the Pacific, The Fighting Lady. He became the first director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and created the famous "Family of Man" exhibition in 1955.

Though Steichen didn't invent fashion photography, an argument can be made that he created the template for the modern fashion photographer. A new book, Edward Steichen in High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937, and an exhibit through May 3 at the International Center of Photography in New York make that argument with verve. Though expensively dressed women had attracted other photographers (notably the very young Jacques-Henri Lartigue in Paris), Steichen set an enduring standard. "Steichen was a perfectionist," says Howard Schatz, a fashion photographer whose portraits of actors appear in Vanity Fair. "His precise eye for lighting and design makes his pictures from the '20s and '30s, though clearly of their time, still much admired by fashion photographers today."

Steichen spent the first years of the 20th century in Paris, pursuing parallel careers as an art photographer and painter. Those callings, not to mention the sumptuous city itself, would have led his eye toward women, both undressed and very well dressed. In 1907, he made a photograph of two ladies in dazzling white dresses getting into a carriage at the Longchamp racetrack—an early signal that he had an instinct for couture. Four years later, he was assigned by the French magazine Art et Décoration to produce pictures of dresses by the Parisian designer Paul Poiret. As William Ewing, director of the Musée de l'Elysée, puts it in an essay in the book, "Any sophisticated American in Paris with the visual curiosity of Steichen would have been hard-pressed not to pay attention to this domain of publishing." But his success as a fine art photographer outweighed his interest in the more commercial realm of fashion magazines, and he didn't make another fashion photograph for more than a decade.

Then he went through "a bad and expensive divorce," says another of the book's essayists, Carol Squiers, a curator at the International Center of Photography. By 1922, when Steichen was 43, he was undergoing what we now call a midlife crisis. He had, as Ewing puts it, "serious misgivings about his talents with the brush," and Squiers writes that he told fellow photographer Paul Strand that he was "sick and tired of being poor." He needed something to renew his energies and, not incidentally, a means of making his alimony and child-support payments.

Back in New York, he was invited to a lunch that provided a remedy. The invitation came from Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair, and Condé Nast, the publisher of both that magazine and Vogue, whose wife and daughter Steichen had photographed while in Paris. It was Nast who offered him the job of chief photographer for Vanity Fair, which meant, essentially, house portraitist. But regular fashion work for Vogue was also part of the deal, and Steichen gladly accepted it.

At that magazine, he would take the place of the famous Baron Adolphe de Meyer, who had been lured to Harper's Bazaar. Though de Meyer was fashion photography's first star, Steichen soon became its most luminous.

His portraits for Vanity Fair brought him new fame, at least in part because of the status of such celebrity subjects as Gloria Swanson (whom he draped with an evocative veil of black lace) and a formidably handsome Gary Cooper. But on his Vogue assignments Steichen produced pictures as meticulously conceived as any painting by Gainsborough or Sargent—even though he needed to fill page after page, month after month. "Condé Nast extracted every last ounce of work from him," Squiers told me in an interview. Steichen "was a one-man industry for the magazines, so he had to work quickly. But he had a great eye for where everything should be."

Steichen's corner-to-corner attentiveness, coupled with his painterly training, allowed him to make fashion pictures that ranged in style from classic 19th-century illustrations to Art Nouveau and Art Deco. "He was designing with his camera," Squiers says, "and after starting out as a [soft-focus] pictorialist, he brought sharp focus to bear and had a tremendous effect on the field."

Typical of his work is a 1933 picture of a model wearing a patterned dress by a designer named Cheney. Steichen poses her in front of a two-tone background covered with calligraphic curves that echo the dress, then adds a white hat, scarf and gloves, a bentwood chair and tulips—all of which make a composition reminiscent of a Matisse painting. But he also used movie conventions to make even studio photographs—which are by definition artificial—appear to be life at its most enviable. If two women and a man sat at a well-appointed dinner table, Steichen made sure that part of another table, set with equal lavishness, appeared behind them, turning the studio into a fine restaurant in which the black dresses and tuxedo found their proper context.

In 1937, Steichen left Condé Nast and, according to Squiers, spent the next few years raising delphiniums. (He had become an avid and accomplished gardener in France.) After the United States entered World War II, he put on the uniform of a Navy officer and devoted his talents to the war effort. He never returned to photographing clothes, though he kept taking pictures almost until his death, on March 25, 1973, two days short of his 94th birthday.

After the war, a new generation of fashion photographers, most notably Richard Avedon, adopted smaller cameras and faster film, and they began to leave their studios and urge models to move naturally rather than pose. The carefully staged black-and-white Steichen pictures that delighted prewar readers of Vogue mostly gave way to color and spontaneity. But as Edward Steichen in High Fashion proves, his pictures retain their power to please.

Owen Edwards is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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About Owen Edwards

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer who previously wrote the "Object at Hand" column in Smithsonian magazine.

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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.

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

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.


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 http://www.richardavedon.com/.




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

Thanks to http://www.aidan.co.uk/ for much of the above information.



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

Parkinson, Queen, 1960

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