Evolution of Fashion Photography Over the Decades

The evolution of fashion photography has been astounding throughout the decades. Here we take a glimpse at it from the modern era to the ultra-modern era.

Gigi Hadid poses in space-inspired fashion at NASA for Harper’s Bazaar 2017, photo by Mariano Vivanco

Fashion photography has been the perfect way to create an expression in fashion for the past one and a half century; witnessing the incredible transition from the monochromatic age to a radical age. “Photography is perceived as the only thing that can capture the moment in the unstoppable flow,” says Kosovo-based beauty and fashion photographer Genc Fona (@gencfonaphotography). Yet, here we are to capture its flow.

Let’s deep dive into the evolution of fashion photography and the incredible minds who have set the bar high till date. With immense love for fashion photography in my heart, I present my share of expertise as a photography student and enthusiast.

Fashion photography evolution and innovative themes
Top: Sara Jessica Parker by Dan Jackson for Vanity Fair cover, Dec 2021; Rihanna by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty at Milan Fashion Week in Feb 2022; Gigi Hadid by Mariano Vivanco for Harper’s Bazaar 2017

To understand the evolution of fashion photography better, we interviewed professionals in the field from different parts of the world. From Germany to New Zealand to Kosovo, each shared their unique perspectives on this incredible journey.

The evolution of fashion photography can best be observed through the evolution of fashion magazines and fashion ad campaigns. Genc states, “For me it is important that the photography highlights the spirit that dominates or can improve the current culture.”

New Zealand based fashion photographer, Anand Kulkarni (@anandkphoto) agrees, “Photography inherently is a form of documenting the zeitgeist of an era. So, fashion photography is very important to record the cultural climate of our time for reference and study by future generations. What we capture today, influences tomorrow.”

The Birth of Fashion Photography

We see no substantial evidence as to exactly when fashion photography first came into existence. “Fashion always offers opportunities and choices of the individual image, constantly transforming it. This transformation, which is also the goal of fashion, is strongly realized through photography. Fashion photography is the direct communication of fashion opportunities and the selectors of those opportunities,” says Genc.

Notably, Castiglione Virginia Oldoni, an 18th century countess in Italy collaborated with photographer Pierre Louis Pierson for the very first voguish fashion photograph ever, according to the Met Museum website.

Virginia Oldoni fashion photograph
Castiglione Virginia Oldoni’s photograph shot by Pierre Louis Pierson

1900s-1920s: The Rise of Fashion Photography

Until the Second World War broke out, the field of photography was restricted in Paris. A few years later, cities like New York and London saw the rise influenced by the pioneers from Paris.

Paris born Baron Adolph De Meyer was the pioneer of fashion photography. Conde Nast hired him as the first official photographer. During this time first fashion photographs were published in a fashion magazine in 1900s.

The birth of fashion photography
(L to R): Photography by Baron Adolph De Meyer; American Vogue 1922; Model in Paul Poiret dress 1914

Since this decade was pre-war, fashion photography showed women as very delicate and traditionally feminine. The portrayal was of a woman dressed for the indoors and in a homely setting, depicting the non-working woman.

1920s-1940s:The Revolutionary Epoch

1920s started with a bang as magazines and photographers started adopting new techniques and juxtapositions. Concepts like cubism, surrealism, romanticism took an upper hand in fashion magazines. Fashion photography as a medium justified that equality in men and women had escalated in this era. Women were recognised in a very bold manner.

The image of women was also changing, which further led to the evolution of fashion photography. This era pushed women to go outdoors as the men of the families headed out for the First World War for months and years at a time. The woman showcased through fashionable photographs was fearless, more confident and wore practical clothing depicting the independent working woman. She was indeed desirable and bold.

During our interview, we asked which fashion photographers really influenced the field. Anand Kulkarni listed a few- Peter Lindbergh, Helmut Newton, Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz among others.

(Top to Bottom): Richard Avedon photography; Iconic portraiture by Baron Adolph De Meyer; working, independent woman

According to Britannica, Edward Steichen raised the bar for commercial fashion photography by working with famous people like Marion Morehouse. Martin Munkacsi paved the path and contributed to fashion photojournalism in 1920s through his contemporary work in Harper’s Bazaar.

According to an article looking back on Helmut Newton’s legacy in fashion photography published in Forbes; Helmut’s black and white images celebrated the rise of photography in the magazines like Vogue. ”What I find interesting is working in a society with certain taboos and fashion photography is about that kind of society. To have taboos, then to get around them that is interesting,” said Helmut talking about photography in the 1920s.

1940s-1960s: Journey Post War

The impact of Second World War was harsh in all ways. It took toll on a photographers’ lives too. So most of them shifted from Paris to New York for their own revival.

According to a Vogue article on Truman Capote’s 1959 essay on the master photographer, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn dominated the culture and elevated fashion photography to another level. In 1950s, magazines fought for more innovative concepts and we saw the rise of female photographers like Frances McLaughlin-Gill.

(Top to Bottom): Marilyn Monroe for Life magazine’s outdoor photoshoot 1950; (L) 1947 Dior’s New Look; (R) depicting working women in Life magazine 1945

Photography still emphasized femininity, albeit in a bolder and unapologetic way. This era was also the Golden era in Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe was unarguably the star of the industry and photographers around her were keen to catch some trendsetting glimpses, thus paving the way for glamour photography in real-life settings.

1960s-1980s: The Era of Feminism

“I think women have more empathy with their subject”, Annie Leibovitz once said and I couldn’t agree more. This was the period when the field got more women photographers than ever before. Fashion photography in 1950s was powerful and spoke a thousand words.

Bright, vibrant colors finally highlighted magazine covers and true colors flourished in the garments as well. The photography became contradictory to what people had been seeing till now.

This era focused on technological advancements like digital camera and blending aesthetics became a crucial part of photography. Some of the key aesthetics this era saw included punk, hippie style, African-American and preppy.

(Top to Bottom): Le Smoking by Helmut Newton; Chanel magazine photograph depicting fearless women; model Heather- shot by Helmut Newton

Not only did feminism enter into the industry but woman’s lifestyles highlighted their image in the 70s. They were courageous, out-there and proving themselves. Fashion brands and campaigns in that era focused on activities involving fun and entertainment, like skateboarding, disco and traveling.

1980s-2000s: Rise of Pop Culture

By the 80s, editorial fashion photography became the main focus of magazines like Vogue Italy and America. Influenced by the popularity of cable network, the 90s saw a huge emergence of pop culture. The fashion choices of pop stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, George Michael, etc. brought a huge trend and influence on the masses through photographs and music videos alike.

Provocative imagery, editorial photoshoots and pop-culture inspired stories and reformed change in the magazine covers. Fashion photography in the late 20th century was all about themes like youth rebellion, college fun, dance, freedom and inclusivity.

The invention of cable TV opened doors for a lot of opportunities. 90s supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Tyra Banks, etc. were seen as superheroes by fashion media. Everyone could view fashion shows and ad campaigns became a more dominant medium for photographers.

(Top to Bottom): Kristen McMenamy for Vogue Italia, 1992; Madonna by Rex Features for album Like a Virgin, 1984; Versace campaign shoot; Vogue magazine cover 1995 shot by Steven Meisel

Anand Kulkarni expresses, “I think narrative driven fashion photography has been most influential over the years, pioneered by the likes of Peter Lindbergh in the 80s. We still see narratives being used in fashion photography till date, adding a lot of interest to shots.”

2000s-2020s: Post Modern Fashion Photography

As we stepped into the ultra-modern century, it invited us into a bolder progress with social media. Anand Kulkarni says, “The sheer speed at which trends can be set, means fashion photography is also forced to evolve at the same pace. So we start seeing a recycling of older trends as a shortage of brand new photography trends starts emerging. This could be for the better or for worse.”

Social media helped the industry reach a world-wide audience instantly. You don’t have to have a professional degree to exhibit your talent anymore. This is also the era when influencers changed the game by introducing the world to casual, yet fashionable selfies and street photography. While German based fashion and beauty photographer, Sabine Dräger (@draegersabine_photography ) reveals, “Social media has changed the way we look like,” and yes, it shows in photography too.

(Top to Bottom): Street style photography ft. blogger Chiara Ferragni, 2017; Rihanna for Harper’s Bazaar China, 2015; Paris Hilton by Brendan Forbes for Wonderland magazine

You don’t need a good quality Nikon or Canon to shoot today. You can shoot people or yourself on an iPhone to manifest your skills these days. This means that professional photographers have to push the boundaries even further to make this mark.

So which fashion photographers really influenced the field in this era? Sabine replies, “Tamara Williams photos are shown quite often on social media. I think she brought a revolution in the beauty photography business, not because of the amount of make-up or the colors but because she showcases the model in their special pureness.”

Sabine Draeger fashion and beauty photography
(L to R): @ellyjssyy and Valeria Stella by Sabine Dräger (@draegersabine_photography), 2022

Prospective of the Evolution of Fashion Photography

Since the beginning of the 21st century, fashion photographers have diversified as much as fashion itself. “Any fashion photography which has brought fashion and its possibilities closer to everyone, on the street and at the same time has reflected what it is, I think it has achieved a revolution,” says Genc Fona.

Genc Fona Fashion and beauty photography
(L to R): Rinesa Murati (@rinesamuraati) and Diona Fona (@dionafona) by Genc Fona (@gencfona.photography)

In today’s world, fashion photography has emerged its self-explanatory and intimate side. “Fashion photography is what changes the operation of users on social networks. It has a tremendous impact on the creation of individual image. Social media, in this case, is a tool of disseminating them and stimulating the imagination and creativity of its users,” he adds.

No theme is out of bounds, and anyone can be a model in this inclusive, post-modern era. We see everything from vintage-inspired, fantasy, cosplay, digitally created, LGBTQ and everything imaginable. Fashion photography is as much about self-expression as it is about the style. Isn’t it just impeccable how we see it all turning? Sabine mentioned, “There is no one look that is famous that we can decide on; we can decide on what we would love by taking a glimpse at many.”

Top: Cara Delevingne at Burberry Fall 2018 LGBTQ tribute show; Michelle Obama for Elle magazine; gay jewelry ad campaign: photo by Michael Oliver Love via Ignant

Sky is the Limit

As we are eager to behold huge progress in this time of advancements; for now let’s cherish how in the ever-growing world of fashion photography has enabled people all around the world to capture the tiny moments.

Fashion photography standards today aims to achieve the unbelievable. Anand Kulkarni adds, “The future is bright for the fashion photography industry. There is always room to set newer styles and trends. Encouraging photographers to think more creatively, but also a newer way to use older trends as we have already started to see.”

Taylor Marlene (@taylor_marlene7) by Anand Kulkarni (@anandkphoto)

The evolution of fashion photography has a lot more to reveal in the coming years. The question still lies, what will we witness beyond what we see today? Contemplate and write to us @shilpa1ahuja and comment below.

Read next:
Fashion Photography Tips & Hacks: Pro-Photographer vs. Blogger
Fashion Evolution Through Decades: 1920s – 2020s Trends

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