Why Taking The Money Shot Has Never Been Harder
An edited version of this article was originally published with the London College of Fashion’s Pigeons & Peacocks.
“They’re supposed to be soft like that. They’re supposed to be backlit. It’s maybe all the things she doesn’t like, but that’s what they’re supposed to be.”[i]
The disagreement between American Vogue’s Creative Director, Grace Coddington, and Design Director, Charlie Churchward, which features in R.J. Cutler’s documentary The September Issue, revolves around a Brassaï-inspired shoot that features young women posing in a Parisian-looking bar in 1920s-style dress.
Coddington wanted to preserve the soft colour and blurry quality of her photographs; Churchward, responding to concerns from Editor Anna Wintour, wanted to ‘pump them up’. The exchange added spice to Cutler’s film, but it highlights how approaches to fashion photography have changed over the decades. Coddington and Churchward were not engaging in a personal spat; rather, they were advocating different photographic approaches. Coddington, who has worked with some of the century’s most acclaimed photographers, from Lord Snowden and David Bailey to Helmut Newton and Patrick Demarchelier, relies on personal instinct rather than personal computers to create her pictures. In Cutler’s film and in her recently published memoirs, Coddington acknowledges her old fashioned inclinations, although claims she is no technophobe. Churchward, on the other hand, wants to use technology to boost and enhance images, to make them as bright and clear as possible. He also seems averse to anything too different; in the film, at any rate, his counsel is always tailored to Wintour’s wants. The personality, the magic and the fantasy that make Coddington’s work stand out seems to have increasingly little place beneath Vogue’s celebrity-centred cover.
If she could have spared the time, Coddington would have enjoyed two recent London exhibitions that celebrated the life and works of Norman Parkinson (National Theatre)[ii] and Erwin Blumenfeld (Somerset House).[iii] Like Coddington, both men injected their personality, or personas, into their photography. Parkinson, with his carefully dishevelled moustache, revelled in the pseudo-aristocratic air that he created. His mischievous sense of humour is evident in many of his photographs, which often make play with authority and tradition; like his 1963 image for Life magazine, which features Melanie Hampshire and Jill Kennington talking to two British bobbies, or his 1975 photograph for American Vogue, where a red-clad Jerry Hall swings a red Communist flag in front of red Communist poster board.
By contrast, Blumenfeld, who worked almost entirely from his New York studio, seems to have been a more foreboding, perhaps even arrogant, figure. Feelings of self-doubt may have contributed to his bizarre death; he is said to have repeatedly run up and down the Spanish steps in Rome to trigger a heart attack. Blumenfeld’s instense and exquisitely choreographed photographs, which are characterised by rich textures and a limited colour palette, reflect his troubled personality, for beneath the beauty lurks something sinister and dangerous. Whenever I think of Blumenfeld, I picture his blonde-haired ‘Virgin in the City’, which seems to have been produced in homage to the movie poster for Fritz Lang’s dystopian epic Metropolis; or his promotional images for Chesterfield Cigarettes, which feature a sultry femme fatale with dark red lipstick and coordinating fingernails nonchalantly inhaling and exhaling. Unfortunately, the back-story that plays such an integral part in the photographs of Parkinson, Blumenfeld and Coddington is conspicuously absent from much modern fashion photography.
In part, this is inevitable. Parkinson and Blumenfeld were working at a time when commerce, technology and democracy were opening up the world. They were among the first photographers to capture the exotic sights of faraway destinations and to experiment with new advances in technology. Their work was pioneering and it has stood the test of time because of its novelty. A novelty that scores of photographers have tried to reinterpret, as shoots by Julian Broad and Elena Rendina in July’s Harper’s Bazaar demonstrate. But the images that Parkinson and Blumenfeld brought to life through their lens are not iconic simply because they were the first of their kind. Their photographs are revered and imitated because they are so characterful and technically accomplished. So here’s a paradox. The development of new photographic technologies, not to mention editing software, has probably increased the photographer’s ability to create and conjure, and yet many contemporary fashion shoots are devoid of texture, diverse colours and exotic landscapes. Where have the Parkinsons and Blumenfelds gone?
The photographs that sell clothes and desirable lifestyles in fashion magazines today are almost invariably composed with solid colour backgrounds. Movement from models is limited. This might be because models now tend to be A-list celebrities and there is a limit as to what can be asked of them. With agents, contracts and health and safety to consider, I wonder if Angelina Jolie or Anne Hathaway would balance on a white Doric column, as did Appollonia van Ravenstein for Norman Parkinson and British Vogue in 1973? Where fashion shoots are more imaginative, and when A-list celebrities do not feature, the editing of the photographs is often distracting, as is the case with Stéphanie Sednaoui’s pictures in July’s Italian Vogue. Independently produced style magazines, like the recently produced and already critically acclaimed Article, are generally more creative than the giants of Condé Nast and Hearst, but this is usually due to the layout of the magazine and the use various grades of paper, rather than through photography. In fact, the contribution of photography to the marketing of fashion seems to have reached a low ebb. Magazine adverts and their accompanying photography now tend to serve as enticements for online movies. Omega and Dior have recently released photographic films and in so doing follow Persol and Dunhill, among others. Fashion houses, like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney have combined film and photography to create interactive moving images for digital magazines like Post.
This is not to say that contemporary fashion photography is now wholly digitised and banal – and as a fashion historian, rather than a fashion photographer, I am really in no position to judge this, anyway – but I do think that advances in technology and the cult of celebrity make it harder to produce images of the purity of Parkinson and Blumenfeld. Another notable point is that Parkinson and Blumenfeld (even Grace Coddington) had a certain disconnect with the fashion world. They never seem to have been completely enamoured with their editorial employers and resented perceived infringements of their artistic licence. Their relative distance from fashion may have enabled them to see what many career-hungry photographers do not, and today there are many more want-to-be fashion photographers. As Anna Wintour has remarked about Bill Cunningham, a cycling octogenarian who chronicles style for The New York Times, “he sees something on the street or on the runway that completely missed all of us. And in six months’ time, you know, that will be a trend.’[iv] Is it possible that the outlook of Parkinson and Blumenfeld enabled them to inject a unique objectivity and discipline into their photographs?
But all is not lost. The London exhibitions of Parkinson and Blumenfeld’s work, not to mention the ubiquity of historic references in contemporary clothing collections, suggests that fashion designers and editors are reengaging with the past to make their clothes stand out in what is now an increasingly crowded market. The advent of Instagram and Tumblr, which has made Scott Schuman’s of us all, is also rekindling interest in photographs where the image takes centre stage; and all the better if the exposure and colours of the image are imperfect, because this reflects the story, if not necessarily the reality, of the snapped subjects. Towards the end of The September Issue, Grace Coddington ruefully remarks that she “got left behind somewhere because I’m still a romantic. You have to go charging ahead, you can’t stay behind.”[v] I hope that renewed interest in fashion photography from the past makes people realise that romanticism and modernity are not incompatible.
[i] The September Issue: Anna Wintour and the Making of Vogue. A Film by R.J. Cutler (2009).
[ii] R. Muir, Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion (London, 2012).
[iii] Erwin Blumenfeld Studio, ed. N. Blumenfeld Charbit, F. Cheval & U. Eskildsen (Museum Folkwang, 2013).
[iv] Bill Cunningham NewYork. A Film by Richard Press (2010).
[v] The September Issue.