Threads – Six Masters of Fashion Photography
The exhibition covers six decades, from 1924 to 1984 and is devoted to the fashion photographs of six undisputed masters; Edward Steichen, Erwin Blumenfeld, Norman Parkinson, William Klein, Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton.
Today fashion photography is everywhere and we take it for granted, yet going back to 1910’s and early 20’s, it was considered a non-starter. Editors, advertising agencies, fashion houses and their clients, considered fashion illustration a far superior way to show silhouettes, cuts, fabrics and colours. Photography was however the new exciting medium and a handful of publishers refused to admit defeat. They also realised that if fashion photography was to make an impact it clearly had to do more than merely show off garments. It would also have to convey the dream and elegance of fashion.
In 1923 Condé Nast - publisher of Vogue - hired Edward Steichen. He was the first photographer to be commissioned by the magazine and Condé Nast made a wise decision. Steichen had with Alfred Stieglitz been at the forefront of the Photo Secession and the Pictorialism the dominant art photography movement, from the end of the 19th century until the 1920’s. Steichen’s Pictorialist photographs had been characterised by their atmosphere and dazzling baroque splendor as well as technical mastery. The same care that he had taken over his art photographs he would now put to his fashion images, albeit reinvented for the jazz age.
From 1923 to 1929, Condé Nast would use divide the magazine between fashion photography and illustration equally. Things changed in 1929 when Condé Nast went to Berlin to try and save the ailing German edition of Vogue. While he failed in his mission, he did come across the brilliant art director Dr M F Agha and hired him to reinvent Vogue.
The design of the magazine at that time was minimal and looked like a product from ‘La Belle Époque’. Agha took his cue from modernism, De Stijl and Russian constructivism. He discarded fashion illustration altogether and focused on photography. In reinventing Vogue he had not only created the first style magazine, as we know it today but had also defined the role of the art director.
Vogue - as well as their main competitor Harper’s Bazaar - would enlist the services of many of those photographers associated with the Avant Garde. One of the most important of these was Erwin Blumenfeld, who had started out as a Dadaist. Blumenfeld used a variety of techniques to achieve his mesmerising fashion images, amongst them, solarisation, photographing through veils and printing using mirrors.
The first wave of fashion photographers did not have a previous generation to lean on or to react against. Most had come to the genre from art photography or portraiture. The most successful of these were those who truly entered the spirit of fashion. None more so than the English photographer Norman Parkinson who more often than not would combine elegance with humour - sometimes bordering on the absurd - as with his famous image from 1951, of the model Wenda riding on an ostrich.
Fashion photography is often accused of being escapist and superficial. And yet, for those who care to look deeper it also acts as a barometer, of cultural and social changes and attitudes towards sex, race and religion. The most obvious one being that - after the Second World War - models were photographed much less in interiors and more on location. One of the main instigators of this was William Klein. His fashion images combine an almost casual elegance with a strong sense of energy, whether it is models crossing the Piazza di Spagna in Rome or standing on the top of a skyscraper in New York.
If Steichen and Parkinson were alive today and were to glance through the pages of Vogue, Another Magazine and Dazed and Confused, they would see images that they would probably not recognize as fashion images. The rules of the game have changed. It is no longer about Steichen’s elegant studio set-ups or Parkinson’s humorous fashion stories. Increasingly fashion photography is about creating art inspired, hypnotic images that will capture the eye and imagination of the reader in a media saturated age and relate that experience to the specific fashion house.
For a handful of photographers, fashion photography became something more personal, darker and ultimately complex. One can almost put a date on when this change began to occur. It happened in late 1954 when French Vogue hired the then unknown photographer Guy Bourdin to shoot a story on hats. Bourdin shot some images in a studio and took the models with him out into the city. Rather than pose them in cafés or in front of monuments, he took them to butcher’s shops and placed in front of lines of gutted rabbits and pigs’ heads.
He called the story ‘Chapeaux – Choc’. French Vogue were shocked and outraged and refused to publish it, save for one cropped image. It would take Bourdin almost two decades and a new sympathetic editor before he was able to fulfill his vision in French Vogue. By that time French Vogue had also enlisted the services of Helmut Newton and they would competitively push the envelope of the permissible in fashion photography.
Highlights of the exhibition include:
- A unique set of Polaroids by Helmut Newton
- One of two known prints of the model in front of the gutted rabbits in the now infamous ‘Chapeaux – Choc’ shoot by Guy Bourdin
- A rare group of vintage prints by Norman Parkinson
- Rare Surrealist fashion images by Erwin Blumenfeld
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