Beyond The Purely Aesthetic: Newton, Avedon, Shields, and Comte

A photograph in the fashion industry is unique because it combines both documentary and artistic work. 

In 1990, acclaimed French Literary theorist, Roland Barthes, published “The Fashion System”, which provided a semiotic analysis of fashion magazines and explored how the world of fashion uses images and words to create an abstract world. In addition, Barthes introduced his idea that fashion photography had three general trends: The first – fashion photography as an objective and literal representation of the product for advertisement purposes. The second is associated with the romanticized and glamorized demonstration, where these images are deemed as ‘art’ and often refer to tradition and art history. The third trend is fashion photography to the point of absurdity, where the subject may be shown in unrealistic and unrealistic and the viewer and to draw attention to the image. Barthes argued that everyone wants to produce an “outrageous” photograph. Through observing the works some of the most influential fashion photographers, such as Helmut Newton (1920-2004), Richard Avedon (1923-2004), Tyler Shields, and Michel Comte, we are able to witness the merging of these three trends

With reference to Barthes’ third purpose of fashion photography being to shock and outrage the viewer, Photographer Helmut Newton did exactly this. Newton, dubbed the “King of Kink”, was a German, high-fashion photographer whose subversive and overtly sexual approach to his subject matter brought an edge and uniqueness to his editorial spreads. His editorial images, generally in stark black and white, were premeditated to shock and push boundaries. Models were portrayed in ways that hardly any viewers expected. An example of this isRoselyne Lights the Chateau (1975)” where Newton shows a partly nude model, exposing one of her breasts in the salon of a chateau. Roselyne exudes elegance and luxury through her dress, hair, and heels and is shown leaning over the fireplace. Newton photographed models such as Cindy Crawford and Charlotte Rampling for many well-known magazines including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle. Additionally, Newton’s photographs have also been said to have influenced fashion photography by giving context to his subjects and creating stylized and almost surreal scenes.  This, therefore, relates to Barthes’ second observed purpose of fashion photography – as creating works of art – which also is shown in Newton’s beautifully composed photograph of Jodie Foster from 1987. 

One of the most influential fashion photographers of all time, Richard Avedon, blurred the lines between fashion photography and art, infusing his photographs with realism along with outrageous fantasy and experimentation. Like Newton, Avedon blended Barthes’ second and third trends of fashion photography, creating photographs that shock, romanticize and that are deemed as art, not solely advertisements. Avedon’s photographs capture the freedom and excitement of fashion, as it entered an era of complete change,  popularization, and worldwide integration. His iconic portraits of celebrities stretched over more than half of the 20th Century and his subjects included Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol.  

My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph,” he once observed. 

One of Avedon’s most famous photographs is “Dovima with the Elephants” (1955). Dovima was one of the world’s most famous models and Avedon was one of the most acclaimed fashion photographers of the time. This photograph brings movement and motion to a medium embodied by stillness. Avedon moved the models out of the studio, placing them against astonishing and intriguing new backdrops, demonstrating his intention to blend commercial fashion photography with art. This photograph catches a critical moment in the history of fashion photography, where an ‘old-style’ more traditional model is presented in a new contemporary and flashy artistic light. Dovima’s dress is elegant and beautiful, yet the focus of the photograph arguably is the elephants. This shocking, breathtaking and compelling photograph was achieved by the brilliantly composed symmetry between the model and the elephants. The chains around the elephant’s feet may allude to a deeper concept of the idea of ‘reduced life’. Avedon returned to this concept in his later portrait series from 1976 which focuses on his father gradually aging. Another photograph that aligns with Barthes’ proposal that fashion photography aims to shock and his argument that fashion photography serves as art is Avedon’s “Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent” (1981). This photograph depicts model Nastassja Kinski nude, directly gazing at the viewer unfazed by the snake lying on her body.

Swiss Contemporary fashion photographer, photojournalist, and filmmaker Michel Comte (1954-) is best known for his high profile advertising work and celebrity portraits. Michel Comte is a self-taught photographer and a major influence on contemporary fashion photography. In his series “The Women” the viewer is confronted with an intimate, direct and assertive approach to fashion photography and portraiture. The series is a collection of artistic fashion photographs featuring celebrity figures.  The passive female of traditional fashion photography is here replaced by an iconic image of the modern woman: strong and in control. In his photographHelena Crossing”(2013), Comte depicts supermodel Helena Christensen crossing the street in a ball gown. Through the use of black and white, in addition to his careful composition, Comte articulates the emotive qualities inherent with his subject matter, romanticizing his scenes and whilst fusing art and fashion. Comte also photographed “Claudia Schiffer I”(2013) as a part of this series. Claudia is the epitome of the modern femme, direct and independent. 

American Photographer, screenwriter, director, and former professional skater Tyler Shields (1982-) is known for his unparalleled controversial, shock evoking photographs of Hollywood celebrities. Shields’ images often incorporate violence and eroticism as he continues to push the boundaries of art and photography. His photographs undoubtedly outrage viewers with their absurdity, such as his recent photograph “The Lady and the Lion” (2019)  which depicts a model sitting in a studio, positioned next to a giant Lion, therefore relating to Barthes third observed trend of fashion photography – shocking the audience.

Even though photography is constantly growing and evolving, fashion photography is more than a passive mirror image of a period; it serves as a tool for broadcasting new standards of consumption tied to evolving notions of the self, as well as evoking emotions and feelings in its viewers. As explained in this article, Garments, through the lens of fashion photography, have come to mean more than just their function. Fashion’s natural vigor and popularity highlight its continued relevance, beyond a purely aesthetic and decorative function.