Discover the trailblazing women who made their mark in the 20th century
The world of fashion photography has been a bit of a boy’s club, with women seemingly only appearing in front of the lens rather than behind; but if you delve deeper into the archives that couldn’t be further from the truth. While lesser known, these women have proved to be even more important for the way fashion imagery has developed. Embracing the female gaze, eschewing sexualization in favor of empowering their subjects and adopting new techniques, these photographers brought about a shift in fashion photography and helped shaped what it is today.
Here we look at the work of five of those trailblazing photographers, who made their mark during the 20th century and proved that fashion photography isn't just for the guys.
Born in 1906, Regina Relang became one of Germany’s best-known fashion photographers during the 50s and 60s. She began working for Vogue in 1938 and she photographed fashion shoots at haute couture presentations, as well as models in glamorous locations. The self-taught photographer started out by selling her travel photographs. She moved to Paris and was introduced to the world of fashion after becoming friends with fashion photographer Willy Maywalf.
Relang’s photographs not only documented the changing fashions of Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint-Laurent, but they presented a more modern portrayal of women and how their image had shifted heading into the mid-20th century.
American fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville was a part of the fashion world through her role as a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. She didn’t become a photographer until the 1970s and is widely credited as adding a darker, more edgy element to fashion photography along with Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin.
In this trio of photographers, Turbeville adopted a slightly different tone to Bourdin and Newton, who favored eroticism. Instead she leaned towards a more dreamy and mysterious aesthetic, demonstrating a delicate, female gaze that magazines and big brands like Nike, Ralph Lauren and Bloomingdale’s loved.
Ellen von Unwerth
German photographer Ellen von Unwerth worked as a fashion model for ten years before becoming a photographer, and she continues to work on fashion, editorial, and advertising campaigns today. Von Unwerth came to fame after photographing supermodel Claudia Schiffer in 1989, which catapulted the barely known face to the forefront of the modeling scene. The photographer’s work has been published in magazines including Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Face, i-D, and many more. She also famously shot images for Wonderbra.
The photographer’s images are often sensual, glamorous and alluring, once stating: “The models love to look sexy… they all like to be photographed in that way”. While this aesthetic echoes the images of her male counterparts, von Unwerth uses her perspective as a woman to empower her subjects rather than exploit them.
American photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe became best-known for her work for Harper’s Bazaar. Dahl-Wolfe enjoyed taking photographs outside with natural light in faraway locations like South America and Africa. The style became known as environmental fashion photography. Dahl-Wolfe’s photography differed from others working at the same time as she opted for cooler hues and even corrected her own proofs to get the colors right.
Dahl-Wolfe actually preferred portraiture to fashion photography with notable portraits of Mae West, Cecil Beaton, Edward Hopper, and Josephine Baker being some her most famous. She employed techniques from portraiture to her fashion-led shoots by continually trying to capture character and personality within her subjects. She became a great influence on photographers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon and one of her assistants was fashion and celebrity photographer, Milton H Greene.
Toni Frissell worked in fashion photography during the 1930s through to the 1950s and captured the idyllic sense of the rich at play in many of her images. At the beginning of her career, she worked briefly for Vogue, making captions and writing for the magazine. She was fired because of her poor spelling, but was encouraged by the magazine’s fashion editor Carmel Snow to take up photography. Her first published picture was in Town and Country. After this, she advocated for herself and got a contract with Vogue. Like Dahl-Wolfe, her fashion photos often pictured models in outdoor settings, captured doing activities rather than simply posing. Many photographers soon followed suit, abandoning the confines of the studio for the great outdoors.
During World War II, Frissell volunteered her photographic services to the American Red Cross and she later became the official photographer of the Women’s Army Corps. After the war, the photographer went on to capture informal portraits of the famous and powerful including Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, and John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy. Having grown tired of fashion photography, Frissell was hired as the first woman on the staff of Sports Illustrated in 1953, and continued to be one of very few female sport photographers for several decades.