Is Fashion Photography Glamorous?


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Princesses, evening wear, elephants, boudoirs, the circus, the theatre - in short: Glamour! My first encounter with fashion photography was Richard Avedon’s work featured in the Netherlands’ best glossy. As of 1945 Avedon set the standard for fashion photography in the American Harper's bazaar for twenty years. Avedon, however, was capable of more than pretty fashion photography. He left Harper's Bazaar in 1965 and became one of the greatest, if not the greatest, portrait photographers of last century. With his heavy 8 by 10 inch camera he took portrait pictures of writers, film stars, criminals, Gerald Ford’s cabinet, Warhol and his factory, Vietnam War generals, farmers, laborers and vagabonds – not to mention unforgettable portraits of his muse Audrey Hepburn and his dying father.

Irving Penn was one of the few from Avedon’s contemporaries who was able to produce work within the fashion genre of a similar caliber. Irving’s work, while more placid and less theatrical than that of Avedon, is arguably equally profound. With a strong preference for natural daylight, he took portraits in New Guinea and Africa using a tent set up in such a way that neutral light streamed in from above. His still lifes, always taken with the utmost precision, are also well-known. A friend of mine is the owner of a couple of flies in a matchbox he came across in an abandoned studio of Penn’s, Penn had used them to spruce up a photo of a cake. Let us not forget that Penn’s work also exudes glamour. His models were always ladylike – Lisa Fonssagrives, who Penn married in 1950, is generally considered to be the first ever supermodel.

While Avedon and Penn were very different characters their biographies reveal many uncanny similarities. Both were inspired and trained by the charismatic designer Alexey Brodovitch, the man who practically invented the modern magazine format. They both took portrait pictures of the author Truman Capote and produced characteristic photos of an unusual personality that set the standard for the term ‘classic’. And, of course, they were both big names outside of the fashion genre.

While Avedon had reached the top of fashion photography there was still one photographer who could throw him off balance. Ruth Ansel, the image editor for Harper's bazaar who gave Avedon his first assignment, said that Robert (Bob) Richardson was the one and only photographer Avedon was in awe of. Avedon would turn up at Richardson’s studio unannounced; obsessed by the intangible talent that gave Richardson’s photos ‘that certain something’ Avedon felt his own work was lacking. Richardson was a rebel, a living legacy of the revolutionary 1960’s. His reality of the time was also the theme of his fashion photography: sex, drugs and rock and roll. The father of the notorious Terry Richardson, Robert drank and to the extent that he developed schizophrenia and scarcely worked during the ‘80’s or ‘90’s.

At the time of his comeback he seemed to have kept his rebellious mind. Richardson was of the opinion that the New York magazines had degenerated from art into mediocrity and, given the choice, chose to work in Europe. Meanwhile famous photographers such as Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel and Bruce Weber appeared to have been inspired by Richardson’s work. The admiration, however, was not all encompassing; Steven Meisel once described Richards as ‘Richard Avedon without a dick’.

During the ‘50’s and ‘60’s there was but a tiny handful of Dutch photographers working in the fashion genre. The country was not as prosperous as the US at the time and as a result the first glossies didn’t appear on the shelves in the Netherlands until the late ‘60’s. Photographers like Emmy Andriesse and Paul Huf were clearly influenced by Penn; Andriesse’s fashion photos characteristically minimal while Huf used neutral backgrounds from his early days as a photographer. True glamour was scarce, only a few photos from nationally known photographers like Godfried de Groot and Hans Dukkers offer a hint of glamour.

At this moment in time there are some Dutch photographers who enjoy an international reputation in the fashion genre. The photography duos, Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin and Anuschka Blommers & Niels Schumm, and photographer Erwin Olaf are all in demand - each for their specific qualities. They photograph for famous couturiers and get published in well-known magazines. You’d sooner call their work playful and inventive than glamorous - especially the duos’. These qualities were also evident in the work of the first generation of photographers who worked within the genre.

A few months ago I attended a forum where Michelle Mallard, Fashion and Photography Curator for Hyères festival, explained why she thinks Dutch photographers have been such a success. 18 Dutch photographers have been nominated for the ‘Emerging Photographers’ award since 1998; the award was presented to a young Dutch photographer in both 2006 and 2007. According to Mallard this is due to the graphic tradition and quality of Art Education the Netherlands enjoys. Blommers and Schumm have both won awards at Hyères in the past. The explanation for their success also counts, in my opinion, for other accomplished fashion photographers. ‘The fact that we are not only fashion photographers means we bring a fresh perspective to the phenomenon, it’s this itself that makes us suited to working within fashion.’ Put more succinctly (bearing Avedon and Richards in mind): ‘Really great fashion photographers are always great photographers, period.’

 


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