FASHION Classic camera

Frances McLaughlin-Gill made fashion photography into an art-form. Martin Harrison introduces a celebration of her work

RETROSPECTIVES of fashion photography are intriguing events, and our fascination is often in direct proportion to the vintage of the photographs. In the past no one stopped to think that the photographs in high fashion glossies might carry meanings which would outlast the magazines' shelf- life of one month, and most were discarded. Luckily, some slipped through the net and have survived to be appreciated by a new audience and in a different context. Frances McLaughlin-Gill's first British exhibition is the outcome of her zealous efforts to rescue her photographs from destruction. Nostalgia aside, they no longer appear quite so ephemeral. It is difficult to dwell on these odd, dislocated slices of bygone theatre without concluding that they are more than just fashion history. They also tell us something about both the people in front of the camera and the woman behind it.

Forty-five years ago Frances McLaughlin (the hyphenated "Gill" was added after her husband died) characterised her photographs as occupying a "narrow fringe" between "the sharp, sharp details of the long-exposed image" and the "blurred fantasy of the out-of-focus picture". Inspired, like so many still photographers, by the cinema, she was acutely aware of the medium's play with space and time and appositely describes her early photographs as belonging to her "filmic period". For the first seven or eight years of her career - 1944 to 1952 - magazines could accommodate her quest for "captured motion or reality, the feeling of a moment passing, the fleeting glimpse of recognition, a gesture, a smile then and gone ..."

"I preferred to cast models who could act," she says now, "and my favourites all had the ability to improvise within a situation that I had created."

Fashion photographs - more perhaps than any other genre - rapidly become dated. When we look back at images now half-a-century old the photographic techniques - cameras, lighting, film - have not changed fundamentally, but a glance at the elements that once appeared so "contemporary" - the clothes, the hair, the make-up or the pose of the model - is sufficient to lock them into a specific time-frame. And yet today Frances McLaughlin's photographs seem, in many ways, curiously fresh, almost modern. This may be partly due to the "cycle of fashion" having come full circle but is mostly attributable to the freedom of her approach which anticipated and inspired the styles adopted by so many of today's young fashion photographers.

Frances McLaughlin was born to an American mother and an Irish father in New York City in 1919; her father died when she was three months old and from the age of four she was raised and educated in Wallingford, Connecticut. She was inseparable from her twin sister Kathryn, who remembers their twice-weekly visits to Wilkinson's Movie Theater, their fashion drawings of "sleek women with blowing scarves travelling with interesting men on cruise ships", and, above all, the thrill of sharing their aunt's Kodak camera. On graduating from high school the sisters enrolled on an Applied Arts course at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where they managed to inveigle themselves into the darkrooms to study photography. In 1941 both twins entered Vogue's "Prix de Paris" competition and were each among the five finalists. Kathryn landed a job assisting one of Vogue's leading photographers, Toni Frissell, and in 1943 Frances, after spells as a stylist in a fashion house, Montgomery Ward, and as a photographer's assistant, became one of the first photographers to be hired by Vogue's new art director, Alexander Liberman.

"Having dressed alike during our school years," says Kathryn, "we now chose to give up the twin look." It was Frissell who told Frances to see Liberman and, "after only a three-minute interview, where he concentrated on just one of my photographs, he called back the next day to offer me a job."

Her timing was perfect. Liberman had arrived in New York in 1941 after seven years in Paris as art director of the news weekly, Vu. His background in photo-reportage informed everything he tried to achieve with photography at Vogue. Never over-impressed with fashion - "I am here because of women, not because of fashion" - he attempted to reconcile his new responsibilities with his aim of injecting "the grit of life into this artificial world".

Like many immigrants to the US, Liberman rapidly assimilated the ideals of his adoptive country and resented the mannered excesses - what he terms "the artificiality, the European chi-chi" - of established photographers such as Horst and Cecil Beaton. Not only was he sympathetic to "the directness" of native American photographers, he also believed that women photographers had a special rapport with their models, an empathy that would translate into readership identification. Recently he described one of Vogue's newest star photographers, Ellen Von Unwerth, as "coming close to my dream of understanding the intimacy of the woman unobserved".

Toni Frissell, the woman photographer he inherited from his predecessor, Dr Agha, in 1943, had been taking outdoor action photographs of models for Vogue since 1935. Liberman, however, thought that Frissell's work was too posed and static, that she "treated the outdoors like a studio". Frissell's Vogue assignments dwindled, and in 1946 she moved to Harper's Bazaar. But in Frances McLaughlin, Liberman recognised an ideal interpreter of the qualities he sought - naturalness, directness and spontaneity. He says that her "pioneering concepts made her a key photographer" whose work "bordered on a kind of improvisational theatre". Liberman wanted to sweep away the stiffness and formality previously associated with Vogue; the pursuit of fine photographic craftsmanship for its own sake was of no interest to him. "You see, the camera in fact already sees too much. I would always say forget the fashion and concentrate on the woman - you don't have to worry about showing the three buttons - you'll see them anyway."

In the 1930s speed and motion were synonymous with modernism, and the active woman in fashion magazines became a symbol of the same modernity. The "action snapshot" styles of Frissell at Vogue and Martin Munkacsi at Harper's Bazaar were, on the commercial level, a direct response to the growth in the sports and casual wear industry. Similarly, as Carmel Snow, editor of Bazaar, had disarmingly admitted, the location of fashion photographs in mundane, commonplace surroundings (albeit alongside images of more traditional opulence) was an indication that the "suburbanite ... more and more represented our audience." America's fashion industry, with home-grown designers such as Claire McCardell in touch with the new, sporty informality, emerged from the shadow of Paris at the same time; it was boosted further as it filled the gap when the supply of clothes from Paris dried up in 1940. The market for fashion magazines was changing, too, and a younger readership - college girls, young professionals - began to be catered for by titles such as Vogue's junior magazine, Glamour.

Stylish, attractive, and only 24 herself when she was hired by Liberman, McLaughlin was in an ideal position to identify with this young audience. The "junior model" was a new phenomenon, smaller (about 5ft 6in) and younger (aged between 17 and 21) than her senior counterparts. In keeping with the livelier, more experimental atmosphere of Glamour magazine's pages, McLaughlin depicted her young models in actual or implied movement, in casual or intimate poses, and, in stark contrast to the countryside idylls which were the norm at that time, frequently in urban settings. One memorable outdoor sitting, dreamed up by Glamour's art director, Tina Fredericks, was "Beauty Through a Man's Eyes". McLaughlin flew to Hollywood in order to work with the actress Nan Martin as her model; as the expenses escalated way over budget only Liberman's admiration for Nan Martin saved the photographer's skin.

Her fresh, somewhat irreverent approach was also responsible for some of the strongest pages in American Vogue in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This was the "filmic period" when her work mirrored the energy and buoyancy of New York. Her coverage of the Paris collections in 1952 marked a high-point in her photography but also a watershed in her career. Without wishing to push the analogy too far, it is perceptible that the decade of Eisenhower's insularity and complacency was reflected in fashion magazines, which were undeniably less inclined to encourage experimentation. McLaughlin's photographs might be dynamic but were never confrontational, and by the time a reaction to the status quo set in on American Vogue, it was the tougher styles of William Klein and Bruce Davidson that were in demand.

In 1948 McLaughlin married the photographer Leslie Gill, whom she had first met six years previously. Husband-and-wife photographer couples are almost unknown in Britain, but they were prevalent in New York in the 1940s. Frances's sister had already married the photographer James Abbe Junior, and there were the Bassman-Himmels, the Radkais, and Diane and Allan Arbus. With the exception of the Arbuses, however, the couples were all professionally independent, and the women were more successful fashion photographers than the men. Leslie Gill had been a painter, then art director of House Beautiful, before turning full-time to photography in 1935. A pioneer of commercial colour photography (Paul Outerbridge shared his studio before the Second World War), he is most renowned for his austere and elegantly arranged still-lifes. In 1958, shortly after the birth of their daughter, also named Leslie, he died suddenly, still just short of his 50th birthday.

In 1954 McLaughlin changed her contract with Cond Nast Publications and turned freelance. She continued to work for Vogue, Glamour and House & Garden and was particularly in demand in London, where she was a regular contributor to British Vogue until the Sixties. Subsequently a respected director of television commercials, she remains active as a photographer, author and teacher. Her best known books are Women Photograph Men (1976) and (together with her sister) the remarkable Twins on Twins (1981). She edited a major Leslie Gill retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1984 and has ensured that the work of this fine photographer is not forgotten. Now she deservedly shares the limelight.

! Frances McLaughlin-Gill's photographs will be at Hamilton's Gallery, 13 Carlos Place, London W1 from 5-29 April (telephone 0171 499 9493)

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot