From illustrations to iPhones: Fashion photography's history (abridged)

Updated 11th February 2016
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From illustrations to iPhones: Fashion photography's history (abridged)
Written by Carrie Scott, for CNN
This article was commissioned by CNN Style contributing editor Nick Knight. Knight is the founder and director SHOWStudio and a British photographer.
The business of making magazines is changing. Something is rumbling below the bedrock of the glossies we've all loved for so long and it has a lot to do with social media platforms like Instagram and Tumblr -- where models have more followers than the brands they are promoting, or the magazines they once relied on for exposure.
But to understand the future of fashion photography, as it sits within this shift, we must first examine its past.

Before cameras there was paper

Just over 100 years ago every image in Vogue was an illustration -- a drawing to capture the latest frock and accessory, a sketch of the hottest shoe. With advances in photography, however, magazines realized they had a new tool to illustrate the latest trends in fashion.
Legend purports that Baron Adolph de Meyer was commissioned by the magazine as their first photographer, though some claim Edward Steichen is actually responsible for taking the first serious fashion photographs a few years before. Regardless of who started it, the history of Fashion Photography begins here and for some 20 years their elegant pictures reigned across the pages of Vogue.
But the dynamic of creating art for a commissioning body or client, has the potential to be restrictive.
Fashion Photography, as a genre, was relatively slow to work this out and for the next two decades, the Fashion Photographer existed primarily for the magazine or brand.

How a sports photographer changed the game

Don't get me wrong, there were some epic compositions along the way, and a number of photographers who pushed the aesthetic of the genre beyond just a means to exhibit clothes. In 1936 a little-known Hungarian sports photographer, Martin Munkácsi, moved to New York.
A short while later, Munkácsi signs on with Harper's Bazaar. He brought his own unique aesthetic, learned from primarily shooting athletes, to the fashion world, often leaving the studio to shoot models outdoors, in dynamic poses on the beach, on farms, airports and fields. Essentially Munkácsi changed the game.

Post-war ushers in experimentation

In 1940 French Vogue was forced to go on hiatus due to the Nazi occupation of France during the War. Because of this, American titles like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar became the new home for Fashion Photography. They set the stage for the likes of Lillian Bassman and Richard Avedon to excel in experimentation.
By the mid 1950s Avedon had shot a number of, now iconic, compositions like "Dovima with Elephants," -- a wonderfully provocative image which went on to become the most expensive fashion photograph ever to sell at auction in November of 2010, for $1.15M.

Celebrity models are born

In Avedon, Bassman and British photographer David Bailey's hands the character in the work became increasingly important. In the sixties the celebrity model was born, epitomised by Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton.
Model Gigi Hadid is one of the industry's most recognizable celebrity models today. She has over 13 million followers on Instagram.
Model Gigi Hadid is one of the industry's most recognizable celebrity models today. She has over 13 million followers on Instagram. Credit: Fulvio De Filippi/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
A new precedent on portraiture started to dominate, as did the celebrity photographer. Throughout the 1960s you therefore have the likes of David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy rubbing shoulders with actors, musicians and royalty.
In this sense the market for selling Fashion Photography really began to take off, as the profile of the photographer matched, and often surpassed, their subjects.

Female photographers offer different aesthetic

As the feminist movement started to emerge in the 1970s, a handful of female photographers were able to define a contrasting aesthetic to the traditional male gaze. Sarah Moon, Deborah Turbeville and Lillian Bassman each crafted elegant bodies of work with an abstract, atmospheric quality that went well beyond the poised portraits of the previous decade.
Sadly with the eighties came a general backlash against feminism, and the fashion world was no exception. Whereas the 70s saw a gentle shift in aesthetics and a small handful of women becoming prominent photographers in their own right, the 80s was dominated by commercialism, the glamorization of sex, and Supermodels. Glossy red lips, high-waisted jeans and a lot of skin -- "sex sells" was the mantra of the era.

Grittier images emerge in the 80s

As a reaction to the highly polished images embodied throughout the 80s, a grittier documentary style of photography started to emerge. This raw aesthetic, most obviously linked to Juergen Teller, Nan Goldin and Corrine Day, caused controversy, as it appeared to glamorize low-culture and substance abuse, resulting in the term: "heroin chic."
At the same time, established photographers like Irving Penn and Helmut Newton continued to dominate the field, while new artists like Nick Knight, Steven Meisel, and Mario Testino began to get recognized.
Here's when the paradigm started to shift. There were now so many photographers working with such different compositional values that the field opened up. With more commissioning bodies than ever -- from the old guard like Vogue and Harper's to newer titles like Elle, Vanity Fair, GQ and more underground publications such as Garage, The Face and Dazed & Confused -- photographers like Steven Meisel, Mario Testino, Annie Leibovitz, David Sims, Nick Knight and Glen Luchford were all able to hone their own distinct styles.

Technological advances have opened the field

With technological advances -- on the Internet and across social media platforms -- photographers began to have more avenues than ever to show their work. A key example of this was when Nick Knight launched his own website,, in 2000 allowing him to create work that didn't need to be commissioned by commercial clients. This groundbreaking online platform was a place to experiment, and soon other photographers followed suit.
In 2010 a new social media channel called Instagram launched. The general public now had their own platforms to create and publish work, creating yet another layer to Fashion Photography.
No longer positioned solely in the pages of a glossy, or across billboards -- some campaigns are even shot entirely for online use -- Fashion Photography has changed almost completely. It's taken 100 years, but almost all the boundaries are now broken.
Some might say that this is where the Fashion Photography story ends, and where a new genre of image making will begin. I, for one, am enjoying watching its continued, and no doubt eventful, evolution.