Have They Always Looked This Good?

Condé Nast and the Evolution of Fashion Photography

It’s true: I don’t buy Vogue for the articles (another heiress has an adventure, hurrah!). I buy it for the spreads. The lush, high-budget fashion spreads will always be my reason to pick up a copy of the magazine—something that, as a fashion nerd, has always made me feel a little shallow. Thankfully I picked up Coming into Fashion: A Century of Photography at Condé Nast, a book all about the importance of fashion photography as an art form, and its many contributions to the fashion world. Now, thanks to editor Nathalie Herschdorfer, I feel much more justified in flipping straight to the pretty pictures.

Herschdorfer acknowledges in her introduction that she made a bit of a devil’s bargain—choosing to focus only Condé Nast’s contribution to fashion photography, and leave out spreads from rival Harper’s Bazaar and other fashion mags. This does make for a bit of a one-sided read, but she makes an effort to mention the other publications when relevant, which definitely made me want to do some research on my own. That being said, the photos Herschdorfer was able to find at this one publishing house are truly remarkable especially because she decided to narrow her scope further by focusing on the early work of Condé Nast’s troupe of ‘Old Masters.’ As a result we are given a selection of the most innovative and inventive images printed in the magazines.

The book is filled with over two hundred beautifully reproduced photographs, which are mostly from Vogue or one of its international editions, with the occasional image thrown in from GQ, Vanity Fair, or a few others. The most remarkable thing about looking at these photographs is how often the clothing seems almost irrelevant in the photos—despite Herschdorf pointing out that Condé Nast was infamous for criticizing his photographers for being too ‘artful’ when they lost sight of their sartorial focus. It’s especially easy to view the photos as high art once they are taken out of the context of the magazine page, and the truth is that the photos were never entirely about clothes. As Herschdorf points out, the success of Conde Nast’s photographers was based on their ability to highlight a mood or lifestyle as much as a model’s outfit. Herschdorfer herself pays little heed to the fashions displayed, usually only bringing up the styles when a photographer has directly contributed to or popularized them.

Two essays penned by fashion historians Oliver Saillard and Sylvie Lecallier round out the book. Saillard focuses on the symbiotic relationship fashion photographers developed over the years with the couturier, arguing that the success of a fashion designer is often dependent on how well the concept behind a line can be expressed through a photo. Lecallier is more interested in the relationship between the fashion photographer and the model. She focuses on how photographers have helped define beauty ideals by choosing to work with certain models, often introducing the next supermodel or look. There is also an interview with Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani focusing on the relationship between the fashion editor and the photographer, which offers an interesting look into the mechanics behind creating a fashion spread.

The book is broken up into four areas with brief summaries explaining why the photos you’re looking at are important. The narrative is filled with juicy tidbits about Condé Nast discovering young talent and the imminent threat of Harper’s Bazaar stealing them away. Sidebars offer helpful details about how things developed stylistically and technically—what cameras were used, who used them, and the intent behind the image—as well as who the photographer was, their relationship to Condé Nast, and how they developed during their time with the publishing house. The participation of well-respected artists further emphasizes the artistic merit of the form, with photos by people like Salvador Dali and Diane Arbus receiving particular attention.

Although the essays and interviews are all interesting reads, the photographs are still the most compelling part of the book. I loved flipping through and trying to guess when an image was from; the high quality of the reprint often made it difficult to figure out when a photo was taken. It was fascinating to see the artistry behind the average fashion spread, and read about how the fashion photographer has evolved to become such an important figure.

photography // Laura Tuttle