Some notes on Fashion Photography

July 13, 2010

Edward Steichen

My latest work has me digging in books about fashion, and how it has changed and adapted to suit the social climate and current trends of the time. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next two decades in relation to one particular social change of our time, which is that we’re living a lot longer than we were 50 or 60 years ago. I’m pondering a question I read by someone, whose name now escapes me (perhaps Pamela Church-Gibson), which went something like ‘do older people abandon fashion, or does fashion abandon older people?’. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m going to do some more digging and report back in six months or so!

Since its beginning, very early on in photography’s history, the fashion industry began to see the potential with photography to advance its own goals. Photography took over the fashion illustrations that existed in the 20’s, to give women something tangible and real; something a little less conceptual.

Fashion imagery of the 1930’s lacked any form of narrative. Women had their place in society, and fashion advertising’s role was to create an ideal that women could aspire to. The Second World War and Hollywood had a huge impact which generated new codes of representation, narratives and fantasies. The concept of the ‘real’ person was introduced by photographers such as Lee Miller, who photographed women in everyday situations in wartime Britain.

Post WWII moved outside of the studio. The 60’s and all its revolution changed the way women saw themselves in society, and in fashion photography, it changed the way they saw themselves to men and to society itself. The static woman in the studio was beginning to be replaced by a more energetic woman on the move, outside. This was a time of huge change worldwide, both socially and culturally.  People like David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy created a certain type of realism, looking at the woman inside the clothes. A theme that followed this type of realism was one labelled ‘brutal realism’ deployed by photographers like Guy Borurdin, often commenting on the eroticism of women and underlying tensions and movements that reflected the period.

Guy Bourdin

Guy Bourdin

As the 1980’s arrived, subcultures such as the punk movement offered up some ideas that were translated into both a commerce solution and a social document of the time. People were photographed in the street in ‘normal’ conditions. In the decades that followed, a new ideal was created. This ideal was almost super human, and set a new definition for ‘beauty’. This unattainable ideal of ‘beauty’ had burdened photography with a whole new type of representation, one that affected a whole wider social context. The supermodel was born.

Elliott Smedley claims that fashion photography can confront problematic issues and force us to ask questions and address wider concerns, something that was once in the realm of photojournalism.[1] While he also touches on the point of fashion imagery ignoring the non-slim, the non-young and those who are not able-bodied, it’s difficult to see how fashion photography can, in any way, make us confront problematic issues when it is so selective in the ‘real’ problems it claims to confront. The advertising machine cannot ignore any demographic of people who have money to spend. That’s probably rule number 1 of Capitalism. One demographic that fits that bill in the West is our older population. This demographic does not fit into the historic, and current, super human ideal of beauty. If history is anything to go by, one can only surmise that fashion photography will continue to adapt to the relevant and current social trends. Will fashion for old age be one of them? For how much longer can the the fashion industry and retail outlets ignore the over 50’s?

Pamela Church Gibson argues, “the only industry really geared up to respond to the needs of the ageing population is … the beauty industry. Cosmetic scientists and surgeons are set to maximise their profits and allay the fears of their customers”.[2] There in-lies a twisted paradox.

[1] Smedley, Elliott, ‘Escaping to Reality: Fashion Photography in the 1990’s’ in Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explorations and Analysis. Bruzzi, Stella and Gibson, Pamela Church (ed.). Routledge, London, 2000, p. 155

[2] Gibson, Pamela Church, ‘Invisible Women, Ageing and Fashion’ in Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explorations and Analysis. Bruzzi, Stella and Gibson, Pamela Church (ed.). Routledge, London, 2000, p. 83


2 Responses to “Some notes on Fashion Photography”

  1. amo Says:

    Hey Garvan, just tripped over your blog this morning and really enjoying it (instead of getting ready for work). Really love the fashion project you’re doing at the moment.

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