Like many parts of the fashion industry, photography has experienced massive and much-needed change in recent years. We chronicle the movements in our two-part series.
WORDS Adam Bryce
It wasn’t so long ago that I read a quote — “fashion photographers are the new rockstars” and it got me thinking. A photographer as a creator, is behind the scenes, certainly not in front of the camera in a way which would have someone think of them as a ‘rockstar’ figure. But, at the same time, I understood the sentiment. The quote was made at a time when (as a whole) the same group of photographers had been sitting pretty at the top of the fashion pile for quite some time.
If you were to tier the world of fashion photography — tiers two and below were always up for grabs and these image makers would change frequently. However, tier one was different and had been untouchable for years — 20, 30, or even 40? These were the “rockstars” the quote was referring to, a group of photographers that were solid at the top. Could disappear into the ether for a year or two, could turn down jobs other photographers would dream of and, then, walk back into the realm and snap jobs back without a second thought. At the time, it seemed as though there was an impenetrable barrier of sorts that was simply not bust-throughable.
The likes of Steven Meisel, Peter Lindbergh, Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, along with the 90s additions of David Sims, Mario Sorrenti, Juergen Teller and more recent sneak-in addition Alasdair McLellan, were simply part of an untouchable (white) boys club. The reasons behind this phenomenon were fairly obvious — each had a proven record of successfully shooting major campaigns, all produced iconic works that had taken fashion imagery to never-before-seen heights and, as time went on, the entry doors for this club grew tougher and tougher to break.
There was, however, a slight exception on the horizon when a young British photographer, by the name of Jamie Hawkesworth, broke onto the scene around 2013 and started shaking things up a little with his unique style. Hawkesworth made his mark, inspiring young photographers the world over switching to medium-format cameras, experimenting with hand-printing and warm tones became the new norm for any brand aspiring to be the next big thing, itself.
Yet, the most interesting outcome from this emergence wasn’t Hawkesworth’s success (nor new exemplary entries such as Colin Dodson or Johnny Dufort) but the arrival of Hawkesworth’s ex-girlfriend, a British art grad by the name of Harley Weir.
At the same time as Hawkesworth was being touted as the photographer of a generation, the working world was beginning to evolve and finally realise that women were just as (or more) capable than men in all walks of life and the fashion industry, in particular, had grown tiresome of its male-dominated industry. This movement was subsequently and considerably propelled forward by an industry that had suddenly woke to the sexual misconduct by many of its male “rockstars”. The world finally needed something new, fashion imagery needed something new and Harley Weir was that something new.
Her talent was undeniably brilliant, her refreshing in-person and through-the-lens view of strong women, and their right to be so, was clear to see. Weir wasn’t afraid to push her motives, wasn’t afraid to shock and this, matched with a new perspective, meant she could do no wrong. And that small crack in the boys club door was growing and Weir was ready to pull it right off its hinges.
The newly enlightened industry, however, couldn’t solely depend on the availability of one photographer and there was a demand for more fresh options at the ready. Additionally, Weir’s success was built around a signature aesthetic — bold and often provocative, it wasn’t for everyone but the idea of new talent was.
The boys club door took another whack by young-but-certainly-not-new-to-the-scene Zoë Ghertner. Her talent was on par with Weir’s and the tier one “rockstars” and her soft, natural style began to really take hold and command attention. The Los Angeles-based Ghertner had been shooting high-profile editorial even before her British counterparts, but without the hype that was starting to surface.
Meanwhile, the fashion industry continued to experience severe turmoil caused by long-term misogynistic behaviour ,where a blind eye had been turned from sexual abuse and exploitation. By 2017, tier one heavyweight, Terry Richardson, had been nixed from Condé Nast publications and many of his big-brand clients soon followed suit. More male perpetrators of sexual misconduct were subsequently taken off the roster, tier one was imploding by the millisecond and the barrier was about to collapse into a timely heap.
At the same time, the talent pool seemingly exploded with an abundance of exceptional young female photographers. Coco Capitán announced herself to the industry with a beautiful bang and the art world sent fashion photographers such as the now-legendary Talia Chetrit and Collier Schorr. More newcomers, like Lea Colombo and Brianna Capozzi, also started making fast and powerful tracks towards the peak of fashion photography.
The barrier was broken and, now, the likes of the hugely talented Sims, Sorrenti and McLellan, found themselves in a new group of “rockstars”. One that had been broken up and re-assembled with the inclusion of Harley Weir, Zoë Ghertner, Collier Schorr and, of course, Jamie Hawkesworth.
However, the fashion industry hadn’t become completely inclusive by any stretch of the imagination. But a sector of it had, thankfully, become more open-minded.
What had been proven was a kind of recipe for how change could happen within the industry but, as you will have surmised, it took a colliding and fortuitous series of events for the movement to gain momentum and ultimately occur. Was fashion photography ready for further development and inclusiveness?
In October 2019, Aperture magazine published, in collaboration with writer and critic Antwaun Sargent, a book entitled The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion. In a magical way, the book was an unofficial flag placed in the ground that symbolised an even more inclusive change in fashion photography. An evolution that was indicative of a change desperately needed throughout the fashion world, as a whole. The New Black Vanguard highlighted a simple but very meaningful concept, publishing the portfolios by 15 fashion photographers of colour.
Among those included was a young, New York-based photographer, Tyler Mitchell. A name that has, in rapid time, begun to represent a movement. Mitchell was the first African American photographer and, at just 23 years of age, the youngest photographer to photograph the cover of Vogue magazine. Not only that, it was the cover of Vogue’s famous September issue and the cover star was none other than another coloured icon, Beyoncé.
My mind wandered back trying to recall a time when ‘who’ shot the cover of Vogue was celebrated on the news. In New Zealand. The time was now. The attention Mitchell garnered was globally monumental and not just within fashion circles. His appointment became the symbol of much-needed change and the mainstream media coverage reinforced the fact that it was a shift that the entire world needed.
Within a year, Mitchell was a superstar in his own right, shooting campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands, countless more magazine covers, held solo exhibition shows and signed with leading artists management and creative content agency, Art Partner.
And so the shattered barrier by Weir and peers, allowed the course of history to change and for Mitchell to stride through the doors with grace and excellence.