High Fashion Photography

In high fashion photography , the image is no longer concerned with the human being.

The photograph itself is a highly constructed object. The subject is usually photographed in the studio, removed from the real world, and surrounded by props that have little to do with reality and more to do with drama.


The photographer has complete control over the environment and he or she is free to choose what to include or exclude. And the aim? The aim of the photograph is to create desire, pure and simple.

Fashion photography history begins in 1913 when Condé Nast employed Adolphe de Meyer (Franco-British, 1868-1946) to make experimental photographs using a soft-focus lens and backlighting.

Above: Photo by Adolphe de Meyer

Next came Edward Steichen who started photographing fashion models in 1911. He used simple props in a Modernist way combined with classical poses. The fashion magazine Vogue had already been launched in 1892 but they used illustrations for their fashions. Steichen used artificial lighting as well as natural light to create a feeling of sensuality in his pictures and became the most highly paid photographer of the 1930s.

The photograph below is simply stunning and shows the quality of work of which Steichen was capable. It is a picture of Thérèse Duncan, the adopted daughter of Isadora Duncan, on the Acropolis in Greece taken in 1921. The title of this remarkable photograph is 'Wind Fire', because of the cracking sound her garments made in the wind.

Above: Wind Fire  by Edward Steichen

George Hoyningen-Huene (1900 - 1968) was another famous photographer from this era, travelling and working with Coco Chanel, Greta Garbo, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton, Marlene Dietrich and Kurt Weill. In the 1920s he was chief photographer for French Vogue and in the 1930s he worked almost exclusively for Harper's Bazaar.

Above: Harper's Bazaar Magazine, 1938 with photo by Hoyningen-Huene

Cecil Beaton and Horst Paul Horst were next on the scene. Beaton's images were influenced by his theatre designs while Horst's leaned towards the surreal, mostly using black and white or monochrome settings and creating a shadowless image through the use of spotlights.

With the advent of colour photography, fashion photography moved up from the realm of commercialism and advertising to high fashion photography which was considered art. During World War II however, the fashion photography industry in Europe suffered due to lack of materials and fashion photography was considered frivolous. French Vogue shut when Hitler invaded Paris and photographers such as Horst fled to America where fashion photography was unaffected.

Above: Photo by Lillian Bassman

After the War, the American photographer Lillian Bassman (born 1917) created a new aesthetic in black and white fashion photography. Her pictures were atmospheric, moody, mostly in black and white, with very high contrast and a grainy appeaerance. She worked for Harper's Bazaar from 1950 until 1965 but after that the geometric style which underpinned her compositions became unfashionable. She was rediscovered in the 1990s when a bag containing hundreds of her photographs was discovered, photographs which she had thrown out 20 years prior. Today she has been rediscovered and given the recognition she rightly deserves as a top fashion photographer.

In the 1940s and 1950s Alex Liberman , painter, sculptor, photographer and graphic designer, influenced a generation of photographers, including Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Robert Klein and Lisette Model. Irving Penn is another fashion photographer from this era, whose compositions were daringly simple, often isolating his subjects from all props or backgrounds to create a feeling of emotional detachment.

High Fashion Photography in the '60s

60s fashion photography was highly experimental and photographers found themselves having greater decision-making power with editors.


Vogue photographer Bob Richardson was one of the biggest names in high fashion photography at that time. 

His photographs were influenced mainly by film directors particularly with respect to camera angle and lighting.


If Richardson's creations were a bit too edgy for the editors, Richard Avedon's pictures were a dream come true with models shown smiling and exhibiting emotions, often in action. Avedon is perhaps most famous for his work with Twiggy, the great icon of fashion of the 1960s who was skinny and looked like a boy, a huge difference from the models of the 1940s and 1950s. She was described by Newsweek as "four straight limbs in search of a body".

The photographs of Diane Arbus are not usually associated with fashion photography but she worked for harper's Bazaar in 1962 on a series of photographs of children fashions and also for the New York Times in 1967, 1968 and 1970. The photographs are of outcast children and are very disturbing as fashion photography goes.

David Bailey is another well-known 60s fashion photographer. Bailey photographed actors musicians and royalty as well as fashion models. He captured, and helped to create, the Swinging London of the 1960s, a culture that was noted for its chic fashions. The film Blowup, 1966, was largely based on the character of Bailey played by David Hemmings. He is still working in the field of photography today. Of his work he states: "I've always tried to do pictures that don't date. I always go for simplicity".

High Fashion Photography in the '70s


helmut newton photography bookBelow: Sumo by Helmut Newton

In the 1970s, Helmut Newton rose to fame (or should I say notoriety) along with Guy Bourdin who created fashion photographs with aggresive and violence contained within them. His images for Vogue's Story of Ohh! are particularly infamous, based on the French novel The Story of O by Pauline Reage (Anne Desclos) in which the main character is a female fashion photographer and a masochist. Newton is perhaps the most copied fashion photographer of the 20th century.

In the 1990s high fashion photography was dominated by photographers such as Collier Schorr and Glen Luchford who began to depict young men and women in gender-ambiguous photographs. David Lachapelle, Jurgen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans are perhaps the most influential photographers of this era. High fashion photography and art photography commingled particularly in the work of Larry Sultan. Photographers such as Paolo Roversi, Peter Lindberg and Mario Testino are reinventing the genre today.

High Fashion Photography Today

Perhaps the accolade of top fashion photographer should go to Michael Creagh who was presented with the 4th Annual Black and White Spider Awards Nominee in the category of Fashion in January this year (2009) (see photograph below).

Above: 4th Annual Black and White Spider Awards Winning Photo by Michael Creagh

Creagh is a New York based fashion photographer with an impressive list of clients which includes McCann Erickson, Microsoft, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and MTV. To see more of his photographs visit his web site or click here to read an interview with Michael.

Recommended Reading


Top of Page