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Fashion Photography: A History Lesson

Updated: Aug 28

By Ritika Jain


When you think of fashion photography, you may think of the highly-budgeted glossy magazine covers and digital photoshoots that spread like wildfire across the Internet. However, it is a medium that dates back to the 1800s and has undergone many shifts since then. There are several pioneers in this genre who have made it possible for fashion to become what it is today, a global market that consumes our daily lives, from social media advertisements to billboards. Here is a look at how fashion photography originally came to be:


Although the earliest known fashion photographers were from the 1850s, the capture of fashion on film didn’t become widespread until the 20th century. The covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar – America’s first fashion magnets – were initially drawn by hand. Then, publisher Conde Nast bought Vogue and hired German photographer Baron Adolph de Meyer to shoot models and actresses for fashion editorials. Renowned figures like Cecil Beaton, Erwin Blumenfeld, and Edward Steichen were at the center of this movement, the latter being credited for his everlasting impact on fashion photography. Steichen was known for his realist images, strategically playing with lighting to highlight different modes of fashion at the time, and his work was timeless in the age of fashion advertising. With the help of photography, couture fashion also became more easily accessible, birthing luxury empires such as Chanel and Balenciaga.


Fashion was also shaped by historical events at the time. The decades following World War II ushered a new wave of fashion designers who took on a more spontaneous approach. An influential figure in this era was Richard Avedon, who went in a different direction than Steichen, with more lively, environmental shots. Avedon specialized in movement, opting for more outdoor, crowded scenes in which his models were captured candidly against their surroundings. He inspired photography to explore beyond the studio and brought his images to life. Alongside Avedon was skilled photographer Irving Penn, who pursued minimalist studio shots with expression and produced 165 covers for Vogue.


Photography in the 1970s was marked by an age of sexual liberation and feminism. More women in photography were being represented, such as Deborah Turbeville and Eve Arnold, whose work displayed unique reflections and stories of women. German photographer Helmot Newton turned heads with subversive and overtly sexual shots of women who often exhibited power and autonomy. He found himself photographing starlets Cindy Crawford and Charlotte Rampling for Elle and Playboy.


From the 80s and onwards, fashion had transformed into a global industry. Widespread consumerism took place in the form of commercials and advertisements and brands like Calvin Klien and Ralph Lauren acclaimed popularity among middle class consumers. Casual wear faced increased favorability as the 1981 campaign for Calvin Klein jeans – the work of Avedon – was a huge hit. Men’s fashion also became an industry in which Calvin Klein and Armani specialized. These brands sold not only products, but also lifestyles.


Modern day fashion photography thrives off of consumerism, celebrity, and sexuality. It is a broad, limitless medium in which contemporaries such as Mario Testino, Juergen Teller, and David LaChapelle are omnipresent. Testino has contributed to the domination of sex appeal which brands such as Tom Ford, embrace in their campaigns. Celebrity partnerships with luxury labels have also become pervasive, examples being Jennifer Lawrence for Dior, Rihanna for Balmain, and Lady Gaga for Versace. Some of these campaigns revisited the black-and-white tones of the 70s with subtle hints of color. In the past decade, campaigns have transitioned onto Instagram, where they can be consumed by thousands of viewers. Brands favor digital production to protect their assets and maximize distribution. Fashion photography now prioritizes glimmery images which evoke a sense of surrealism, luxury, and attraction and has been heavily impacted by the experimentation of photographers over time.



Ritika Jain is an editorial writer who focuses on all things fashion, pop culture, and important social events. Follow her on Instagram.

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