Surreal Portability: The Magic of Fashion Photography

Categories: Photography

Fashion photography is about portability and malleability. A model can be incorporated into a fantastical environment for which only the word surreal can be used to define. In modern day photography there is a myriad of photographers each striving for a new lens, a new way in which to portray a fantastic image. In the history of fashion, nothing is so transcendental than photography. The image in fashion has been primarily focused on the model and how well the model sells the clothes; it is in the photograph that mutation over the decades has skyrocketed into a true art form.

Fashion photography does not succumb to the norms of portraiture that Daguerre made famous but to focal points of beauty in landscape, cityscape and how well assembled the model appears in those scenes. Body Media With the issue of thinness, the disease anorexia is conjured up; since the advocating of the media towards a thinner woman’s body, disorders such as anorexia and bulimia have become predominant among women and men.

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In the Western culture this rising phenomenon has become a central fact for overly conscious people who focus on their appearance, as Dittmar and Howard state, “…they learn to see themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated by appearance. This pressure is constantly reinforced by a strong cultural ideal of female beauty, and that ideal has become synonymous with thinness” (477-478). With this notion in the forefront of the paper other issues such as model size as they are propagated through the media become a rising concern.

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Dittmar and Howard go on to state that roughly 20% of models in the fashion industry are underweight which in term clinically diagnosis them with the condition of anorexia nervosa. These conditions give further rise to other women’s problems. Since the cultural idea of thinness as perpetuated by the media and the fashion industry is to have increasingly thin body types, the average woman or man tries dieting and exercising to keep up with the ‘standard’.

When the average woman or man finds that they are still not ‘normal’ according to the cultural guidelines of the word, they begin to be dissatisfied with their bodies which leads to low self-esteem, “Thus it stands to reason that women are likely to experience body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and even eating disorders if they internalize and strive for a beauty ideal that is stringently thin and essentially unattainable” (478).

The mass media is the continual hindrance to a healthy body image for Americans. The media is a social influence that reinforces these ideals through repetition and product placement. The media is a visual stimulation letting the American public voyeuristically fantasize about ultra thin models and having a body (sometimes these bodies are digitally re-mastered) that provides relative pleasure in shape.

Dittmar and Howard’s article highlights one such concern with the UK government in which they held a conference in June 2000 to discuss this issue of thinness and the media and to in essence debate about banning the use of these too thin models as media advertisement since the image essentially gave permission to the public to suffer and toil over gaining a great body, no matter the public acquired anorexia nervosa or other clinical conditions. The detriment of this fact, the fact that thinness is amounting to such problems as anorexia nervosa raise many social and cultural issues.

The cultural issue may best be summarized in Dittmar and Howard’s article as they quote Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, both spokespersons for top models, “…(s)tatistics have repeatedly shown that if you stick a beautiful skinny girl on the cover of a magazine you sell more copies…Agencies would say that we supply the women and the advertisers, our clients, want. The clients would say that hey are selling a product and responding to consumer demand. At the end of the day, it is a business and the fact is that these models sell the products” (478).

Thus, the opposite side of the spectrum is arguing that businesses or model clients are merely representing something that already exists within the cultural dynamic. The argument is that thin models represent what people want to see and so the products the model’s are advertising sell more copies. The clients of the modeling agencies are merely tied into the vicious cycle of believing what they want to believe. Although this point seems somewhat valid, the validation stops when such perpetuating leads to serious illnesses (in some cases anorexia or bulimia have lead to death).

It can plainly be deciphered from the above text that body image is created by the media, as Guttman quotes in her article “Advertising, My Mirror” in an interview with Christian Blachas, “That image comes to us from the fashion world. People like to say advertising starts trends like the recent wave of ‘fashion pornography. ’ But this came straight from designers and fashion journalists. The job of advertising is to pick up on trends. It’s rarely subversive because brands don’t gain anything from shocking people too much. Advertising’s a remarkable mirror, but it doesn’t start fads” (25).

Consequently, Blachas is stating that if fault is to be placed anywhere for the over correction of dieting, then the blame is not on the fashion industry but on advertisers who are the ones who pick up trends and allow these trends to filter down to every consumer; thus, while 20% of models are diagnosed as too ‘thin’ this relevant percentage can be related to the American public. Since the blame seems to be resting with the advertisers, another close look at the media needs to be given. The media perpetuates fads and other culturally influential eras, but this seems to have heightened within the past few decades.

The bombardment the public receives from the media and especially from the advertising end of the media is seen not only in commercials but in product placement in music videos, and movies. Magazines also aid in distributing the advertisements’ ideals as can be seen in repeated simulation on television soap operas, just as much as from fashion magazines, as Hargreaves and Tiggemann state in “Longer term implications of responsiveness to ‘thin-ideal’: support for a cumulative hypothesis of body image disturbance? , “Although this evidence appears to support the media’s negative impact on body image, various methodological limitations need to be acknowledged. In particular, the causal direction of correlations between body dissatisfaction and media use remains a challenge. The causal direction is clear in controlled laboratory research…One possible link between individual reactive episodes of dissatisfaction in response to specific media images and the development of body image is that enduring attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about bodies and appearances accumulate over time through repeated exposure to ideals of attractiveness in the media” (466).

Thus, the level of insecurity is maintained in the public through the barrage of repeated body images through advertisements. In the composition of photography there are many elements which define the medium; line, color, focus, brightness, scenery, shadow, etc. The evolution of fashion photography hinged upon the mass reproduction of images in magazines. In Germany, in the early 20th century, fashion became fully popular and available to the populace through Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and Munchner Illustrierte Presse .

It is in the magazine world that fashion photography began it’s popularity . As soon as fashion hit a mainstream cord with the public, magazines sales soared and thus was born the beginning of the history of fashion photography. There was great demand for magazines; especially fashion. Women and men would see what to wear, how to wear to it, what was in style and the modern world finally had the leisure to pursue the market of clothes as fashion.

With this demand installed in the public, it was up to the photographers of the early fashion industry to come up with new ways in which to depict the model, the clothes and entice women and men to dress according to what was portrayed in the photos. This is where composition of the photo is required to ensure new and deliberate methods of fashion portrayal. With the oncoming age of color introduced in photography in the 1930’s and 1940’s as the encyclopedia elaborates, “Nonetheless, color remained a sidelight in photography until the 1930s because it required considerable patience and expense on the part of both photographer and printer.

The dominance of color in terms of reproduction and everyday picture-taking did not begin until 1935, when Kodak started to sell Kodachrome transparency film, and was completed by the introduction of color-print films and Ektachrome films in the 1940s”. With color photography, the realm of the fashion world drastically changed. The limits of black and white and sepia toned magazine covers gave way to brilliant exhibits of color combinations, and a wide range of fabrics that women and men could now see, duplicate, or buy.

Fashion photography changed from depicting high-class society women to models in every day clothing. Professional photographers were then counted on to resonant the possibility of how fashion should co-exist with society. With Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar photographers were hired full time to create, in the magazine, a gallery of fabric eye candy dressed on a model with a backdrop. The most notable photographers at the time were pictorialists , Edward Steichen and Englishman Cecil Beaton. The incorporation of art into photography made the photographs more believable as high fashion.

Steichen and Beaton glamorized the models with enhanced lighting effects, which lionized the models and made the magazine world believe that fashion through photography was otherworldly. Among new techniques being used, the online encyclopedia states, “American Edward Steichen and Englishman Cecil Beaton, both one-time pictorialists. These photographers began to use elaborate lighting schemes to achieve the same sort of glamorizing effects being perfected by Clarence Bull as he photographed new starlets in Hollywood, California.

Martin Munkacsi initiated a fresh look in fashion photography after Harper’s Bazaar hired him in 1934. He moved the models outdoors, where he photographed them as active, energetic modern women”. So began the movement of high fashion. In the movement, the use of fashion as advertisement was key in developing a market for fashion photography. It is through marketing advertising, that fashion photographers began to be highlighted, as the encyclopedia states, “The new approach to photography in the editorial content of magazines was matched by an increasingly sophisticated use of photography in advertisements.

Steichen, while also working for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines, became one of the highest-paid photographers of the 1930s through his work for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency”. These photographers, as well as others, helped to make advertising an art form through use of portraying model’s hands in product placement, and altogether catering to ever-widening audience of magazine buyers. Fashion photography changed through the utilization and realization that product sold only through its modeling and photographic depiction.

Fashion photography is used to studio lighting, general props, and fabricated sets to produce photos for magazines. It was by moving beyond the scope of the pre-fabricated to outdoor life that photography truly changed its face: This revolution in photography was accomplished by Louise Dahl-Wolfe: she created environmental photography. Photographs then became very versatile in their encompassing environment, as Art News states, “Considered one of the world's leading fashion photographers from the 1930s to 1960, Dahl-Wolfe received universal acclaim for her fashion and portrait photography.

She was one of the first photographers to move beyond the dominant fashion aesthetic of studio props and lighting to photograph naturally posed models outdoors and on location in far-flung places, from South America to Africa. Her depiction of the easy but exotic American style "captured the essence of the new American woman: spirited, sophisticated, and above all, independent," said co-curator Nan Richardson”.

Through this revolution, the photograph is now allowed to incorporate the natural world in the make-up of the photo, and thus is born on-site location photography. This completely changed fashion – models were now being flown internationally to shoots, and photographers could now broaden the horizon of their compositions. Landscape then became part of the photograph as well as the model and other props. It seems however, that in the course of fashion photography there seems to be a throwback to vintage photos.

In high fashion photo shoots stylish black and white photos are becoming more and more popular; the sleek lines of postive and negative space are the dynamic in the photo, as well as black and white outfits that allow for a slimmer and more direct silhouette. There is a definite nostalgia that is coming forward in recent photography, as Silberman emphasises, “I'd already noticed that vintage photography had been very popular in the last couple of years" said Downes. I've seen an increase of people collecting old, black-and-white photography. We thought we would try and grab some of that appeal, and I think fashion photography works very well with that.... And then there was the Jackie Kennedy exhibit. That show has been a hit, and it focuses on a lot of hats and dresses. These events inspired me to take a chance on publishing some fashion images. " In this way, fashion photography is more and more treated as an art form.

Updated: Apr 29, 2023
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Surreal Portability: The Magic of Fashion Photography. (2017, Mar 09). Retrieved from

Surreal Portability: The Magic of Fashion Photography essay
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