By Atina Dimitrova
Fashion photography has always been associated with luxury, glamour and sensationalism. However, its development was also accelerated by some of the direst events in history changing this association. The widely-spread prejudice towards stardom illustrated on Vogue’s front pages is overcome by an ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London. 2016, the year of its British edition’s 100th anniversary, is colourfully celebrated with 280 photos. The venue offers an inside look at Vogue’s archive with many previously unpublished works. The exhibition Vogue 100: A Century of Style traces back Vogue’s history to Cecil Beaton, the first one to publish a photograph for the magazine in 1924. Condé Nast, Vogue’s publisher from its infancy, and its archive, also exhibit modern fashion photographers like Tim Walker and Mario Testino.
Yes, Vogue is about a cultural landscape mainly dominated by charming supermodels. However, Vogue is also the revelation of personalities and social phenomena. When American Vogue faced restrictions on overseas shipping, the British edition appeared. Launched during the First World War in 1916, British Vogue made a revolution as a barometer of unprecedented historical events. With its 2,000 issues, British Vogue for 100 years now has been there to cover the zeitgeist with its political unfairness, environmental concerns and desire for post-war prosperity.
The exhibition follows a reverse chronology. The first thing to explore is what the magazine looks like from a current perspective. Then, the exhibition moves back through the decades to the first issues. Every period is represented in a separate room, strictly designed so as to match the historical background. The clear distinction between the periods in terms of rooms’ allocation helps to understand even more about the transition within the decades concerning fashion photography.
Vogue is also scandalous – Arnold Genthe’s nude photograph Modern Torso (1938) of a woman representing Hellenic ideals of physical beauty and Corrine Day’s underwear shoots of Kate Moss (1993) exemplify this. Of course, we have many provocative photos of Kate, who is thought to have appeared on more Vogue covers than anybody else. Beyond this nudity, though, we see how the pictures raise concerns about our morality. Photos like these provoke, but they are taken with care so as to promote the purity of nakedness welcoming us to the model’s soul.
The magazine, however, is also a reflection of the historic context of its photos. Vogue’s Coronation issue (1937), dedicated to George VI’s crowning, was an instant success. Moreover, Lee Miller’s wartime photographs are symbols of the Second World War. From a Vogue model, she became its war correspondent in words and photos. Her picture Home defence in Hampstead (1941) of people wearing fire masks and eye shields became a memorable surrealistic representation of the war.
Vogue’s intervention in the cultural landscape does not stop here. Its Coronation issue about Elizabeth II’s crowning is unsurpassed. Another evidence that Vogue takes the initiative to change the status quo is the publication of its first cover with a black model in 1966. Donyale Luna’s cover proves Vogue’s ambitions to obliterate the biases in the public mind.
This magazine is in sync with the time. In 1952 Vogue used a cover in only purple colour when George VI died so as to show its respect towards this. Moreover, in 1997 Vogue presented a special issue as tribute to Diana after the fatal crash in Paris. Vogue is always the mirror of society and its main historic focus is beyond the billion-dollar influence of the fashion industry. For example, Testino’s photo of the model Natalia Vodianova, To Russia with love (2008), is taken as a symbol of her returning to her homeland on a fundraising mission for her children’s charity. Vogue is always there to capture the interesting personalities and their desires to change something in the world for the better.
In the exhibition we see this huge legacy, thanks to the curator Robin Muir. He shares how proud he is that the photographer Tim Walker was a teenager intern at Vogue. Since then Mr Walker has changed the fashion photography with fresh ideas making him a central figure in the exhibition. ‘What Vogue did made sense to me because it dealt with fantasy and the magical,’ the photographer Walker says. Vogue is not only about successful global brands. It is about storytelling. For example, Walker’s portrait of Dame Vivienne Westwood (2009) welcomes us to her soul with autumn warm colours of her maquillage and outfit.
The technological development within Vogue is illustrated too. As a start, we see how the magazine introduced readers to the drawings of Picasso. Then, we observe its first colour photography cover (1932). Moreover, the post-war era glows in colours with pictures like India (1956) by the photographer Norman Parkinson illustrating an Irish fashion model wearing a pink mohair coat. Behind her we see an elephant dressed colourfully in agreement with the Indian traditions. With its explosion of shades, photographers like Parkinson tried to make society again think of prosperity after the sombre 1940s. And among the great selection for our chronologically reversed journey are also Boris Johnson’s and Prince Charles’ photographs, being a symbol of the recent decades. Moreover, straight in front of the entrance, there is a room showing moving pictures. This modern swing of fashion photography is the current focus which Vogue tries to integrate with the still images.
Our discovery of Vogue’s power starts with pictures like Nick Knight’s haute couture photograph of the model Christy Turlington and her pink cotton tunic (1994). Then, we explore Margaret Thatcher’s portrait in 10 Downing Street (1985) by David Bailey. After many rooms, preserving the treasures of the last century, we reach Vogue’s very first issues. This 5-star journey shows us that fashion photography is an embodiment of every major historical event. Vogue will always be about the glamorous fashion industry but it is also about deep coverage of wartime struggle. With its correspondents Vogue explores some of the most frightening historical episodes. Sponsored by Leon Max, the four-month exhibition is a must. This exhibition has a universal focus with its illustrations of our history beyond the widely-expected big brand names. Vogue makes us laugh, but also raises global concerns and welcomes us to admire our all-time heroes and their powerful human stories behind the glamorous lifestyle.
Author of two novels published in Bulgarian. Photography lover. Journalism student at City University London