Fashion Photographer Horst and Vogue 1931-1991

Before Norman Parkinson joined Vogue in 1945 they had great photographers like Horst who shot his first commission for them in 1931 and his last Vogue shoot was 1991 and while this film is long before my time (stop laughing, it is!) I do remember right up to recent history only a decade or so ago my work place being almost identical to Horst’s studio seen here in this fascinating footage a snap shot of fashion photography history.

Smoking in the studio and 10×8 cameras!

I remember it so well, large format cameras “for almost every shoot” is not the ancient history you might think when watching this black and white film.

While Photographers David Bailey, Brian Duffy, and Terence Donovan (the black trinity as Norman Parkinson named them) changed the way many of us would shoot fashion. Using more powerful flash lighting, faster lenses and improved fast film to work quickly, often randomly. With a medium format “roll film” camera to allow rapid repeat exposure that can capture a fleeting expression, they would even turn to handheld 35mm at times for more freedom.

Assistants had to learn to reload film backs quicker, handing loaded cameras to the photographer in quick succession and the Models needed new talents. An ability to pose, that was almost a kin to acting when compared to the precise and specific direction Parkinson would give a model to deliver exactly, down to the curl of a lip what he wanted for every single exposure.

You see non of that in this film of Horst it is a much more deliberate and precise way of working with a pause to adjust every detail while working toward a precise perfection. But these are all skills that Bailey, Duffy and Donovan had learnt and perfected, they could not have set the 60s on fire with their new styles and technique without them.

While both of these great working techniques remain with us today, (maybe more Trinity than Parkinson / Horst in this digital age). It is also true to say that, until quite recently, (less than a decade ago) many photographers, (myself included) would continue to shoot just about everything they could on sheet film as long as the client could afford the materials as it simply provides the best quality images possible.

While a job might not require, (like Horst working in this film) the tilt and shift movement of a large format camera, the big sheets of film deliver like nothing else can and remain the first choice of many fine art photographers for the finest quality. In addition the method of working with large format cameras is methodically and deliberately drawing on all of a photographers skill and experience to give considered and precise results.

Today you will only see Artists and a few “art” or “landscape” photographers using 10×8 or indeed any film at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I love digital and in my “business” I’m pleased to see the back of film. Every job we estimated for was “plus materials” materials included 5×4 Polaroid, film, processing and possibly printing. depending on the size of the job this could add up to anything between a reasonable £200 to a costly £12k or more.

Digital means more photography for less money this is good for any photographers business and fantastic for our clients.

However, what is great for “business” is not always the best thing for my “work”. I’m sure that almost all professional creatives, (not just photographers) working in the fashion or advertising industries over the last few decades, can’t help but think fondly of a time when, for many of us, quality was more important than costs and budgets.

When I look at this short film I can see the skill and effort being put into the detail as this is obviously more important than time spent/money spent.

Then there are those 10×8 Black and White contact sheets!

WOW! Nothing has the detail of a large one to one photographic print from 10×8 inch film, (except of course 20×24 inch film) not to mention the wonderful texture of that Ilford Ilfobrom 255g Fibre based paper. It all looks so much more tactile and enjoyable than throwing an iPad around the table before huddling around the designers MacBook to see the shot to dropped into the layout.

Are we loosing out and what can we look forward to?

Personally, I think it’s only a matter of time before digital not only gives us the quality and tone we lust after but they will also have computer interfaces that allow us to handle displays like paper. I’m not in IT but I think we might even be able to sketch on them and cut them up to stick them on other displays, emulating the old cut and paste seen in this film. The old interface could be our new interface as our computer looks on to build and print the layout it is watching you discuss and adjust.

Until then, until we do have the best of both worlds, I can only delight in the freedom digital cameras and backs have brought to my business, and feel satisfied that can I continue to apply to my photography, (digital or otherwise) all the skills and experience that working with large format sheet film has taught me, with its hands on precise and deliberate process. A methodology and attitude that works so well in delivering quality over quantity.




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