It is hard to imagine that when Kodak initially introduced the portable camera, it was designed for women. Considered a ‘low art’ long into the 20th century, photography was given menial importance and seen as the perfect “hobby” for women who simply did not have the supposed ‘capacity’ and ‘skills’ to train in proper fine art. These initial Kodak cameras were even converted into colourful chic purses called Kodak Ensembles, which came in a variety of colours and, as the name hints towards, could match your own ensemble.
Fast-forward a century and fashion photography has become a respected and sought-after art form, with certain images vowing up to 610,000 USD at auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Nevertheless, as famously argued by Griselda Pollock, the art world has managed to remain “a man’s world” despite photography’s supposed feminine nature. Names such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton and David Lindbergh remain the most prominent ones in the domain, leaving little space historically, and currently, for women fashion photographers. Let this therefore be a reminder of a few (of many) well-regarded female photographers who have contributed to fashion photography through technique, talent and vision.
Also known as Else Neuländer-Simon, Yva was a German photographer who famously captured modern renderings of the female body in interwar Weimar Germany. In an artistic athmosphere shaped by Constructivism, Bauhaus and German Expressionism, her dramatic play on light and shadow as well as clean geometric shapes enabled her to create emotional and feminine works of art. Indeed, although men predominantly dominated the industry at the time, her feminine outlook was deemed refreshing for many. Nevertheless, her career was cut short during the Second World War as she was arrested by the Gestapo alongside her husband when trying to flee, and presumably killed in a camp in Majdanek, Poland. She is also remembered as the artist to have trained and shaped the young Helmut Newton, who would remain her faithful admirer for the rest of his life.
Lillian Bassman (1917-2012)
Working under the famous art director of Harper’s Bazaar Alexey Brodovitch, Lillian Bassman was known for her high-contrast black and white fashion images. Although she originally worked for Harper’s Bazaar in the 40s by promoting the works of Richard Avedon and Paul Himmel (her husband), she was then encouraged to take on the art form herself, thus developing incredible photographic skills that were unfortunately not fully recognised until the 70s. Focusing on lingerie, cosmetics and liquor, her incredible manipulation of images through cropping and bleaching are truly unique to her style, and leave a highly emotional impression on the viewer.
Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895-1989)
Although she was mostly known for her documentary work as a reportage photographer in the 1930s, she was also the first fashion photographer to truly embrace the use of colour in fashion photography. Having studied painting and colour theory at the San Francisco Institute of Art, her eye for subtle nuances and colour transparencies helped redefine American fashion photography and inspired many others such as Horst P. Horst and Irving Penn. Most importantly, she should be known for having contributed to the creation of the “New Woman” by for example incorporating art historical themes in her images when capturing femininity.
Deborah Turbeville (1932 – 2013)
Working in parallel to the feminist movement in the 70s, her stronger displays of femininity in fashion photography differed immensely from those of her peers Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. Her hauntingly erotic images of the female body were joined by a theatricality that conveyed a hazy laziness. Despite her prominent reputation as a fashion photographer, the clothes in her images become secondary as her delicate feminine lens allows a completely different interpretation of women. She believed her position as a female photographer of women enabled her to capture another side of the models – a more vulnerable side, enhanced by her longing for the mystical which adds an element of nostalgia and dreaminess to her images.