In 1856 Adolphe Braun published photographs of Countess di Castiglione, an Italian courtesan known to be a mistress of Emperor Napoleon III. The Countess commissioned photographs of herself in various signature poses, often fully garbed in court attire. The photographs are widely viewed as the first examples of fashion photography with Countess di Castiglione as the first fashion model. At this point in history photography was emerging as an exciting new way to document events. More creative minds saw the artistic potential.
The Countess saw an opportunity to feed her narcissistic needs by showing, sharing and loving her apparent rare beauty. She used her feminine instinct for flattering dress and sensual movements as a tool in creating groundbreaking images for Adolphe Braun (and others) to photograph. The rush of adrenaline the Countess must have felt upon viewing the photos must have been intoxicating, as she spent her entire personal fortune on the pursuit of re-creating moments in her life.
The story of the Countess di Castiglione is very indicative of the power of photography and its effects on the subject to be photographed. Narcissistic or not, it is quite an experience to see oneself from a different point of view and in a flattering manner. Our self-esteem is heightened, our ego becomes even slightly inflated and perhaps we find ourselves walking a little taller. Let us turn to the photographer. The person behind the camera is as necessary as the subject. He or she knows how to manipulate the subject, either physically or emotionally in order to achieve that one single moment of perfection and capture it on film.
Even with technology, there is a great amount of skill involved. Beyond lighting, location and coloring, there are the rare and hidden skills of making your subjects feel at ease, bringing out the best in them and finding their inner spark. Then to be able to bring it all together in a breathtaking series of photographs is truly an art. Like any artist, there is an intensely powerful appreciation for one’s work. He or she has taken a person, some clothing and a setting, and transformed it into an image that speaks a thousand words in a thousand different languages to millions of people – without making a sound. That is a powerful talent.
Now let us look at the influence of fashion photography on the world. In 1856, the photos of Countess di Castiglione created a sensation because they were risqué for the era and they presented a look into court life that most people would never see. It is likely that some women of means began to imitate the fashion and manner of the Countess after seeing the photos – much like today. However it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that technology allowed fashion photographs to be widely published in magazines. At first they were published as a means of selling clothing, and presented the items as one dimensional objects.
In 1911 a photographer by the name of Edward Steichen was dared by a magazine publisher to attempt promoting fashion as an art. Steichen took up the challenge and created a collection of shots that presented the garments in a manner that gave the viewer a feeling for their quality and construction. Models posed in natural environments and relaxed poses. The impact of this new art form was widespread. European, British and American fashion photographers began using this new artsy form of photographing clothing – much to the delight of garment manufacturers. As World Wars came and went, styles changed, materials and fabrics became scarce, but photography as it was applied to fashion became more creative. Political interests began to enter fashion photography as a way to reach to different age groups and spread propaganda.
Today, fashion photography is not only a platform for sales and political agendas, it is also for empowering gender groups. Children and teens who view fashion as their way to express themselves take example from fashion photography. The photos on a billboard or in a magazine are a part of the norms and ideals these young minds build. Plus, because acceptance of their inner selves is as much a part of life as reading and writing, the images they see need to help foster that acceptance. Therefore fashion photography has an incredible responsibility not only to industry, but to generational ideals.