Contemporary Art

Unfolding Fashion Photography’s First Century

By Hettie Judah

Tim Walker, The Dress-Lamp Tree, England, 2002, Steven and Catherine Fink. Courtesy of Steven and Catherine Fink, © Tim Walker

The century of image-making covered in the Getty Center’s Icons of Style commences, in 1911, with a publisher’s dream: that fashion photography might be approached as an art form. To a chic audience acquainted with the fantastical, highly stylised illustrations of Erté and Paul Iribe, the documentary-style photographs of the time must have seemed stolid and unexciting. The French publisher Lucien Vogel thought the genre could be otherwise – glamorous, aspirational, imaginative – and challenged the photographer Edward Steichen to prove him right. It was, says curator Paul Martineau, “a moment that is now considered a turning point in the history of fashion photography.”

Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911–2011 considers fashion photography as an artistic medium in its own right. Taking in the work of some 80 photographers, from Steichen to street-style sensation The Sartorialist, the show will feature photographic prints from the Getty’s collection alongside illustrations, costumes and magazine covers.

Edward Steichen, Perfection in Black; Model Margaret Horan in a Black Gown by Jay Thorpe (left), 1935, Courtesy of Edward Steichen, Vogue, Condé Nast, © Condé Nast

There has always been tension between commerce and creativity, Martineau admits. “One of the primary goals of this exhibition is to celebrate the work of fashion photographers who were able to push the boundaries,” he says. There are historic instances of photographers using their influence to implement societal and stylistic change: in 1959 Richard Avedon threatened not to re-sign his contract with Harper’s Bazaar unless his photographs of China Machado, a model of Asian origin, appeared in the magazine. Herb Ritts’s influential study of muscular, masculine beauty Fred with Tires, Hollywood, 1984, was made in defiance of his commissioning editor Franca Sozzani: Ritts rejected the garments borrowed for the shoot in favour of vintage overalls and jeans.

Scott Schuman, Style Profile, Ni'ma Ford, December 22, 2011, Courtesy Danzinger Gallery, © The Sartorialist, Scott Schuman

Over the century covered by the exhibition, the status of women and the garments designed for them have transformed, and these changes have been echoed in the portrayal of women’s bodies. “The earliest images in the exhibition feature loose fitting gowns designed by Paul Poiret and made to be worn without a corset,” explains Martineau. Already, this was a fashionable advance in favour of greater comfort and movement.

Photography brought fashion’s relationship with the female body, along with the debates that surrounded it, to a wider audience. In 1947, Toni Frissell photographed a model sunbathing in Montego Bay. “It was the first time the bikini was seen outside of France,” says Martineau. Later, in 1964, William Claxton photographed Peggy Moffitt wearing Rudi Gernreich’s topless swimsuit. “The avant-garde design was intended as a protest against societal repression of the naked body in public and is generally regarded as a symbol of the sexual revolution,” adds Martineau.

Helmut Newton, Woman Examining Man, Saint-Tropez, Negative 1975; print about 1984, The J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of the Helmut Newton Foundation. Image courtesy of Maconochie Photography, © The Helmut Newton Estate

Two photographs from the 1970s show the photographer Helmut Newton playing with perceptions of gender, while perhaps fashion’s greatest taboo – ageing – is addressed in James Moore’s nude photographs of 50-year-old Carmen Dell’Orefice for Harper’s Bazaar in 1981.

And now, thanks to the launch of the image-sharing platforms Instagram and Snapchat in 2010 and 2011 respectively, fashion photography has become an informal, universalised pursuit. Such advents mark the final phase of the exhibition’s century, raising questions as to the future direction of fashion photography.

Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911–2011, Getty Center, Los Angeles, 26 June – 21 October

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