Can Fashion Photography Survive the Pandemic?


In the 1930s and ‘40s, when the photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe took models out of the studio and onto location — shooting them poolside for Harper’s Bazaar, say — she was making pictures about freedom, about women’s changing role in society, about travel and leisure culture.

In 1975, when Helmut Newton took his famous image of the model Vibeke Knudsen in Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking tuxedo, flanked by a nude female companion, he was capturing new ideas of sexuality and gender, lust and power.

And today, when Collier Schorr focuses her lens on androgynous models for fashion houses and magazines, she is conveying a softer, contemporary way of thinking about self-expression, fantasy and desire.

A fashion image is never just about clothes. For the last century, fashion photographers have celebrated the work of great designers while making nods, sometimes subtle, sometimes goading and explicit, to wider societal moods and shifts in politics and identity.

Though few can afford the clothes, millions consume the pictures. Indeed, numerous photographers — Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus among them — did some of their greatest work on assignment for magazines.

But now the fashion world is in crisis: It is producing too much, moving too fast, and, with worrying frequency, offending consumers due to an inability to pivot convincingly from a position that champions a censoriously narrow vision of beauty. Brands are closing, and magazines are folding or becoming fully digital.

Can the fashion photograph, of the sort that has littered bedroom walls and been reposted again and again on Instagram or Tumblr, survive?

Probably not as we know it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Even before the pandemic, conditions had grown tricky for the production of great fashion imagery. Budgets were being slashed. A shoot that in the past would have lasted two weeks was allocated two days, and photographers routinely tasked not just with producing an advertising campaign or editorial spread, but with creating social media and behind-the-scenes content as well.

Subtler mood shifts are shaping images as well. “You look at Black Lives Matter, you look at the pandemic, you look at the incredible difference between rich and poor, and then you look at fashion,” Mr. Sundsbø said. “You do have moments where you think: I don’t want to be a part of this system.”

He believes such guilt has led to vaguely apologetic imagery, including the vogue over the last decade for deliberately unfussy, documentary-style fashion photography: images shot in daylight, with models posed as if just plucked from the street. “You try to normalize a five grand dress and $350,000 necklaces by putting them in a context that seems a little bit more normal,” Mr. Sundsbø said.

Indeed, already much of the fashion content that has come out of the pandemic has seemed to oscillate between shame and denial.

Tim Walker, famous for fantastical, often surreal images — a girl in a ball gown in a field, surrounded by paper birds; a model on the edge of a landing U.F.O. — said that he currently felt “uncomfortable making fashion pictures, in the traditional sense.”

He recalled that in the past, when working with magazines, “I was more looking at the shape of the dress and what it could give my fantasy. I didn’t question how it was made; I didn’t question how expensive it was. And I just find now I feel uncomfortable glorifying that type of thing.”

His fashion work is on pause, he said, adding that even before the pandemic, budgets for shoots had shrunk by about eight times, as brands and publications tried to churn out more and more content. Everything was rushed.

“What you’re left with are magazines that are full, 90 percent, with commercial, relentless, accelerated photography,” said Mr. Walker. “It just doesn’t resonate or mean anything.”

Glen Luchford, who recently shot campaigns for Gucci and Rag & Bone, and whose 1990s campaigns for Prada are beloved by the art world, agreed. He recalled looking around the set at Gucci — the rare client with a big photography budget — and saying to his crew: “This is the last hurrah. This is the end. There is not going to be another period where we get to take over Universal Studios and build these massive sound stages and do these incredible things.

“I’m not even sure that quality is required anymore,” he continued. “Those kids out there, looking at TikTok, are way more interested in someone appearing in 10 or 20 seconds and doing something really interesting on their telephone than in something that is really beautifully lit.”

Quil Lemons, 23, is another rising star. He recently photographed Spike Lee, staring down the camera in the center of a New York street, for the cover of Variety. Like Miss Jarvis, Mr. Lemons expressed frustration with feeling he was just on “the list of Black people they now need to hire.”

And yet, he said, he felt that magazines were inescapable. Social media is helpful in demanding recognition, and calling out inequalities, but in popular consciousness, a magazines signals credibility and context that will take years to change.

“It’s an entry point for so many people,” he said.

Still, Mr. Lemons believes his generation is carving out a new kind of fashion image. In 2017, he made a series called Glitterboy, featuring unfussy portraits of young Black men against pink backdrops, their faces covered in glitter; the pictures were published by i-D.

For Vogue, Mr. Lemons has shot his family, including his young sisters, in apartments and gardens near where he grew up in South Philadelphia. The budgets he’s working with may be smaller than in the past, and the opportunities for outlandish demands clipped, but beauty will prevail, he said.

When Mr. Lemons looks at the cannon of fashion photography widely mourned as the last of a great era — images like Richard Avedon’s 1955 “Dovima with Elephants,” featuring a model in a Dior gown, arms outstretched to caress the trunks of two chained circus elephants (now one of the most expensive fashion images sold at auction) — Mr. Lemons does not see himself, or his viewpoint.

He doesn’t see it in shots of wide-eyed models abroad, the camera caressing the contrast between their whiteness and the exoticism of the surroundings. Nor in images of models posed with people of color like props, or plopped into incongruous, flamboyant locations. He sees it in something else.

“Why can’t the everyday Black person be your fantasy?” he said. “A fantasy is anything you dream of, and I don’t dream of white women running through the Sahara.”


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