A Brief History of Fashion Photography

Join Park Studio’s Carola Rafowicz on a tour of the key moments in fashion photography

As a creative discipline, fashion photography has evolved along with photography itself. Changes in the perception of the aesthetic and social functions of photography, as well as technical advances and social changes, have given this discipline its versatile character.

Creative director Carola Rafowicz from Park (@parkcreative), an expert in the execution of projects and strategies for brands, production and fashion, gives us a brief account of the most emblematic moments in the history of fashion photography.

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Park | Creative Studio

The beginning

When photography was born, critics and artists questioned whether it could become an art form in itself or would simply be a mechanical way of capturing reality.

As photographers experimented and showed the possibilities and scope of this new art, photography acquired various nuances and uses. By the 20th century, fashion photography became a form of artistic expression in its own right; a visual art rather than an applied art.

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Daguerreotype camera The Giroux, 1839


Throughout art history, portraits have had the function of demonstrating the social status of aristocrats. With time, the portrait became more democratic and accessible to the common people. Something similar happened in photography. Countess Virginia de Castiglione, who was photographed in her luxurious dresses, is considered the first model in history.

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Jan van Eyck. Retrato de Arnolfini (1434)
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Portrait of the Countess of Castiglione (C. 1863-1866)

First fashion photographs

The original function of the fashion photo was utilitarian: it displayed fashion items in order to sell them. However, it later became an art, a way of expressing an individual's desires.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the first fashion photographs appeared in magazines, which until then were exclusively illustrated.

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Illustration in Mode Pratique (1907)
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Photograph in Mode Pratique

During the twenties and thirties, magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar began to feature models in clothing and accessories, taking the innovative decision to show them in poses and natural environments that brought the products closer to the final consumer.

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The birth of contemporary fashion photography

Photographer Martin Munkácsi, at Harper's Bazaar, introduced movement to fashion photography, and thus laid the foundation for contemporary trends. He also showed women with a more modern, dynamic, and fresh look. In his shots, clothes stop being an accessory to become a living element, a part of the models.

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Martin Munkácsi

Other photographers such as Man Ray and Horst P. Horst incorporated classic, modern, and theatrical styles, with a mix of the artistic avant-garde that questioned the traditional idea of beauty.

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Man Ray
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Horst P. Horst

Evolution in the 20th century

By the 1950s, the work of fashion photographers in New York, such as Irving Penn, who worked with Vogue, was turning heads. He placed the models in the center of the image, and he influenced the whole subsequent generation of fashion photographers.

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Irving Penn

Later, with the cultural and social revolutions of the seventies, fashion photography had to adapt too. Photographers like Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin emerged, influenced by what was happening in the world and seeking to comment on it, with stronger and more independent women.

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Helmut Newton
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Guy Bourdin

In the eighties, the focus was on consumer society, and fashion photography concentrated on advertising. Some of its biggest names included Patrick Demarchelier, Bruce Weber, and Oliviero Toscani.

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Oliviero Toscani

In the nineties, a more minimalist image became popular, and the phenomenon of supermodels blew up. Key figures included Peter Lindbergh, Mario Testino, David LaChapelle, Steven Meisel, and Nick Knight.

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Mario Testino


Later, an interest in less commercial and more artistic fashion photography has returned: photographers like Terry Richardson and Juergen Teller have begun to bring realism into their images once more.

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Juergen Teller

Since the beginning of the 21st century, fashion photographers have diversified as much as fashion itself, so there is no single predominant trend or technique.

David Sims, Tim Walker, Steven Klein, and Inez & Vinoodh are some of the biggest movers and shakers in fashion today. Instead of the big fashion magazines dictating the trends, they emerge in the social networks and independent blogs.

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Inez & Vinoodh
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Steven Klein

Learn more from Carola on her online course Art Direction for Fashion Photography and learn about a fashion campaign’s creative process, from the conceptualization to the final image.

English version by @acesarato.

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