I worked with fashion photography from 1986 to approximately 1999 with some of the world’s leading fashion photographers. I sat looking at the catwalk in Paris, New York, Milan and London many times, as I witnessed the birth of the super model become the arrival of Grunge and Britpop. I sat at Alexander McQueen shows and the blandest of retail focused ‘designer’ shows. I’ve done a lot of fashion and as my wife says with irony “In fashion their are only victims!”
I understood the role of fashion photography in selling clothes, because just as food photography is created to sell you food, and music photography is created to sell you the band, fashion photography is about selling clothes and selling clothes is a serious business.
Fashion tribes set the agenda on the street and in the clubs as the ‘big’ name and upcoming designers created two collections a year. Fashion photographers worked with fashion editors to create the images that bought both world’s together with a sprinkling of high street to make the aspirational seem affordable. Everyone understood their role and some great work was created, both classic – think Coffin, Penn, Avedon, Ritts, Bailey, Horvat, Horst, Hoyningen-Huene, Sieff, Roversi, Lindbergh, Clarke – and by those that broke the rules, such as Newton, Duffy, Leiter, Knight, Frank, Klein, Richardson (Bob not Terry!), Toscani and Von Wagenheim for example. If you want to put all of this in some form of chronological order I highly recommend Martin Harrison’s brilliant history of fashion photography Appearances. But I digress…
As Bob Dylan said “I used to care but things have changed”, I have changed and so has fashion photography. I have been thinking recently about when and why the change began to happen, because there has been a change and I think it can be clearly put down to two photographers inspired by two other photographers in the very early 1990s. I believe the two photographers that began the change were Corrine Day and Jurgen Teller, the inspiration came from Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. I could also include Glen Lutchford but Glen was always more classic, more filmic than Corrine, more interested in the photography.
But I think I can be even more specific in pinpointing a turning point and that was with the images Teller created in 1997 for a series of three promotional flip books for the UK high street fashion brand Jigsaw. The brand took a big risk, with images of a man leaping from a building, falling from a bicycle and careering down concrete stairs all in high-contrast black and white to sell clothes. Professional stuntmen were used instead of models and the video footage from which the stills were taken – the images were still grabs from the moving footage – was shown on a loop in Jigsaw’s retail stores. The whole production echoed the sense of production and performance of the artist Yves Klein in his 1960 work Leap into the Void and the video performance of artists such as Bruce McLean and Gilbert and George in the early 1970s. In short it was about art not clothes.
So, why the change? Well, I guess it was about having a problem with being seen as a fashion photographer and selling clothes, and a desire to be seen as an artist within the contemporary art gallery space. More Eggleston, than Parkinson. More about the bracelet than the lighting, the mood rather than the brief, the ugly rather than the beautiful, the personal over the commercial. The art world was attractive to both young photographers and young stylists and fashion editors. It was perceived to be intellectually/creatively superior to retail and encouraged personal expression over fulfilling a brief. Fashion photographers emerged – many through Instagram – with no or little photographic training or understanding. Adored by the fashion industry eager to seem ‘clever’ and connected with the art scene, to them the process of using photography to sell clothes became less and less important. But of course it wasn’t and isn’t.
I don’t want this to seem like a history lesson but I do think it is important to understand the context of what I am about to say. I have been asked on a number of occasions to start/run/refresh courses within universities on fashion photography and each time I have declined the offer. Each time I have given the same reason, which is that fashion photography has changed and that you no longer need to study fashion photography to become a fashion photographer. Study photography by all means and that may help but it is not essential.
Fashion photography today is in a very confused state. Paid for commissioned fashion photography has to be about the clothes or at least go someway towards selling the clothes, selling an aspiration. If you buy these clothes you will look like this, live like this, feel like this person in the picture. Don’t and you won’t! We all have enough clothes, we don’t need to buy more but we need to believe that we do. That is the role of fashion photography but we are now in a situation where personal agendas/interests/investigations/passions/influences are leading work that is being presented as fashion photography by those describing themselves as fashion photographers.
The king and queen of this evolution are Ryan McGinley and Viviane Sassen, photographers whose work sits as comfortably in the gallery space as it does within a Levi’s ad or on the front cover of Frieze magazine. Interestingly, Sassen studied fashion design not photography and the retrospective book of her work is titled In and Out of Fashion. McGinley was a snowboard instructor who went on to study graphics, and had his first self-initiated exhibition of photographs aged twenty-three. Young fashion photographers now see themselves as artists not as commissionable photographers and I believe that is a problem for them and fashion photography. Creating images that make the clothes the hero and retaining a visual language is hard, creating images that ignore the clothes is easy.
The spark that instigated this article was a proliferation of articles exalting young fashion photographers on the I-D magazine website. I started to notice that despite being described as ‘fashion’ photographers the work that they were creating had no connection with clothes or the fashion industry. The work mainly consisted of highly personal documentations of a group of friends, often undressed, often sexually provocative or ambiguous, and in essence pale interpretations of the work created by McGinley. That’s fine and I am not commenting on the work itself other than to comment on its lack of originality but the bigger issue is that the work is uncommissionable.
It maybe interesting and challenging to some – repetitive and obvious to me – but to describe it as fashion photography misunderstands its required basic function. There are photographers such as Teller, McGinley and Sassen who can create work that transcends what is too often seen as ‘catalogue’ photography and retains an integrity that the luxury brands want to attach themselves to, but they are few and far between. The majority of the photographers attempting to emulate their success I am seeing are growing large Instagram followings, and putting their work in glossy, expensive, low-circulation independent magazines that are not paying them to be published. In fact some are charging the photographers to be published. Meanwhile, fashion brands and retailers are looking for photographers who can sell their clothes with creativity and understanding of the commercial reality of selling clothes.
Fashion photography is a business and like all business’s it has its rules, set by the clients that have to be understood by the photographers. The art world is the same. To straddle both demands intelligence, creativity and determination but most importantly an understanding of two sets of rules. To dismiss one in favour of the other only alienates one set of clients, and when that is the set of clients that holds the purse strings, that can be an expensive mistake.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.
© Grant Scott 2019