FASHION Classic camera

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