The first-ever fashion shoot can be traced back to 1856 when Pierre-Louis Pierson photographed Virginia Oldoini, Countess di Castiglione, a Tuscan noblewoman. Pierson clicked as many as 400 photographs of the Countess in her official court garb. Over a period of time, this style of photography has developed its own aesthetic with the beauty of clothes, accessories, and models, enhanced by the use of exotic locations, storylines, and/or stylized photographic techniques.
Fashion Photography: Tracing its Journey
The style of photography as we recognize it today emerged in the first decade of the 20th century when halftone printing allowed fashion photographs to make an entry into magazines. French magazines Les Mode and La Mode Practique were the first magazines to showcase this style.
In the early twentieth century, Paris was one of the best cities to work in for anyone who wanted to make it big in the fashion photography industry. Some of the biggest names in the field then were Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, Edward Steichen, and Cecil Beaton. These were the stalwarts who helped develop this mostly-rigid form of photography into a creatively-fulfilling art form. But the scene soon moved from Paris as the threat of World War II reared its ugly head.
In the late 1930s and the early 1940s, New York was 'the' place to be for anyone who was someone in the fashion photography industry. Photographers such as Martin Mukancsi and Louise Dahl-Wolfe were changing the face of the genre as people knew it then. Mukancsi was famous for introducing movement and fluidity at a time when most poses were stereotyped. Dahl-Wolfe truly traveled with the genre by making exotic locations an integral part of the shoots.
The end of the Second World War resulted in a revitalization of the fashion industry. Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Norman Parkinson were some of the pioneers in the field of fashion photography. Each of them had their own unique style; Parkinson was known for taking photography into the streets, Penn made a name for his classic and simplistic portraits in an era when experimentation was reigning supreme, and Avedon opened up the industry by taking portraits of famous actors and artists.
In the 1950s, Italy shot to the limelight with its fashion centers Napoli, Rome, and more famously, Milan because it was also the center of fashion publishing. This was also the era when models became icons and immediately recognizable by everyone. Models like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, and photographers like David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Brian Duffy were responsible for landmark moments in photography. New techniques, grittier locations, adventurous poses; became the icons of the genre.
The seventies, after the craziness of the sixties, saw a more practical form of fashion emerge. Helmut Newton, Sarah Moon, and Herb Ritts were some of the go-to names in the industry if you wanted to do something truly outstanding. It was in this decade and the eighties, more or less, that fashion became more accessible. There were more magazines dedicated to fashion and in turn, more advertisements of fashion-related products.
In 1988, with Anna Wintour becoming the editor of Vogue, one also saw a change in the trends for cover photos in some of the biggest fashion magazines. While till then, tight head shots of famous models were preferred for the cover, Wintour's first Vogue cover showed a 19-year-old Michaela Bercu, in a mix of inexpensive and haute couture clothing, in a casual and relaxed moment on the street. This was a photo that truly broke the rules.
The late eighties and early nineties saw a more minimalistic style come to the forefront. Of course, the nineties was also the decade when photographing pale and emaciated models gave rise to the term 'heroic chin'.
After several years of constant evolution, it is difficult to define the world of fashion photography as it is today. It is too wide, there is no one style, and there is constant experimentation. Of course, there is a commercial aspect and an artistic aspect to it. But these boundaries are no longer rigid. Fashion photography today is the pinacle of the creative and the commercial.
The Styles of Fashion Photography
Fashion photography, while difficult to categorize very minutely, can be divided into three main styles; catalog, editorial, and high fashion. There is a fourth style that is slowly gaining prominence: street fashion photography. While catalog and street fashion photography are easily distinguishable, it is a little more difficult to differentiate between editorial and high fashion photography because of the similarity in their style.
Editorial Fashion Photography
Most fashion magazines feature this style of photography, with the styling taking an obvious forefront. There is almost a story running through the shoot with the models often photographed through the course of the day, starting with a morning wardrobe, changing into a mid-day wardrobe, and ending with evening attire. Often, these shoots depict a theme. The models need to enact the role they are given and emote to convey their story. The entire image is shot so as to create a powerful statement.
High Fashion Photography
Big fashion brands often advertise their products using this style of photography. These photographs generally feature supermodels or famous actors and actresses. Poses can be exaggerated and over-the-top. All the elements of the photograph, the model, the wardrobe, the styling, the hair/makeup, the lighting, and the location, work together to create a flawless image. With most of these images there is a sense that if even one of its elements were left out, there would be complete chaos.
Catalog Fashion Photography
This style of photography is used by companies that print catalogs to market their products to consumers. It is basically an information image where the model is made to pose against a simple background and you can see the clothes very clearly. The styling is hassle-free, the background is normally white or gray. Mostly shot in studios, a catalog can also be shot on location. While catalog photographs were often labeled staid, today they are quite creatively shot and look very sophisticated.
Street Fashion Photography
If you are familiar with names such as The Sartorialist, Stockholm Street Style, Tommy Ton, etc., then you know which style of photography we are talking about. It's all about people on the street. It's about capturing the essence of what is fashionable amongst us, what we wear, how we perceive style, and how we make a statement with our clothes. Photographers shoot fashionistas out and about on their daily chores, democratizing the fashion world, by highlighting trends in the real world.
If you are looking to making a career in the field of fashion photography, it is important to understand its evolution. It is imperative that you know and learn from the biggest names in the industry. You need to understand fashion and only then will you be able to truly capture its beauty. Irving Penn, when asked about the work that he did at Vogue, described it as, "Selling dreams, not clothes." And that one line defines the art form more precisely than anyone else could possibly ever.