As Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute once said in a Vogue documentary, ‘Your memory of fashion is fashion photography.’
I love fashion photography. I have collected magazines ever since I was little, when my mother and I would spend hours looking at the pretty glossy pictures. It was my interest in fashion photography that led me to the Documenting Fashion course at The Courtauld. An entire course on fashion imagery? I knew immediately that this course was for me. Reflecting upon my year at The Courtauld as it is coming to a close, I believe that one of the most important things I have learned is to appreciate the depth of fashion photography, as a fashion photograph can be much more than a visually pleasing image. I have learned that fashion photography has the potential to shape our attitudes towards our identity, our society and our culture. But fashion photographs are not only expressions of our visual culture: they are first and foremost expressions of our desires. We can come to see the world through the knowing eye of the fashion photographer, who instinctively captures seminal moments and has the ability to immortalise certain fashion designs.
I was convinced until this year that Google Images and my stack of old magazines were my best bet when it came to looking at old fashion photographs. I have since discovered the existence of a plethora of rich fashion photography archives, many of which have greatly helped me with my research throughout the year. The most recent archive that I have discovered is that of fashion photographer John Cole (1923-1995).
John Cole began his career as a fashion photographer in the 1940s and opened his first studio in Mayfair in 1956. The studio, called ‘Studio Five’, attracted photographers who would rise to great prominence in the fashion industry—one such photographer, David Bailey, would eventually work for British Vogue.
John started taking fashion photographs in the early 1940s when working for Gee & Watson and Hugh White Studios. He took many photographs for the original Tatler & Bystander magazine which was owned by the Illustrated London News; he also took photographs for Britannia & Eve magazine.
John was a very prolific photographer whose photographs were used for many adverts in a wide range of publications. At Studio Five, he took photographs for Hairdressers Journal, Flair Magazine, The Sunday Times, Daily Mail, The SUN, the Daily Express, Evening News, Evening Standard and The Guardian. Throughout the 1970s, Country Life ran a fashion section for which John was the main photographer.
John’s many years of experience, both in the darkroom and on set watching other photographers at work, would eventually allow him to master his own techniques—such as lighting. As stated in an article from 1962, John was ‘someone at the top but always willing to learn.’ If he wasn’t using tungsten lighting, he was working with the natural daylight that poured in through the two roof windows at Studio Five.
John asserted his creative agency in the original way he captured the cut and shape of the clothes in his images, demonstrating an utmost confidence in his own instincts. He seemed interested in capturing clothing from unexpected viewpoints. In shooting from quirky angles, his photographs change the way a particular garment is seen. They provide a fresh perspective on relatively standard items of dress that would make any woman want to purchase them.
The pictures that have been collected and made available in his archive accessible via a website and an Instagram account give us a glimpse of the times in which he worked, particularly the 1960s—an era full of glamour and youthful fun. Included in this collection of stunning photographs are images of model-turned-editor Grace Coddington, along with some behind the scenes photographs that provide us with a flavour of the energetic ambiance of Studio Five.
John had a distinct ability to capture the energy of his subject. While there is a light and whimsical overtone to his photographs, the model in the picture always seems to be deeply engaged and present. We can see that each model is prepared to give everything she has, with the knowledge that John would capture her at the perfect moment. Each one of John’s models emanates a liveliness that reflects her desire to fully invest in playing her role for the camera. As John himself asserted, ‘There has to be complete affinity between photographer and model to take a really good picture.’
The John Cole website provides everything from bibliographic information, to video clips of him on set with 1960s icon Twiggy, to personal accounts written by individuals who worked alongside Cole at Studio Five.
An archive such as this puts into question the ephemeral nature of fashion photography. It challenges common notions of fashion photography as images that we mindlessly flip through in a waiting room or on our morning commute: images that are quickly discarded, never to be looked at again once the next month’s issue is published. A fashion photography archive emphasises the commonly overlooked notion that fashion photography has the potential to capture the collective consciousness of a particular time, frozen in one glossy beautiful image. For those of us who cannot afford to wear the glamorous clothes featured in most fashion photographs, we can take solace in the thought that fashion photography nevertheless allows us to partake in this dream world.
* All images taken from the John Cole Archive and subject to copyright.
‘Photography in Advertising: A self-contained service in an unusual backwater,’ John Heron, February, 1955
‘“The Only Way to Succeed…” Robert Sowter interviews top photographer John Cole,’ Robert Sowter, Time & Tide, November, 1962