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Tracing the arc of modern fashion photography

Irving Penn's death marks the end of an era. He and Richard Avedon hold generally unchallenged status as innovators of the genre, but Helmut Newton also gets credit as a core influences.

October 18, 2009|Emili Vesilind

There will always be beauty, style and grace on the pages of fashion magazines and books, but the death of Irving Penn this month marks the end of an era of seminal photography. Penn, along with Richard Avedon, who died in 2004, practically invented modern fashion photography -- a place where art meets commerce -- in the mid-20th century. The influence of both artists -- along with a small group of mavericks who came after them -- figures prominently in fashion editorial and advertising campaigns to this day.

Their striking images shaped how the world saw fashion and have long been ingrained in our psyches.

Penn was by all accounts extremely meticulous in his approach to taking pictures, putting his subjects through grueling sittings. He captured a crisp quietness in his work -- whether he was photographing his wife, model Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, or a few old cigarette butts plucked from the ashtray or gutter. His most iconic images include surprising portraits of Truman Capote and Pablo Picasso, a study of the ballooning sleeves of a Balenciaga coat and a graceful nude of Kate Moss perched on a table, her back to the camera.

Less glamorous, but no less intriguing, are shots of ordinary tradesmen Penn began taking in the early 1950s. These photographs of workers and their tools are on display at the Getty Center through Jan. 10.

Avedon "was very outgoing, very charismatic," according to photographer Sebastian Kim, who worked as his first assistant in the late 1990s. He was more about movement -- waist-length hair and yards of chiffon in full swing. There is a classic photo of model Dovima posing in a Dior gown and positioned between circus elephants; a fully made-up Marilyn Monroe in a sequined halter dress, looking lost; and Nastassja Kinski lying nude, face impassive, wrapped in the curves of a monstrous fork-tongued snake. Optimistic images he captured in Paris for Harper's Bazaar after World War II reestablished the city's status as the fashion capital of the world. A retrospective of Avedon's fashion photography, showcasing 181 of his works, opens today at the Detroit Institute of the Arts and runs through Jan. 17.

"Avedon was more of an influence on my work, but Penn influenced my soul," said Arthur Elgort, a New York-based photographer who often shoots for Vogue (Penn's longtime employer) and was friendly with Penn in his later years. "Penn was meticulous and controlled, and Dick [Avedon] just had an eye for everything -- he couldn't miss."

Penn and Avedon's status as innovators is roundly unchallenged, but when talking to modern fashion and portrait photographers about the genre's core influences, a third name always surfaces: Helmut Newton.

The late fashion photographer ushered in an era of blatant eroticism and dark humor in fashion imagery (see modern flash-heavy shooters Terry Richardson and Juergen Teller). Newton worked for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in the 1960s but found his niche shooting nudes with sadomasochistic overtones in the 1980s. Earlier this year, publisher Benedikt Taschen reissued a somewhat smaller version of "SUMO," a compilation of 394 of Newton's photographs that was first published 10 years ago. The photos are on display through Jan. 31 at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin.

"That's the trifecta -- Penn, Avedon and Newton," said New York-based photographer Nick Ruechel, who was celebrity portraitist Annie Leibowitz's first assistant and worked under renowned fashion photographers including Peter Lindbergh before striking out on his own. "Contemporary fashion photography would not exist without them. So many people have copied their work verbatim."

British photographer David Bailey (whose party-hopping ways inspired the 1966 fashion film, "Blow-Up") also earned a place in the canon of pioneering midcentury fashion and portrait photographers.

His raw, energetic style captured the jubilance -- and major players -- of the swinging '60s. "I love the craziness of Bailey," said L.A.-based portrait photographer Frank Ockenfels III. "He did things without worry or care and it showed."

In the '80s and '90s, fashion photography went mainstream -- thanks to the rise of the supermodel -- and the industry embraced a new crop of top fashion photographers, most of whom are still actively shaping the genre today.

Among the new stars were Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, Mario Testino and, perhaps most notably, Steven Meisel.

The late Ritts, a celebrity and fashion photographer, was known for his sensual black-and-white images. His defining shot may be of nude supermodels Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Stephanie Seymour, Tatiana Patiz and Christy Turlington, their coltish limbs folded into one another.

Weber, who continues to loom large in fashion photography, is famous for his playful, decidedly American-feeling work for ad campaigns including Calvin Klein (he shot all those early controversial black-and-white images for the brand), Abercrombie & Fitch and Ralph Lauren.

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