To anyone in the fashion and publication industry, Diana Vreeland is a household name. She was the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and she established herself as a highly influential industry icon. In a documentary about her life and career, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, she says,
“Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.”
In such few words, Vreeland articulates the significance of fashion reporting and artistic appreciation. The art form is an expression of identity as well as social and cultural moments. Fashion photographers are the documentarians of both, exactly the way photojournalists are as they capture events and stories. Through the creative expression of this visual medium, we understand the role fashion plays in reflecting culture and society. The four photographers below have been integral to shaping the very nature of that medium. They forged lasting images and established new perspectives that document how we live our lives at any moment in time through what we wear.
Regina Relang (1906-1989)
“Masterly composed, poetic, and extraordinarily elegant photos from the world of fashion were Regina Relang’s hallmark.”
Before fashion photography could be revolutionized, it needed to be established as its own medium. Few photographic artists did that with as much influence as Relang.
With her body of work, she epitomized the feminine ideal with glamorous haute couture images that featured the likes of Yves Saint-Laurent, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior. She was self-taught as both a fashion photographer and photojournalist, forging a career that began in 1938 when she published photos in the French, American and British editions of Vogue.
Relang held a unique position in the world of fashion: She was embedded in the world before, during and after the 1950s. The decade marks the turning point in women’s fashion as couture clothing and fashion publications began trickling down to middle-class consumers, paving the way towards accessible glamour. Relang documented the evolution yet stayed true to her photographic approach of a high-end sartorial aesthetic.
With undeniable elegance, Relang captured images of haute couture femininity with a feeling of whimsy. The evening gowns, cocktail dresses, daytime ensembles and accessories were the priorities in her photographs — and the women who adorned them seem to have fallen in love with the garments, emanating sheer delight while wearing them. More often than not, Relang’s photos carried a happy and joyous mood presented with a cheeky and understated power.
Considered the go-to photographer of Parisian haute couture, Relang’s work was regularly featured in American and European publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Die Dame, Madame, Film und Frau and Constanze.
David Bailey, CBE (b. 1938)
“You treat each person as an individual…You adapt to who you’re photographing. It’s their personality, not mine I want.”
Bailey is thought of today as one of the greatest living portrait photographers. Pop-cultural history at large recognizes him as one of the most revolutionary fashion photographers who not only captured the spirit of “Swinging London” in the 1960s but influenced its very existence. He began his career in 1959 when he assisted photographers at the John French Studio, and before long, he was contracted as a freelance fashion photographer for British Vogue.
With an eccentric personality and a stripped-down portrait aesthetic, Bailey skyrocketed to relevance. He photographed the upper echelon of celebrity and style, from actors to musicians to supermodels, embracing a wildly wonderful time period of cultural rebellion. Based on his candid photography and immersion in the celebrity world, he popularized the figure of the paparazzi photographer who documents the social lives of famous folks. His lifestyle directly influenced the seminal film Blow-Up.
Artsy remarks that Bailey’s signature style “broke down barriers of class and race” with a “youthful, punk aesthetic.” This can easily be seen in the way Bailey captured his subjects as larger than life — and more significant than what they were wearing. Before he made his mark on the industry, fashion photography hardly favored close-up framing in the style of portraiture. Bailey, however, changed that. Look no further than his 1964 portrait of Mick Jagger: With its tight framing and command of the camera, the viewer is drawn first to Jagger’s eyes and facial expression. The fur of his hood, which actually dominates the image, is secondary.
Without a doubt, Bailey has reimagined the way photographers capture fashion, culture and individuality at the same time. His decades-long career includes work with leading magazines and fashion publications, and he co-founded the U.K.’s stylish Ritz Newspaper. He’s published several photo books, earned a Lifetime Achievement award from the International Center of Photography and received the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II.
Irving Penn (1917-2009)
“Many photographers feel their client is the subject. My client is a woman in Kansas who reads Vogue. I’m trying to intrigue, stimulate, feed her.”
If photography is documentation, then Penn’s work elevated it to a fine art form for the fashion world. He dreamed of being a painter while growing up, and he translated his artistic techniques to photography when he began studying under photographer and art director Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. A short while later, he began working for Vogue as an art director while nurturing his interest in fashion photography.
Penn’s career took off in the early 1950s. He carved a niche for himself in the fashion world for sophisticated and astonishingly clear portraiture. The studio was always the ideal place for Penn to capture models, as he favored sparse backgrounds over props and decor, and sleek minimalism over grandeur scenery. When traveling for Vogue, he preferred to capture his subjects outdoors and in natural light, capturing the essence of the models.
In 1950, Penn photographed model Jean Patchett for the cover of Vogue in a style that’s true to his visually striking aesthetic. It features a clean, blank background that’s free of any distractions. The deep contrast between black and white is overwhelmingly noticeable, grabbing the viewer’s attention immediately. Because of the way Penn framed and arranged the shot, the details and textures of Patchett’s garments and accessories are all the more noticeable and visually appealing, which is most certainly the goal of fashion photography.
Penn didn’t limit his photography to the realm of fashion. He regularly shot portraits of celebrities and still life photographs. In the 1960s and ‘70s, he revived an old photographic printing process (platinum printing) which had been used in the 19th century. This revival led to a renaissance of sorts for artistic photography, and his influence rippled across the art world. Penn published numerous photo books and worked for several publications through photo shoots and advertising.
He also published such books as Inventive Paris Clothes, 1909-1939: A Photographic Essay by Irving Penn; Flowers; Passage: A Work Record; Moments Preserved: Eight Essays in Photographs and Words; and Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs, 1938-2000.
Bill Cunningham (1929-2016)
“I don’t decide anything. I let the street speak to me, and in order for the street to speak to you, you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is.”
The ever-observant and unassuming Cunningham was a fashion photographer unlike any other. He turned the everyday New Yorker into a prospective model, a sartorial inspiration and an artistic muse. As a fashion photographer for The New York Times for 40 years, he documented runway shows, high-society events and, most notably, the everyday individual on the streets of the city.
Cunningham was a unique sort of documentarian. He was best known throughout the city as the man on his bike (film camera in one hand and the handlebars in the other), keeping pace with city traffic while snapping photographs of anyone who caught his eye.
The Times wrote in his obituary,
“At the Pierre hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, he pointed his camera at tweed-wearing blue-blood New Yorkers with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Downtown, by the piers, he clicked away at crop-top-wearing Voguers. Up in Harlem, he jumped off his bicycle — he rode more than 30 over the years, replacing one after another as they were wrecked or stolen — for B-boys in low-slung jeans.”
To select his most iconic images would be a rather difficult feat — over the course of his career, the negatives from all of his events piled up to probably an unfathomable number. He documented people exactly as they were, viewing them through a lens of admiration and curiosity. He revolutionized fashion photography as a whole by pointing his camera in a different direction, ushering the influence of the industry up from the streets themselves.
A 2010 documentary titled Bill Cunningham New York is perhaps the closest portrait of the photographer that exists. He was known and appreciated by countless entities in the worlds of fashion, photography and New York society. During his career, he oversaw the columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” for The Times for decades.
While photography is a technical skill, there are many ways to infuse the practice with artistic perspectives and individual aesthetic styles. The careers of the photographers above all vary greatly by these qualities. As you can also gather, there are many ways into the profession and industry — whether you’re an artist, you’re self-taught, you work as an assistant, or you’re a journalist. Each of these paths have been walked by iconic and successful photographers. What separated them and made them unforgettable was creating an image that left a truly lasting impression.
Want to read about more groundbreaking fashion photographers? Check out part one!