The John Cole Fashion Photography Archive

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 at work at Studio Five.*

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.

This photograph was taken for Chemstrand tights, April 1966.* 

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. 

John Cole had a knack for showing the clothes off from unexpected angles.*

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. 

There was always music being played at the studio. Well, it was the 60s!*

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.’

This image of Twiggy was taken for fashion brand Slimma in 1966. The clothes were designed by David Bond, whose trouser suit was the Bath Fashion Museum Dress of the Year in 1967, chosen by Felicity Green at the Daily Mirror.*

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.

 

References:

http://www.johncolestudiofive.co.uk/home/4570078226

‘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

MA Study Trip to New York City: Voices from the past, visions for the future: a visit to Condé Nast’s New York archive.

One has only to scan the bibliographies of most major academic fashion articles to see that Vogue maintains a position of the highest authority in sartorial research, particularly concerning the interwar years. This is not to say that other contemporary fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar lack academic importance: more so that the material bound to each issue was not deemed worthy of preservation back then, in fact much of Bazaar’s archive – including prints by Richard Avedon, Man Ray and Louise Dahl-Wolfe – was destroyed in the 1980s. This was not the case with Condé Nast’s archive, which dates back to the 1920s, instigated by Mr Nast’s awareness of the monetary value of this vast collection of images. In our recent visit to the New York archive, Shawn Waldron, Senior Director of Archives and Records, showed us just how vast this collection really is. State of the art, temperature-controlled rooms house the thousands of high-quality original prints in colourful, expertly alphabetized folders. The effect is mesmerising, like a sweetshop lined with Steichens and Horsts, instead of Flying Saucers and Humbugs.

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Another room boasts a staggering quantity of loose and bound copies of publications, such as Architectural Digest, Glamour and Vanity Fair and, of course, Vogue. A researcher from a well-known fashion label pores over bound copies of the latter, highlighting the scholastic potential of the archive. Loose copies of many publications are also available for perusal, offering a more haptic experience for the viewer. The archive today is a dynamic editorial asset, both from an information and commercial point of view, and a far cry from ‘The Morgue’ that it once was. Mr Nast’s business model was ahead of its time, incorporating what is known today as ‘Blue Economy’: the process of turning waste into revenue. ‘The Morgue’ transformed into the active editorial asset that it is today, generating revenue through digital licensing and distribution of images.

As an informative resource, apart from the proliferation of beautiful fashion images, the intricate daily contracts visible on each spread, detailing the names, locations and costs of each shoot, are invaluable to the historian. What emerges is the closely linked relationship between business and preservation, and business’ potential in shaping the fashion canon. Were it not for Mr. Nast’s willingness to invest in the protection of his publication’s material, alongside his fastidious account-keeping, this barometer of social and cultural change would not exist.

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The archive promotes cultural research from many other trajectories; with publications, including Charm exposing what editors told young homemakers was necessary to set up home in the interwar period. Similar interdisciplinary research pathways exist within House & Garden, Architectural Digest and Condé Nast Traveler. These publications bring the past alive, and are a testament to the complexity of day-to-day concerns.

These research opportunities would not be possible without the painstakingly selective process of acquisition, organisation, and digitisation, undertaken by Waldron’s team. The resulting collection, with millions of objects, is unique in fashion publishing. Despite the challenges faced by a small team of archivists and photo editors, working with an ever-growing collection, the archive has become a valued editorial asset that can generate income, promote fashion research, and influence new interdisciplinary study.

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