According to reports it started as a dare between two friends. In 1911, Lucien Vogel, an influential French magazine publisher, proposed that photographer Edward Steichen promote fashion photography as fine art … or so the story goes.
Vogel’s dare resulted in photos of gowns by couturier Paul Poiret for Art et Décoration in what became known as the first modern fashion photographs ever published. In turn, Steichen was propelled to further prominence in the world of photography.
Steichen’s diverse portfolio of landscapes, architecture, portraiture, and war photos had already proved his excellence. He had commanded the photographic division of the U.S. Army during WWI, and one of his closest friends and early supporters was Alfred Stieglitz, founder of the infamous 291 Gallery, which was responsible for helping introduce European artists like Matisse, Picasso, and Brancusi to the U.S. But his fashion photographs, with their theatrical lighting and design, were revolutionary in both style and format.
These photographs were published in the April 1911 issue of the magazine Art et Décoration. According to Jesse Alexander, This is “now considered to be the first ever modern fashion photography shoot. That is, photographing the garments in such a way as to convey a sense of their physical quality as well as their formal appearance, as opposed to simply illustrating the object.
In 1867 Harper’s Bazaar fashion magazine was first published. Aimed at members of the upper-middle and upper classes, Bazaar assembles photographers, artists, designers and writers to deliver perspectives into the world of fashion, beauty and popular culture on a monthly basis. Then in 1892 Arthur Turnure founded Vogue as a weekly newspaper in the United States, sponsored by Kristoffer Wright; the first issue was published on December 17 of that year, with a cover price of 10 cents.
The two companies were leaders in the field of fashion photography throughout the 1920s and 1930s. House photographers such as Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene, Horst P. Horst and Cecil Beaton transformed the genre into an outstanding art form.
In the mid-1930s as World War II approached, the focus shifted to the United States, where Vogue and Harper’s continued their old rivalry. In 1936, Martin Munkacsi made the first photographs of models in sporty poses at the beach. Under the artistic direction of Alexey Brodovitch, Harper’s Bazaar quickly introduced this new style into its magazine.
House photographers such as Irving Penn, Martin Munkacsi, Richard Avedon, and Louise Dahl-Wolfe would shape the look of fashion photography for the following decades. Richard Avedon revolutionized fashion photography — and redefined the role of the fashion photographer — in the post-World War II era with his imaginative images of the modern woman.
Moving onward, what had previously been the flourishing and sizeable industry of fashion photography all but stopped due to the beginnings of World War II. The United States and Europe quickly diverged from one another. What had previously been a togetherness and inspired working relationship divulged as Paris was occupied and London under siege.
Paris, the main fashion-power house of the time quickly became isolated from the United States—especially with French Vogue shutting down for a brief hiatus in 1940. With these changes, the photography based out of the USA gained a distinct Americana vibe. Models often posed with flags, American brand cars, and generally just fulfilling the American ideal.
What did remain of the French and British fashion photography on the other hand often had a wartime overlay to the content. Cecil Beaton’s ‘Fashion is Indestructible’ from 1945 displays a well-dressed woman viewing the rubble that once was Middle Temple in London. Similarly, Lee Miller began taking photos of women in Paris and London, modeling the latest designs for gas masks and bicycling with pincurlers in their hair, as they did not have electricity with which to curl their hair.
Many felt that fashion photography, during wartime especially, was frivolous and unnecessary. Yet, the few who worked to preserve the industry did so in new and inventive ways throughout the duration of the war.
THERE WERE OTHERS before her, but none that crossed over into the mainstream. In 1950s America Helen Williams became the first black female fashion model to do just that. Born in East Riverton, New Jersey in 1937, she was obsessed with clothes from an early age, and began sewing her own garments at the age of seven. As a teenager she studied dance, drama and art before getting a job as a stylist at a New York photography studio. While there she was spotted on separate occasions by Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr, who happened to be in the studio doing press shots. Struck by her beauty, they urged her to take up fashion modelling at the tender age of 17. It was a pivotal moment in black beauty history, as Williams’s success broke the tradition. She was the first African American supermodel to break down the barier. She went on to become an inspiration for other African American models.