Fashion photography after WWII: the history of an art form


Fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy is an impor­tant tool for fash­ion brands, but it’s also an art form in its own right. Let us explore the his­to­ry and evo­lu­tion of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy in the 20th cen­tu­ry until World War II with the most impor­tant visu­al artists of the time.
The images we choose in the fash­ion indus­try have a major impor­tance in the whole uni­verse of the brand. They car­ry in most cas­es the first impres­sion we have of a prod­uct, of a vibe, of the col­lec­tion, of the sea­son…

We talked before about the ori­gins and first steps of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy in our pre­vi­ous arti­cle. Now we are con­tin­u­ing our jour­ney after World War II, up until the hyper cre­ative 90s.

Irv­ing Penn joined the team of Vogue short­ly before the 50s. He stood out from the crowd with his sig­na­ture style: shoot­ing only in stu­dios, with no oth­er props or back­grounds oth­er than the out­fit he had to show off. He mas­tered paper back­drops, strik­ing com­po­si­tions and dra­mat­ic angles.

He pho­tographed impor­tant per­son­al­i­ties such as Picas­so, Woody Allen or Yves Saint Lau­rent…

He was able to por­tray a remark­able inti­ma­cy on his por­traits, some­thing very rare for the big names he was pho­tograph­ing.

Yves Saint Lau­rent by Irv­ing Penn, 1983

Richard Ave­don is one of the artists who has helped to define the image of America’s style, beau­ty and cul­ture. On his work for Harper’s Bazaar mag­a­zine, he cre­at­ed the pho­to­graph that would change his life, enti­tled Dovi­ma with ele­phants.

He took an Amer­i­can ener­gy to France and he became well known for his tal­ent find­ing new dif­fer­ent ways of pho­tograph­ing fash­ion.

Fashion photography after WWII
Ver­sace “Two Tall Women” by Richard Ave­don. Nad­ja Auer­mann and Kris­ten McMe­namy. Shot for French Vogue in 1977. Vogue Paris

Nor­man Parkin­son took por­trait and fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy beyond the stiff for­mal­i­ty of his pre­de­ces­sors and inject­ed an easy and casu­al ele­gance into art.

His pho­tographs cre­at­ed the age of the super­mod­el and made him the artist of choice for celebri­ties, artists, pres­i­dents…

He was the pho­tog­ra­ph­er of choice of lead­ing fig­ures such as Audrey Hep­burn, The Bea­t­les, Twig­gy, Grace Cod­ding­ton, David Bowie, Iman, Jer­ry Hall…

Fashion photography after WWII
Nor­man Parkin­son, Jer­ry Hall, Vogue 1975

David Bai­ley devel­oped an inter­est in the pho­tog­ra­phy of Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son after serv­ing in the Roy­al Air Force. His first offi­cial for­ay into the world of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy was his appoint­ment to British Vogue in 1960.

He remained asso­ci­at­ed with the mag­a­zine first on staff, then as a free­lancer for over 15 years. His use of stark black and white back­grounds, close­ly cropped shots, and sharp light­ing led to a new era of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy, being one of the most impor­tant artists of the 60s.

“It was the Six­ties, it was a rav­ing time, and Bai­ley was unbe­liev­ably good-look­ing. He was every­thing that you want­ed him to be – like the Bea­t­les but acces­si­ble – and when he went on the mar­ket every­one went in. We were all killing our­selves to be his mod­el, although he hooked up with Jean Shrimp­ton pret­ty quick­ly”. Grace Cod­ding­ton, Amer­i­can Vogue’s for­mer cre­ative direc­tor, at the time when she was a mod­el.

History of fashion photography
Grace Cod­ding­ton, Hel­mut New­ton, Manolo Blah­nik, Anjel­i­ca Hus­ton and David Bai­ley, Cor­si­ca, 1973

In the next decade, we can high­light the name of Guy Bour­din. His career ranged from painter to pho­tog­ra­ph­er, explor­ing the van­guard move­ments in the 70s, com­bin­ing sur­re­al­ism with erot­ic art and with high fash­ion.

He was a sur­re­al­ist pho­tog­ra­ph­er Man Ray’s pro­tégé, and his exper­i­ments with the Super 8 tech­nique have been noto­ri­ous.

Bour­din used Polaroids in prepa­ra­tion for his shoots, but he also incor­po­rat­ed some of these into his final shots to cre­ate a lay­ered effect. This tech­nique of plac­ing an image with­in an image is what the French call “mise en abyme,” which rough­ly trans­lates as “place in the abyss,” and many of these exper­i­ments with Polaroids were actu­al­ly shot as high­ly orig­i­nal ad cam­paigns for French shoe design­er Charles Jour­dan in the 1970s.

History of fashion photography
Guy Bour­din: Charles Jour­dan, Spring 1978. Cour­tesy of Louise Alexan­der Gallery © The Guy Bour­din Estate 2015

Hel­mut New­ton was the first to shoot with an androg­y­nous style women and men, blur­ring the line between the two of them and pre­de­ceas­ing the uni­sex style trends we see glow­ing today.

He was a pio­neer in trans­lat­ing fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy into an erot­ic art, with anoth­er style dif­fer­ing from Guy Bour­din. He was pub­lished in Vogue, Play­boy, Elle or Hapreer’s Bazaar.

Fashion photography after WWII
Hel­mut New­ton, Rue Aubri­ot, 1975

To end the ground­break­ing 20th cen­tu­ry, we need to talk about Steven Meisel. He has cre­at­ed a style on his own, par­tic­u­lar­ly vision­ary, strik­ing and provoca­tive.

Meisel has dis­cov­ered and pop­u­lar­ized many influ­en­tial super­mod­els, make up artists and design­ers, such as Nao­mi Camp­bell, François Nars, Ross Van Der Hei­de, Christy Turling­ton, Lau­ra Merci­er, Lin­da Evan­ge­lista…

He is the last rev­o­lu­tion­ary visu­al artist of the 20th cen­tu­ry. His work on com­mu­ni­cat­ing sen­su­al­i­ty broke many bar­ri­ers on the sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion of women and the LGBT com­mu­ni­ty in the 90s. He marked the blue­print and open­ing doors for many oth­er artists to come in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

His most out­stand­ing work is on Ital­ian Vogue and with Madon­na, noto­ri­ous­ly on her SEX book, a project that broke many stereo­types and pro­mot­ed free­dom amid the AIDS epi­dem­ic and a over­ly con­ser­v­a­tive soci­ety at the moment.

Fashion photography after WWII
Steven Meisel for Madon­na’s SEX book. 1992

Written by David Ferrero
December 28, 2022

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