In 1938, a cross Edna Woolman Chase, then editor of Vogue magazine, wrote a note to
her staff photographers. ‘Show the dress’, she scribbled. ‘Concentrate completely on
showing the dress, light it for this purpose and if that can’t be done with art then art be
damned.’ But to no avail.
(…) The difference between a precise, mechanical reproduction of a body or piece of
clothing and an artistic rendering of the same is, after all, indisputable. Half-lights,
shadows and fleeting impressions can be far more effective than masses of detail. Painters
realised this long ago, perfecting over the centuries a succession of sleights of hand and
conjuring that go towards creating a beauty far superior to that with which we are familiar
in the real world (…).
Charged with making things eye-catching over and again, fashion photographers have
hard work to do. They must create an illusion, yet steer clear of dishonesty. They must tell
some of the story, but not all of it, so that the viewer will join in the game, completing
what has been started, recognising hints and citations — even if only subconsciously.
All this so viewers can envisage themselves in the scene, and take a vested interest in its
contents. They end by seeing what they should, rather than what is really there, because
the photographer has painted ‘not the thing, but the effect it produces’, in the words of
poet Stéphane Mallarmé (…).
Edward Steichen might have laid claim to having taken the first fashion photographs,
formal gowns designed by Paul Poiret for the magazine Art et Décoration in 1911 — but in
reality fashion and photography first began to dovetail in the 1850s, with the carte de
visite. These immensely popular photographic calling cards used both gestures and
clothing — doffing one’s hat or holding gloves, for example — to denote the sitter’s class
and aspirations.
Some of the earliest photographers deliberately tried to achieve a painterly look in order to
separate photography as art from the scientific ends to which it had been applied. Softfocus and hand-working the negative lent artistically inclined photographers such as Julia
Margaret Cameron and David Octavius Hill the means to transcend the purely descriptive
Around 1890, a few brave pioneers in the fashion community began to understand that as
well as recording a garment, a photograph could actually advance an opinion or peddle a
lifestyle. Static, saturnine figures were replaced by expressive, leisure-loving beauties.
Art movements, particularly Surrealism, had a profound effect. Condé Nast rather
encouraged his magazines to engage with and employ artists, and, from the 1920s and
30s, paintings by Dalí and de Chirico featured in Vogue alongside avant-garde photographs
by Man Ray, all of which gave photographers carte blanche to join the party.
Fashion had been an important aspect of painted portraiture from its earliest incarnations.
Michael Thompson, Erwin Blumenfeld and Irving Penn have all recreated Old Master
paintings in painstaking detail, and, in the case of Thompson and Penn, use well-known
actresses to add a contemporary twist (…).
Lucy Davies, Editor for Art & Photography, The Telegraph