In 1975, The New York Times was ready to weigh in on the value of fashion photography. An unnamed critic, roaming the gallery exhibition “Fashion Photography: Six Decades,” observed “swooning prima donnas” and “tough women in mink coats giving the clenched fist salute.” The critic admired “stately, constrained debutantes” and quite possibly ogled “women who caress each other.”
Ultimately, the critic was forced to admit that there was something interesting going on here. These collective walls were witness to, the critic wrote, the “changing attitudes towards women and the changing attitudes of women toward themselves.”
Other critics weighed in on the artistic credibility of the form, which was beginning to earn acclaim even among stubborn traditionalists. “Here, as elsewhere in the arts,” Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times, “the need is for discrimination rather than wholesale promotion.” Kramer considered Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn first-class talents. Man Ray’s work, on the other hand, was “without distinction.” And the extensive oeuvre of Richard Avedon? “Positively boring.”
Avedon, boring!? Author Michael Gross would disagree (as would legions of Avedon fans). Avedon is an artist among rogues in Gross’s new book, Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photography. A follow-up to his 1995 bestseller, Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, this nearly 400-page history chronicles the development of fashion photography through the lives of the photographers. Mostly men, they were drawn to the field by the lure of money, glamour, artistic expression, and, of course, women (or men). In short, they were drawn by the same damn reasons that make this book such a delicious read.
Focus is sweeping if not exhaustive; thoughtful, but not a work of criticism. It concentrates on the “glory days” of fashion photography, from 1947 to 1997, and traces the rise and the fall of the celebrity photographer. Unfortunately for them, the fall occurs more swiftly than the rise. “The creative life of a commercial photographer is like the life of a butterfly,” said Alexey Brodovitch, Harper’s Bazaar art director from 1934 to 1958. “Very seldom do we see a photographer who continues to be really productive for more than eight or 10 years.”
There are exceptions, of course. Avedon and Irving Penn top this list. But others have had to fit a lot of impact into relatively short careers. In 1913, just over 100 years ago, Vogue hired its first staff photographer, Baron Adolf de Meyer. At the time, his romantic, pictorialist vision—washed with dreams and light—was the first and last word in fashion photography. Look up his pictures and you’ll see how much has changed. Today’s fashion images are built on 20th century imaginations—each noteworthy photographer contributed a new possibility or perspective. Avedon merged movement and elegance. For Irving Penn it was attitude. Bert Stern believed that “technique isn’t really important.” His goal? “A believable moment.” Bruce Weber was the first to objectify men, forcing people to confront their “prejudices and fears and nudge … into acceptance of the whole spectrum of sexual preference,” Gross explains. And the list goes on and on.
But successful fashion photographers do share one quality: They have mastered the zeitgeist. That’s why, back in 1975, The New York Times critic found the “changing attitudes towards women” so clearly represented in the fashion photography exhibit. Sometimes these new visions can be a bit alarming. Enter Helmut Newton. His proclivity for the erotic, dominating female was camera-ready in 1975, when Vogue published his 14-page spread, the “Story of Oh-h-h!.” In one scene, model Lisa Taylor sits with her legs spread slightly, eyeing the crotch of a man who stood sexy and shirtless in front of her. Some expressed outrage, while for others it was reason to cheer. “It was women’s lib, remember,” chides Jade Hobson of Vogue. Let’s not forget the sexual revolution, as well.
And then there was Bert Stern, the prolific genius who revolutionized the idea of the photographer. The inspiration for the leading character in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), Stern “helped to establish the commercial photographer as the celebrity.” He was already a successful advertising photographer when approached to work for Vogue in 1959. By 1962 he was married to ballerina Allegra Kent, sleeping around with abandon and shooting legendary nudes of Marilyn Monroe. As Gross explains, “His overt heterosexuality was still a novelty … The stylish elite were being elbowed aside by people such as Stern: nobodies from nowhere going somewhere.” By 1965 he was running a photography studio with billings of approximately $500,000 a year and shooting speed delivered to him in blue Tiffany’s boxes. By 1971 he had lost everything except the drug habit; he was “bullfighting with shadows,” Kent wrote in her memoirs.
Gross sees the age of the celebrity photographer coming to an end. He considers Terry Richardson, fashion’s reigning predator, the symbol of decline. “If the book begins to describe how we get from Richard Avedon to Terry Richardson,” Gross writes, “it will have done the job I set out to do.” But according to art director Fabien Baron, Richardson’s style is simply doing what fashion photography does: capturing the zeitgeist. “The subject matter of fashion has been used,” Baron says. “It’s hard to find a niche. Terry is relevant because he takes throwaway pictures that match the throwaway qualities of today with digital and computers and Instagram. It’s not a fashion picture, but Terry is now. He matches his time.”
“How many years are we into the idea of the modern fashion photograph?” asks art director Ronnie Cook Newhouse. “Almost sixty? We’re jaded. We’ve seen so much, and with the internet, nothing is left. It’s harder and harder to create something new. What’s new is that [we] aren’t that interested. And in a funny way, we’re not shockable anymore. Decapitated heads are the provocative images of our time. Fashion can’t compete.”
But it will continue to try.