Friday, December 1, 2017

Photo Book Review: The History of Fashion Photography


One volume I've had lying about literally for decades and have finally found time to read is The History of Fashion Photography by Nancy Hall-Duncan.  The book was written to accompany an exhibit at the George Eastman House, where the author was then working as an assistant curator, that was held in 1977 and that attempted to provide a comprehensive overview of its subject up to that date.

The history proceeds chronologically from the industry's beginnings when the available technology prohibited any reproduction at all of photos, through the earliest era of fashion magazines when Baron Adolph de Meyer and Edward Steichen (who had died only four years before this book was written) were employed one after the other by Condé Nast, and from there decade by decade to the time of the work's publication.  Along the way, each new movement and change in taste is carefully described and analyzed.  For me, the most interesting chapters are those dealing with Pictorialism and Surrealism.

In general, Ms. Hall-Duncan's treatment is insightful and even-handed without ever becoming pedantic.  Some photographers she mentions, such as Bob Richardson, have themselves fallen out of fashion but most have stood the test of time very well.   An entire chapter is devoted to the work of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.  The selection of photos from the original exhibit is excellent and makes this one of the best anthologies of fashion photography available.

What truly makes the book fascinating to read now is its perspective - that of the late 1970's. This, of course, was still the era when print editions of fashion magazines such as Vogue reigned supreme.  There's no intimation at all of the upheaval that the introduction of digital cameras and the internet would bring to the fields of editorial and advertising photography. It was an analog world where photos were shot on film and then converted into halftone reproductions using methods that would now be considered primitive.  The leading practitioners of fashion photography at the time of publication were Helmut NewtonGuy Bourdin and Deborah Turbeville, though icons such as Cecil Beaton were still alive and are described in the present tense.

Unfortunately, this is a poorly designed book.  Although the jacket states that the Alpine edition is produced from the "very same plates" as the first edition (Abrams), there is a great deal left to be desired.  The crowded text is in a sans serif font that is difficult to read and that is so far to the edge that it falls into the volume's gutter.  Footnotes are placed awkwardly on the opposite side of the page where the text would normally be shown.  More importantly, the photographic reproductions themselves are not of first rate quality.  Interestingly, this seems more a problem with the black & white photos than with the color.

No comments:

Post a Comment