From Penn to Leibovitz: Fashion photography’s best and most provocative

March 14, 2012

When we think fashion, it’s the model or the designer who comes to mind. But often times, the tastemaker is the man or woman behind the camera – the person responsible for setting the scene, the angles and the lighting that will work together with the woman and clothes to create a beautiful image. That image goes on to sell said woman, said designer, and of course, said clothes. But the mark of a great photographer is not what he or she manages to sell, but the image and feeling he or she culminates. Get to know some of the most prolific and thought-provoking fashion photographers in the past century below, where their photos are more than the clothes, the model or the celebrity.

Irving Penn (1917-2009)

Irving Penn

A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective. - Irving Penn

Irving Penn is one of the 20th century’s most influential photographers. Originally schooled in paint and design, he gave it up to become a photographer for Vogue in 1943 after a stint at cover design. Penn’s photographs appeared in over 150 Vogue covers through the next half-century. In the ‘40s he liked to pose his subjects in between two plain walls for dramatic effect. His subjects reacted unexpectedly: “This confinement, surprisingly, seemed to comfort people, soothing them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against,” he recalls in his book Passage. His overall style gave a sense of methodicalness and nontransience to his photos, of something still and austere.

In the ‘50s, Penn adopted a preference for close-ups. One of his most famous portraits depicts Picasso under a wide hat, the left side of his face illuminated and regarding the viewer with a kind of alarmed focus. The desire to deviate from fashion’s idea of perfection was a common thread in Penn’s career; harsh processing techniques and sometimes garish subject matter (one close-up of a woman depicted a beetle coming out of her ear) abound. Penn was also known for his still life photography, especially in his later years, and a mastery of the film development process.

Irving Penn

Helmut Newton (1920-2004)

Helmut Newton

In my vocabulary there are two bad words: art and good taste. – Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton’s work is marked by edgy, erotic scenes, sometimes with violent or fetishistic undertones. He began his first commercial fashion photography when working for an Australian supplement for Vogue in the ‘50s. He eventually moved to France and worked for magazines there, including French Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Given the often graphic nudity in Newton’s work, he was an obvious contributor for Playboy. Of Playboy, he says, “My work was even too risky for Playboy. They asked me—please do something for us…but nothing as kinky as what you do for French Vogue.” The photographer’s published books include Big Nudes, White Women and an autobiography. Newton often expressed his dislike for being described as an artist: “Some people’s photography is an art. Not mine. Art is a dirty word in photography. All this fine art crap is killing it already.”

Helmut Newton

Mario Testino (1954)

Mario Testino

Mario gives them a heightened and more beautiful version of reality. Mario’s pictures are very mystic and they’re about having a great time. They are about not being afraid of being rich or being famous or being a little bit excessive and are really a celebration of that. A celebration of life. – Tom Ford

Mario Testino is considered an iconic figure in contemporary fashion photography, having photographed for Vogue, GQ, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Gucci and Vanity Fair, among other brands and publications. Other famous clients include the British royal family; some of Testino’s most famous shots are of Princess Diana in the months before her death, and he recently took photos of Prince William and Kate Middleton for their engagement. He’s photographed a ridiculous number of celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Meg Ryan, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Aniston. Perhaps more impressively, he’s raised money to build a playground in a Moscow children’s hospital for cancer patients, and a clinic in Lima to help earthquake sufferers. He continues to donate to many charitable causes, including the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Mario Testino

Terry Richardson (1965)

Terry Richardson

Maybe it is manipulative. But when you are with him, you don’t feel it. – Chloë Sevigny, actress

Terry Richardson is notable for embodying fashion photography’s dark side: his photos are often scuzzy and bordering on pornographic, not to mention artless and technically poor. His photos remain popular, however, for their shock value. He’s done work for Gucci, Miu Miu, Jimmy Choo and French Vogue, as well as some celebrity portraiture. Richardson is infamous for his propensity to remove his clothes when he photographs, and egging his models to do the same. “He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of,” says model Rie Rasmussen. Numerous models the photographer has worked with in the past have claimed that Richardson is sexually abusive in the studio. The allegations haven’t seemed to faze Richardson: “The people who don’t like me will hate me more, and the people who do like me will be like, ‘There’s Terry—he went all the way. Cool.’”

Terry Richardson

Annie Leibovitz (1949)

Annie Leibovitz

A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people. – Annie Leibovitz

Leibovitz is one of the best-known photographers in the world. She began her career in the ‘70s as a staff photographer for the start-up Rolling Stone magazine. “Rolling Stone started giving me assignments right away, which made me worry about having crossed over to the other side. I was selling pictures. The photographers I admired were not photographers who worked for magazines on assignment, but people who chose what they did from the inside – or so it seemed at the time,” she says. She found a way to keep doing her personal work, however, by photographing friends and family.

In the 1980s she moved to Vanity Fair in her most famous position. “One of the reasons that I went to Vanity Fair was that I knew I would have a broader range of subjects – writers, dancers, artists and musicians of all kinds. And I wanted to learn about glamour.” Leibovitz claims to aim for capturing the essence of the person she’s photographing; her reputation for celebrity photography is arguably unmatched. Some of her most famous photographs include one of a naked John Lennon curled around Yoko Ono, a pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair, a controversial half-naked Miley Cyrus shot and a special effect-heavy ad campaign for Disney.

Annie Leibovitz