The future of fashion photography: Is the editorial dead?

by Chiara Bardelli Nonino

20 Jun 2018

This is not the article I planned on writing. The idea was to explore the cross-fertilization of fashion photography and literature, the interaction of fashion images and text, but the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that this link historically has not been that relevant. Or not that much.

Don’t get me wrong, fashion photography has a strong narrative component, especially after the major revolution in the 1990s when a combination of socio-economical and cultural factors introduced the use of narrative techniques in its mainstream practice. But even in this scenario, the literary references are oftentimes mediated, drawn from a visual repository shaped by cinema, art and pop culture in general. As Charlotte Cotton noticed, in her essay for Aperture issue 216, fashion photography effectively and transparently works by “lifting ideas from artists and film directors, relying on its viewers’ preexisting image recognition” – and this deliberate exploitation of a lingering, subconscious imagination is what makes fashion photography so powerful and so alluring.

Aperture, issue 216, Fall 2014

This “narrative shift” has been eloquently investigated in the 2004 MoMA exhibition “Fashioning Fiction in photography since 1990”: the idea is that techniques that were at first a prerogative of avant-garde fashion photographers and artists (such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Cindy Sherman, Juergen Teller, Nan Goldin), got picked up by a generation of independent magazines (i-D, The Face, Interview, Dazed) and then by the establishment itself. The introduction of realism, cinematic lighting and snapshot aesthetics must have felt like a shockwave in the beginning: this radical new way of doing fashion photography was a clear, defiant challenge to the widespread conventions. In a world where the clothes were more and more mass produced and the focus was shifting on selling a lifestyle more than an outfit, clothes became a prop for the storytelling, losing its role as the main protagonist of the fashion image.

And this was true for the single images (think of Guy Bourdin intrinsically narrative and suspenseful shots) but also for the editorial spreads, where the narrative could develop over a number of pages [1].

Guy Bourdin, French Vogue, December 1976, image courtesy Louise Alexander Gallery

When we think about examples in fashion photography where text is an integral part of the image and is consistently used, Bruce Weber’s editorials come to mind, as well as Anna Piaggi’s D.P. column (she used to collaborate with photographers and she combined their images with words selected mainly for their aesthetic quality).

Bruce Weber, ‘One Circus 3 Rings’, V Magazine, March 2017

Bruce Weber, ‘Wolf Gril’, Vogue Italia, October 2010

More recently, Coco Capitán constantly intercuts her photographs with her writings in her instagram account and her collaboration with Gucci is heavily based on text intrusion. However, these are exceptions in the panorama of fashion photography, not the rule [2].

Coco Capitán, Instagram account

Coco Capitán, Instagram account

But a new generation of fashion photography is fatally coming, and maybe in its work text will assume a new, possibly pivotal, role. Fashion has always been “characterized by constant change, for being porous, reactive and even predictive in its visualization of consumer society”: the 1990s cultural shift with its use of narrative tools was intercepted and absorbed by the industry, becoming a common, widespread practice. But this was more than 2 decades ago. And now?

Siduations, Instagram account

In a way, fashion photography is now in a stagnant situation: there’s nothing truly innovative or challenging even in indie magazines anymore – and I am not talking about the ones founded in the 1990s that are now part of the establishment, but also about the new wave of independent niche magazines founded every year: the aesthetic homologation is overwhelming.

What is surely changing is that the common way of experiencing an editorial is not the printed magazine anymore: the majority of fashion stories are now seen online, fragmented in single images so that the original storyline is inevitably scattered. And on social media, what works better are the more impactful, attention-grabbing images.

It seems that in an overcrowded fashion world, where the influence of the conventional fashion gatekeepers is dwindling and is being questioned, where the ultimate commodity is people’s attention, where sex, a good-for-all selling tool doesn’t sell anymore (but activism does), a major revolution is in store for fashion photography as well: the striking single images will be more important than the story and the viral potential will be paramount. Images (and products) are already being conceived to be meme-able and shareable, photos are more and more designed to convey ironic or propaganda-like slogans. It’s already so, will it be exponentially so? Think of artists like @siduations, @freddiemade and @hey_reilly, who recontextualize fashion images creating something completely new, a mix of collage art and memes where the caption has often an essential part.

Freddie Smithson, Brexit Bootleg

So who knows, maybe the rules of fashion communication are about to be re-written and maybe, as the whole world is moving away from text, at least according to Farhad Manjoo, fashion photography will go against the flow and indissolubly tie its future to it.

Chiara Bardelli Nonino is the Photo Editor of Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue. She is also a curator and her most recent exhibition is  Sanna Kannisto‘s solo show A song system at Metronom, in Modena, Italy.

[1] One notable and early example of extended narrative was the 1982 Fall-Winter Dior’s “serial campaign” by Richard Avedon, where an ambiguous trio (‘The Diors’) carried on a deliberately puzzling relationship; the photos were always accompanied by a copy written by Doon Arbus (Diane Arbus’ daughter) and, in this case, also the text was essential to the storytelling.

Richard Avedon, ‘The Diors’, Fall-Winter Dior’s campaign, text by Doon Arbus, 1982

[2] Truth to be told, there’s a special kind of text that is always linked to fashion photography: the credits. There’s the famous editorial Homosapiens Modernus by Mikael Jansson for Dutch Magazine in 1998, where for each photo featuring completely naked people there was the corresponding fashion credit in the corner of the page or the famous Juergen Teller image of Kristen McMenamy naked with a painted heart and the word Versace written on her chest – a clear statement where the fashion photo is defined only by the presence of the brand. Or let’s think about Oliviero Toscani’s Benetton advertising campaigns and instagram artist @bessnyc4 (Doug Abraham): both superimpose brands on unrelated images, making them effectively fashion images. In this case the relationship between image and text is definitely essential, but not narrative at all.