You might ask yourself, what exactly is fashion photography, and why has it been elevated to an art form worthy of collecting? 

Perhaps the late Irving Penn, who worked for Vogue for decades, captured the art form best when he said fashion photography was "selling dreams, not clothes".  

But how can you sell a dream? Quite simply, with a unique vision. All the greats of fashion photography, from Man Ray at the height of Surrealism to Corinne Day in the era of so-called "heroin chic" photography, have injected their signature style into every shot.

The Art of Collecting wanted to share our guide of names you need to know and obsess over as much as we do. 

Horst P. Horst (1906-1999)

Horst is a legend – one of the masters of 20th-century photography.

The German-born photographer had a singular way of lighting and composing his images. One need only think of the Mainbocher Corset image (1939) or his unforgettable image "Round the Clock" of a lady in stockings wearing a tutu (1987) to appreciate the beautiful lines and the ultimate sense of sensuality and sophistication evoked in his imagery.

In 1931, when fashion photography began to eclipse illustrations in fashion magazines, Horst joined French Vogue. From the outset, he was keen for all Vogue photographers to work with large format cameras, as these produced much more detailed images.

During the 1930s, the Surrealist way of approaching the world weaved became more prevalent in Horst's photography. His images featured the surrealist-infused dresses of Elsa Schiaparelli, collaborations with Salvador Dalí and Trompe L’oeil Still Life. Later that decade and into the 1940s, Horst, working primarily in Vogue's Condé Nast studio in New York, found a new focus for his photographs: portraits of royals, presidents, artists and writers. The escapism offered by stage and screen was the perfect antidote to the fast-approaching Second World War.

The set of nudes Horst created in the 1950s, which evoke classical sculpture, demonstrates his obsession with form and light. In the 1980s, Horst produced new, so-called platinum palladium prints – favoured for their tonal range, surface quality and permanence – for museums and the collector's market. As a result, Horst's photographs are considered some of the rarest in the world. The last sale of one of his works was through Sotheby's and fetched over $500,000.

Helmut Newton (1920-2004)

So famous for the overtly sexual imagery he created later in life, it's hard to imagine Helmut Newton in his innocence. Born in 1920, Newton was interested in photography from an early age. He bought his first camera aged 12 and began working for the German photographer Elsie Simon, known as Yva, in 1936. Having briefly been interned in a concentration camp, Newton fled Germany on board the Conte Rosso in 1938 and ended up in Singapore for a few years before being sent to Australia.

In 1946, Newton set up a studio in Melbourne and focused on fashion and theatre photography. "New Visions in Photography" was exhibited at the Federal Hotel in 1953. Newton won a 12-month contract to work for British Vogue four years later. However, he left London for Paris before his contract ended and began working for French and German magazines. By 1961, he had settled in Paris, mainly working for French Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

It wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s, following a heart attack, that Newton began to produce controversial, explicitly sexual work, which became his signature style. In his images – often staged vignettes in European jet-set retreats – women are cool and statuesque, and there are suggestions of S&M, voyeurism, fetishism and lesbianism. As his photography barely stopped short of pornography, he managed to outrage some feminist viewers, but he certainly satisfied others. Fusing elements of erotica, fashion, documentary and portraiture, his provocative imagery produced a highly stylized interpretation of decadent ways of life.

In 1981, Newton published Big Nudes, a book containing his perhaps most iconic images: black and white photographs of powerful, Amazonian women, naked but for their indispensable heels.

Guy Bourdin (1928-1991)

Born in Paris in 1928, Bourdin began his career at Vogue's French edition in the early 1950s after leaving military service. A lover of Surrealism, he pursued Man Ray for mentorship despite being turned away from the photographer's door six times before getting lucky on the seventh. Man Ray's influence can. Both were preoccupied with the uncanniness and eroticism of the female body. They photographed it piecemeal – elegant hands trailing across the frame, legs strolling on a lawn in ruby red heels like a haunted Dorothy – and thought obsessively, often to the point of fetish, about the relationship between skin and the things that clothed it. 

Now, Guy Bourdin is best known for the fashion photography and portraiture he produced in the 1970s and '80s. Then, it was a time not only of glamour but of risk and subversion. Bourdin and his contemporaries, including Helmut Newton and Chris von Wangenheim, made what had previously been sexually implicit entirely explicit. Bourdin's images of splayed limbs and models in varying states of undress still can shock now, just as they did at the time. Dark, provocative and highly stylized, they possess a vitality and a Hitchcock-esque sense of uncanny action. Guy Bourdin himself was so wedded to the perfect image that he once considered if it was possible to dye the sea a deeper shade of blue. No one ever said geniuses weren't a bit mad.

David LaChapelle (1963 -)

When you think of David LaChapelle, think pink, pop, and hyper-real. A unique mix of bold colours, fantasy and Surrealism. A toddler might be holding a missile next to Jesus, or an ethereal beauty dressed in frilly white might emerge from the mansion's wreck. In one of his most iconic images, Elton John could be hovering above a leopard print piano in a blue room, with bright red cherries painted on all surfaces. 

For LaChapelle world, whose work often references art history and sometimes conveys social messages, anything is possible, making him the go-to photographer for many celebrities and magazines. 

When LaChapelle was merely 17 years old in 1980s New York, his work caught the eye of Andy Warhol and the editors of Interview magazine. He was soon shooting editorials for a plethora of magazines such as i-D, Italian VogueGQand Vanity Fair while photographing some of the biggest celebrities in the world, including Britney Spears and Tupac Shakur.

LaChapelle's commercial work has been collected in several books, including LaChapelle Land (1996) and Hotel LaChapelle (1999). In addition, his work continues to be exhibited in museum shows, galleries and art fairs worldwide.

Is fashion art? Or Is art fashion? People have debated this for years – we think these photographers, through their iconic works, prove it's both.

Discover more fro these icons here:

Horst P. Horst

Helmut Newton Foundation

David La Chapelle

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published