What is the mark of a truly great fashion photograph? When it makes you shiver, says Sarah Mower. A new book shows the most sublime from the past 100 years.
Vogue always did stand for people’s lives. I mean, a new dress doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s the life you’re living in the dress.’ That spot-on analysis of the essence of Vogue-ness fell from the rouged lips of Diana Vreeland, possibly the most sensible pronouncement (among many far nuttier) she made while she was editing American Vogue between 1962 and 1971.
Never was there a more honest and lucid word spoken about the nature of truly great fashion photography. It’s not just the dress. It’s the nailing of a time on a page. At first sight, it hits you between the eyes. It makes the hair stand up on your arms. Once seen, something’s confirmed. And you’re changed.
It could have been Jean Shrimpton as a baby-faced Mod, photographed by David Bailey in 1962 – the lairy East End boy-photographer and his posh girlfriend. Or the nameless woman wearing an Yves Saint Laurent trouser suit photographed at night in a backstreet in Paris by Helmut Newton, the outrageous German harbinger of the early 1970s sexual revolution. Or Kate Moss, teenage in a cheap pink vest and knickers, photographed with fairy lights, as if in a squat, by her mate, Corinne Day – spokes-girls for the 1990s London grunge generation. If something physical didn’t happen to you when you first saw those images, well, I’d say there was something wrong with you.
I’ve always thought it’s that unique ability to send goose pimples up and down a woman’s body that is a great fashion magazine’s unique selling point – something that goes beyond the mission to sell clothes, or at least coexists with it. I don’t believe anyone buys a top fashion magazine with the primary purpose of discovering what clothes she should trot off and wear. Not really. Lots of women have bought Vogue or Elle who could never afford the clothes, and always have done; and editors have been aware of it. (Edna Woolman Chase, Vogue’s editor-in-chief from 1914 until 1952, instituted a Young Millionaire column after the Second World War, and the More Dash Than Cash budget-style pages were started in British Vogue during the oil crisis and three-day week of the 1970s.)
No, what glossy fashion magazines have always been bought for is the anticipation of that sensation of shock, surprise and recognition when the meanings of a photograph hit you. It’s a thrill, a luxury, a physical and cerebral buzz. Shopping is secondary.
A great fashion image is commentary – an oblique, maybe witty, possibly wicked and satirical flash of exalted female role-playing. And when it’s really strong, the radioactive half-life of a supposedly ephemeral fashion magazine can last decades. Some of this may hit you when browsing through Coming Into Fashion: A Century of Photography at Condé Nast, a picture-book with various essays on the photographers who have shot for Vogue, and other Condé Nast titles, from Baron de Meyer and Edward Steichen in the 1910s and 1920s to the likes of Mario Testino, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin and SØlve SundsbØ in the early 21st century.
The texts track the rise of the fashion photographer decade by decade, though in no great depth. I’d have loved to have seen portraits of Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Man Ray and Cecil Beaton – let alone the lesser-known George Hoyningen Huene, Horst P Horst, Clifford Coffin and John Rawlings in a book dedicated to the great men who clicked the shutters on the indelible fashion images of the 20th century. (I say men: there are great women photographers, too, of course – Lee Miller, Toni Frissell, Deborah Turbeville, Sarah Moon, Ellen von Unwerth.
They’re skimpily represented – though this book does unearth a couple of little-known fashion shoots by Diane Arbus, done with her husband, Allan.) And it drives me nuts not to see the fashion captions next to the pictures: what were those gold and red lamé swimming-costumes stretched over that pair of oiled, tawny bodies Albert Watson posed in the sand at the summit of 1977 disco-fever? Who made that glorious red saucer hat filled with pink roses John Rawlings photographed in 1944, the height of the Second World War? Was that draped chiffon dress a Madame Grès or a Balenciaga William Klein shot on a woman walking across the Place de la Concorde at dawn in 1961? We’re left to guess.
But no matter, I suppose. It’s a picture-book. And contemplating these pictures leaves your mind free to wonder over the extraordinary swings in the representation of women that have taken place through our recent history – through two world wars, booms and busts, youth revolutions, the rise of sex equality and women in the workplace, all the way to the dawn of the computer age and the plunge into the disturbing hyper-real mannerisms we have today.
In these pictures are to be read all the reactions to the forces of power, economics, and technology that have passed through the lives of generations of women, moulding the way we’ve lived, worked and wanted to look.
Fashion has reflected all the power shifts that have taken place since images first began to hit light sensitive paper in the 19th century: there’s Tyrolean fashion shot by Horst P Horst and Hoyningen-Huene in 1934, just as Hitler was on the rise; followed by ominous surrealism in the form of lonely women standing in a De Chirico-like landscape by André Durst in 1936; followed by women – clearly on their way to work – busy passing one another on the pavement in New York in tweed suits, captured by Diane and Allan Arbus in 1949, a bracing sense of postwar female independence. And then there’s the overwhelming optimism of mid-century America, and the thrilling lot of women within it. As Grace Mirabella, American Vogue’s editor from 1971 to 1988, describes it in her autobiography, In and Out of Vogue, ‘In the 1950s, the women were shown modelling separates alongside shiny red Cadillacs. The inference was that America was on the move, and so were they. And they needed clothes that could get them places.’
The documentary narrative, the counterpointing of the times in the background and subtext of fashion pictures, has always been deliberate, and calculated, and strived for by every editor. It’s the secret factor demanded of photographers, fashion stylists, models, hairdressers, set designers and everyone else who grapples with putting clothes in a context, on a magazine page. Not that it happens on every page, or in every issue. Clothes have to be shown, readers serviced, designers and advertisers kept happy. ‘But,’ as Franca Sozzani, the editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue, says in an interview in the book, ‘sometimes what matters most is the atmosphere, and then it doesn’t matter so much if you don’t see the clothes so well.’ It’s more about where we are, and how we’re feeling.
What strikes me above all, though, is that the images which have the most brilliant freshness are the ones which look least like the pictures we’re saturated with today: the black and white photographs; the ones shot outdoors; the ones captured in gorgeous Kodachrome – the opposite of the plasticised, digitised faces, computer-altered limbs and strangely awkward, frozen poses that have become the norm recently.
If you look at the liquid gleam in the eyes of the smiling girl with the cloche hat Edward Steichen photographed in 1923, you almost believe she’s about to glance back at you. Sea breeze and laughter hit you as you look at the black and white pictures Toni Frissell shot of athletic American girls running about and exercising on the beach in 1935. The exhilarating depth of colour in Erwin Blumenfeld’s photography – blue, yellow and grey hats in 1944; vivid red swimsuits and beach cover-ups in 1946 – makes you wonder: what do they do in computers these days that makes everything look so dead?
Sure as eggs is eggs, though, the moral in these pages is unavoidable: change is ineluctable. Every decade looks for its own photographers to express the incoming mood and sweep away all that feels stale and predictable. What and who will come next? If pendulum swings can be relied upon, it ought to be a swerve from the stiff, artificial and sexed-up image to something more natural, spontaneous, outdoor and breezy. Something like the fabulously exuberant shoot from young Hong Kong Design Institute stylist Agnes Choy and photographer Kar Hoo Chow that brightens pages 78 to 85 of this magazine.
More stories like this are available in Quintessentially Asia.