Today’s photography injects fantasy and storytelling into the imagery, thus capturing the mood of the modern era. Before this, fashion photography underwent a protracted and ever-changing series of events. Thus, allowing us to evolve our knowledge and talents into something that involves a 3D element into something that seemed so trivial and complex a century ago.
Illustrators played a huge role in the fashion industry during the 18th and early 19th centuries. They were chosen to depict the clothes and models. Fashion houses were fearful of a new breed of image recorders: photographers. At a time when exclusivity rather than publicity drove the fashion industry, fashion houses were afraid that photographers would plagiarise their work. However because illustrators were completely washed-out by the 1920s, it fell to the newcomers to take over their task, inspired, strangely enough, by paintings and art.
Photographs started off as a reliable documentation of clothes. The images of fashion items were printed in magazines and were often hand-coloured, like a child's drawing today. This was during the eighteenth century when fashion houses were still huge, and only the rich went to get their clothes hand-tailored. The rest of the population bought their clothes at second hand-markets and fashion photography was not targeted at them. The first fashion photographs were of society models in their own clothes, most of whom practised the Parisienne look, a look favoured by the pioneers of fashion photography; these society models were women who had no other interest in life except being admired.
Slowly new techniques were developed, like Daguerreotype, a process which captured an image by employing an iodine-sensitised silver plate and mercury vapour. This technique was highly fragile and the image could be rubbed off with one swift movement of the finger-tip: clearly a relatively useless technique for the fashion industry, where the images needed to be long-lasting in order to promote certain fashion items.
Next came the Carte de Visite, a small business-card type photograph which was handed out to individuals and traded amongst others. It provided publicity for designers and, thanks to its size, was easy to carry around. Carte de Visite used the albumen print technique, a process that produces a photographic print on a paper base from a negative.
Soon enough, at the beginning of the 20th century and facilitated by the introduction of halftone printing, fashion photographs started to feature in magazines. This coincided with a boom in movies. Film production skyrocketed and regularly exceeded 800 movies a year - an amazing number, when we stop and realise that today we may be lucky to reach the 500 mark. Both these developments allowed for continued interest in evolving photography and innovative photographic processes. One of these, halftone printing, is the process of breaking up an image into tiny dots in order to reproduce the full tone of the chosen image. These tiny dots are actually fused together by the human eye to see a full plane of one colour.
In spite of these developments, fashion photography was still frowned upon because of its shallow and commercial nature. Edward Steichen, photographer at Vogue, symbolically destroyed all his canvases to focus on photography. Before long, photography merged with art movements like surrealism; the incorporation of the element of surprise, juxtapose and non-sequitur, meaning a lack of sequence and logic.
A very complex relationship between clothing and the fashion image had evolved. It was not simply about portraying the garment and how it should be worn, instead, the photographers wanted to evoke a feeling in the viewer. Building up a personal relationship necessitated manipulating and tricking the mind into believing the clothing items had to be bought in order for life to be fulfilled. The photographers wanted the viewer to be able to relate to their images and achieved this by knocking down the barriers. Humour supplanted nobility and the aura of untouchability was lifted.
Then WWII broke out, effectively closing down the whole industry. What happened after that? It’s a question I will leave you to ponder...