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Groundbreaking Fashion Photographers: Part 3

One of the most popular American movies of the 2000s is The Devil Wears Prada, a comedy set within the cut-throat world of fashion at the fictional magazine Runway. Meryl Streep’s iconic character Miranda Priestly pays homage to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, as she plays the villain to Anne Hathaway’s fish-out-of-water Andrea Sachs.

Andrea is a true fashion novice who accepts the role of Priestly’s assistant with reluctance and desperation. She spends the first part of the film openly criticizing the fashion industry. That is, until Stanley Tucci’s character Nigel, a Runway editor, delivers an eye-opening lesson on what makes fashion so culturally significant.

In the clip below, we see Andrea seeking a bit of empathy and guidance from Nigel after she’s failed, again, to live up to Priestly’s incredible expectations. Much to Andrea’s chagrin, Nigel explains why it’s not her ineptitude that’s worsening her professional relationship with Priestly but her blase attitude towards the industry itself.

“Don’t you know that you are working at the place that published some of the greatest artists of the century? Halston, Lagerfeld, de la Renta. What they did, what they created, was greater than art — because you live your life in it,”

Nigel tells Andrea.

The scene is pivotal because it marks a change in Andrea’s perspective as she learns to adopt appreciation for the artistry of fashion and the significance of the fashion magazine as a cultural touchstone. Nigel emphasizes his point by stating,

“You have no idea how many legends have walked these halls. And what’s worse, you don’t care.”

One of those legends includes French fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier, whose name comes into play regularly throughout the film. In this way, the film reflects the symbiotic relationship between fashion design, photography and publication. All three play a crucial role in making fashion greater than art.

See how Demarchelier and the groundbreaking photographers below have helped define the world of fashion, documenting the work of legends who walk the halls of fashion magazines.

Patrick Demarchelier (b. 1943)

“The idea is always the same: Let people be themselves. You don’t want them to pose, or be self-conscious. The accident is the best picture — the one you’re not expecting.”

Demarchelier first picked up a camera when he was 17 years old, having received a Kodak Eastman for his birthday. He documented intimate moments of his life with family and friends before moving to Paris at age 20 and working at a photo lab and printing newspaper photographs. He soon became an assistant to Hans Feurer, a Swiss fashion photographer who worked for Vogue. It marked Demarchelier’s entry to the world of fashion where he would later become an iconic documentarian.

Demarachelier has moved consistently between photographing advertising campaigns for brands like Dior, Revlon, GAP, Chanel, Calvin Klein and Louis Vuitton, and publishing photos for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Newsweek and Rolling Stone. Unlike many of his contemporaries, and even other groundbreaking fashion photographers, Demarchelier’s aesthetic is not defined by a signature style or recognizable look. That’s because he focuses on capturing his subjects just as they are, however they appear, in whatever setting they are. He doesn’t limit his photography to preferences of environment, themes, moods or technical approach.

One of the most noteworthy chapters of Demarchelier’s artistic career is the time he spent as Princess of Wales Diana’s personal photographer. She’d been intrigued by his ability to document visual narratives, and he had always admired the way she smiled most genuinely when captured by paparazzi photographers. Demarchelier is responsible for capturing images of Diana that warmed the hearts of viewers around the world, in a small way helping her become “the people’s princess.”

Demarchelier is considered one of the most important photographers that Wintour looks to for Vogue (hence his name’s constant references in The Devil Wears Prada). She has said of him,

“Patrick takes simple photographs perfectly, which is of course immensely difficult. Working without ornate settings, often in black and white, he makes attractive women look beautiful and beautiful women seem real.”

Annie Leibovitz (b. 1949)

“Everyone has a point of view. Some people call it style, but what we’re really talking about is the guts of a photograph. When you trust your point of view, that’s when you start taking pictures.”

Even though she’s considered one of the most celebrated photographers of our time, American photographer Leibotivitz didn’t intend to become one at all. She was raised in Connecticut, studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institution and planned to become an art teacher. She took photography classes at night. But when she began working at Rolling Stone, she perfected her craft and established her niche.
She is best known now for capturing dramatic and stylized portraits of celebrities, aiming to create visual narratives that reflect her subject’s depth of personality.

There are many iconic photos to choose from in Leibowitz’s profound body of work, but perhaps one of the most poignant is her image of nude John Lennon curled around clothed Yoko Ono in bed. It was for the cover of Rolling Stone, and it was taken on Dec. 8, 1980, only hours before Lennon was killed in New York. The issue has become a veritable collector’s item as one of the last photos of the Beatle that was ever taken.

Leibovitz has contributed lasting images that stir conversations around celebrity and pop culture. Her portraits have covered Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue numerous times. Among her most iconic portraits include a pregnant and nude Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub full of milk, RuPaul Charles in a crystal-beaded leotard, Meryl Streep wearing a cosmetic facial mask and Caitlyn Jenner seated on a stool and wearing a corset. Other celebrities that have sat for her include Adele, Woody Allen, David Beckham, Hillary Clinton, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Johnny Depp, Queen Elizabeth II, Rihanna, Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour, among many others.

It’s fair to say that Leibovitz is a household name, state-side. Her images both typify and influence the people at the front of the pop culture zeitgeist. She’s published numerous photo books, including Women, American Music, Annie Leibovitz at Work, Shooting Stars: The Rolling Stone Book of Portraits and several collections of portraits.

Corinne Day (1962-2010)

“What I found interesting was to capture people’s most intimate moments. And sometimes intimacy is sad.”

Day entered the fashion industry with a remarkably original backstory. The British photographer was raised in London by her grandmother, and her mother had owned a brothel. She wrote in an autobiography,

“I left school at 16 with barely any education. All I wanted to do was travel but I had no money. I got a trainee job at a bank which made me laugh because my dad was a professional bank robber.”

She began dating a man when she was 18 who traveled internationally as a courier and loved photography. She secured a job as a courier alongside him, worked as a fashion model, and eventually learned how to use the camera herself.

In 1989, Day returned to London and began photographic work with The Face magazine. Her aesthetic was radical by the fashion industry’s standards — she photographed everyday London youth, untouched and unstyled, who were deeply embedded in the grunge scene. When she was introduced to 15-year-old Kate Moss, an undiscovered model who seemed an unlikely fit in the fashion industry, she instantly felt connected to her. In July 1990, her photo of Moss on the cover of The Face catapulted both women to notoriety.

Day’s artistic aesthetic came to symbolize the world of 1990s youth. Moss, who was thin and petite with prominent bone structure, was often captured smoking cigarettes and immersed inside her own thoughts. She typified the “waif” look, also known as “heroin chic.” This look was integral to Day’s signature style: She bucked fashion glamour in favor of gritty realism, teenage melancholy and an underground culture of rock music, drugs and urban street life.

The mid-90s marked a turning point in Day’s personal and professional life. After suffering a collapse, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to seek treatment. For the sake of financial support, she delivered fashion photos that were less gritty and more glossy. She shot for Vogue, Telegraph Magazine, i-D, Nova, Mixte, Rolling Stone and Elle. She still retained echoes of her original aesthetic, though, and didn’t completely lose sight of her roots. She photographed celebrities like Moby, Beck, Helen Mirren, Sofia Coppola and Tilda Swinton. In 2010, she passed away from cancer.

Paolo Roversi (b. 1947)

“Photography goes beyond the limits of reality and illusion. It brushes up against another life, another dimension, revealing not only what is there but what is not there.”

Born in Ravenna, Italy, Roversi discovered his passion for photography as a teenager. He set up his own darkroom at home and dedicated himself to apprenticing a local professional to understand the craft. Just 10 years after being bitten by the shutterbug, he began working as an assistant to British photographer Lawrence Sackmann. Shortly after, he began working in photojournalism and providing work for the Associated Press. His first assignment was to cover Ezra Pound’s funeral in Venice.

Roversi opened a portrait studio in his home town in 1970. By chance, he met Peter Knapp, Elle magazine art director, at this time period. When Knapp invited him to Paris in 1973, Roversi accepted and soon called the city home.
He began forging his career in fashion photography, establishing his signature style with classic portraiture that was made dreamy by creative lighting techniques and manipulation. His work is simultaneously elegant and dark, and ethereal and raw.

One of Roversi’s trademarks is long exposure, giving the still image a sense of movement and elapsed time. It gives the picture a surreal and highly editorial feeling — an artistically exciting blend of characteristics. Roversi has explained that this technique intensifies the subject:

“The presence is much stronger, much deeper — in the aura, in the eyes, there is something. Maybe the soul is coming into the eyes.”

Between advertising and fashion editorials, Roversi has become a prominent name in the fashion world. His commercial work includes such clientele as Dior, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent and Alberta Ferretti. He’s produced work for Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, i-D, Interview, Marie Claire, Vogue and W., among others. He continues to work and live in Paris.


Fashion photography is far more than a simple snapshot of garments. As Nigel describes in The Devil Wears Prada, fashion itself is “greater than art because you live your life in it.” And the artists behind the lens contribute just as significant a point of view as those who craft the clothing. These photographers above are each known for their own take on documenting this incredibly rich field of design and artistry, punctuating the significance of a sartorial narrative through their innovative modes of visual documentation. Want to read about more of them? Check out parts one and two!

Groundbreaking Fashion Photographers: Part 1

In an interview for the 2021 documentary In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye, the iconic Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour describes the sartorial medium as follows:

“Fashion can tell you everything about what’s going on in the world — with a strong fashion image.”

Photographs of models dressed in designer clothing convey far more than just a garment. They’re an emotive reflection of a social and cultural moment in time, offering a dreamlike portal to the period of its creation. Like all art forms, fashion photography at its core is about storytelling. Flipping through the pages of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar can stir the same exploratory wonder of visiting an art gallery.

Women’s fashion experienced a key moment of change after World War II. Models in the first half of the century embodied classic beauty and style on par with elite society, and photography itself was more in line with portraiture. During the 1950s, the luxury of women’s fashion expanded its reach and became more attainable for magazine readers in different facets of society.

This glamorous new era launched the careers of the industry’s most iconic photographers, and their work continues to inspire today.

Richard Avedon (1923-2004)

“If each photograph steals a bit of the soul, isn’t it possible that I give up pieces of mine every time I take a picture?”

Richard Lee/New York Post Archives

Born and raised in New York City, Avedon forged a groundbreaking career in fashion and portrait photography. He began his freelance career as a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar at the age of 22. He captured images of models in candid motion at uncommon locations like the streets, the beach and even the circus. Inspired deeply by the person in front of the lens, Avedon aimed to portray subjects’ personal characteristics as they revealed themselves in real time.

The Avedon Foundation writes of Avedon in a biography:

“He was fascinated by photography’s capacity for suggesting the personality and evoking the life of his subjects. He registered poses, attitudes, hairstyles, clothing and accessories as vital, revelatory elements of an image. He had complete confidence in the two-dimensional nature of photography, the rules of which he bent to his stylistic and narrative purposes.”

Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris August 1955
© 2021 The Richard Avedon Foundation

One of Avedon’s most prolific photographs reflects the transition of fashion in the 1950s. He photographed Dovima, an American model, interacting with live elephants. Taken in 1955, the image reveals the intersection of two fashion worlds: the era of classic haute couture and the era of the everyday glamorous woman.

The Independent Photographer describes the impact of the image:

“By juxtaposing the strength of the elephants with the delicacy of Dovima’s body and gown — the first dress by Dior that was designed by Yves Saint Laurent — the picture also brings movement to a medium which had, until that point, been typified by stillness.”

Avedon’s point of view revealed how portrait photography can deepen the emotive impact of a fashion photograph, elevating it from an advertisement of apparel to an image of a model who evokes more than the brand or design but the feelings within it. His work was published in such Life, Look, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and many others.

Ellen von Unwerth (b. 1954)

“I like to photograph anyone before they know what their best angles are.”

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, von Unwerth entered the entertainment industry after high school when she joined a circus. She performed stunts and assisted in magic shows. A photographer at this time spotted her and asked if she would be a mode, and she moved to Paris when she was 20 to begin her career. For 10 years, she was immersed in the fashion industry.

While von Unwerth was a successful model, it wasn’t until she received a camera as a gift that she began exploring life behind the lens. She had already felt that models needed more freedom and consideration while being photographed, and this led to her doing an impromptu photo shoot of her own while working in Africa. She captured the models on the shoot from her own perspective and discovered she had a talent for achieving the creative atmosphere she’d been desiring as a model.

It was in 1989 that von Unwerth catapulted herself into the fashion photography industry with a single image. She shot an ad for Guess that featured a then-unknown model, Claudia Schiffer, outfitted in jeans, a Western-style belt and scarf, while a man in a cowboy hat watches her. Schiffer almost seems caught off-guard in the image, her eyes gazing slightly off-camera, but she stands bold and confident in foreground — a feminine sexual appeal that became von Unwerth’s signature style.

Both Schiffer and von Unwerth skyrocketed to the top of the industry, with Schiffer becoming one of her generation’s most successful supermodels, and with von Unwerth carving a creative niche that was characterized by empowered models and feminine sexuality. The photographer’s work has spanned leading publications like Vanity Fair, The Face, Vogue, i-D and others. She continues to work today, capturing models for major cosmetics and fashion brands.

Von Unwerth’s foundation as a model-turned-photographer brings a level of agency for the model to the forefront of the image. The subjects are not just bodies in front of her camera: they have an equally important role in bringing their emotive skills to the image. The model is just as important as the photographer.

Helmut Newton (1920-2004)

“I hate good taste. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a creative person.”

Newton’s work is practically synonymous with fashion photography. The German-Australian visionary has long been considered one of the most influential figures in the industry, contributing to British Vogue, Australian Vogue, French Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Playboy, Queen and other seminal publications. He was born as Helmut Neustädter in Berlin, his family fled to Singapore in 1938 before being interned by authorities and sent to Australia, and he served in the Australian army for five years. He changed his surname to Newton in 1946, and he opened a photography studio in Europe in the 1950s.

If there’s one word that describes Newton’s approach to fashion photography, it’s radical. He had a subversive preoccupation with nude figures, and he accentuated the mood of his photographs with dramatic lighting and sexually charged atmospheres. Much of his work portrayed women in provocative situations, capturing their movements with a voyeuristic lens that pushed the envelope, to say the least. His images were intentionally focused on gender and sexuality, and he often emphasized feelings of femininity and masculinity.

Woman Examining Man by Helmut Newton

Among his many iconic photographs is “Woman Examining Man, 1975.” It was a work that titillated the public for its portrayal of a woman’s sexual gaze. In the image, a woman sits on a couch dressed comfortably in a dress, her legs open in a masculine manner, gazing at a man in the foreground who wears only pants. The erotic nature of the scene stirred the masses considerably, as it reversed traditional assumptions of gender dominance. It’s quintessentially Newton-esque.

For his part, Newton didn’t shy away from the spectrum of sexuality that was often hidden from view. His work represents the way sexuality and gender play a role in the way we live our lives and the ways we express  private. Capturing those moments and emotions prompts inward consideration of how we do that ourselves. He published photography books titled White Women, Big Nudes and World Without Men. Throughout his career, he photographed the likes of Cindy Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Julia Roberts, Andy Warhol, David Bowie and Twiggy.

Deborah Turbeville (1932-2013)

“In my pictures, you never know, that’s the mystery. It’s just a suggestion and you leave it to the audience to put what they want on it. It’s fashion in disguise.”

American photographer Turbeville cut her teeth in the fashion industry in the 1950s as a designer’s assistant, sample model and magazine editor for Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle. She was admittedly uninterested in editorial work, and in the 1960s, she trained herself in photography under the tutelage of Richard Avedon. She is widely remembered for capturing a more feminine perspective and introducing a dark aesthetic that unsettled and delighted viewers at the same time.

Until Turbeville’s breakthrough in the 1970s, fashion photography was relatively clean, polished and well-lit. Turbeville introduced an avant-garde approach that featured models with somber expressions, existing in sparse spaces and somewhat gloomy environments. Perhaps her most famous image (or infamous, depending on who you ask) is her 1975 photo of five women in an abandoned bath house. Dressed in white swimwear and attire, the subjects cast scattered gazes around the frame in a seemingly incongruous manner. Their expressions are deeply internal, and the scene itself implies the absence of a welcome onlooker.

From the Bath House Series, Vogue, 1975

Turbeville’s photography is often called haunting, dreamy, theatrical and gritty. The New Yorker describes her work as having “a visionary quality, as if these women, these places, were hallucinated, not documented.” Fashion designs, in Turbeville’s world, were ancillary to the subjects captured.

She almost exclusively shot in black and white or sepia tone, and she enjoyed turning traditional photo prints on their head by distressing the negatives. It wasn’t rebellion for the sake of rebellion — Turbeville worked from a deeply emotional place. “In what kind of mood would a woman be, wearing whatever? I go into a woman’s private world, where you never go,” she told The New York Times in 1977. In this way, Turbeville exposed the fashion world (and even the art world, the literary world and the readers of magazines) to a woman’s psyche. If male-driven photography favored how women look from the outside, Turbeville showed us how they feel on the inside and how fashion can embody that.

In the world of photography, fashion has become one of the most artistically charged forms of media. It renders a perspective of the world through more than clothing — it embodies a mood reflective of people and society at a certain point in time, and it relies on the marriage of narrative perspective and technical prowess on the part of the photographer. If fashion itself tells a story, then fashion photography is its much-anticipated sequel.


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