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What Katy did

When Vogue asked Kate Moss, then 18, to pose for a downbeat set of pictures, the press reacted with horror - but a new kind of British fashion photography was born. By Robin Muir
One day in spring 1993, I found myself looking at some remarkable photographs in the art department of Vogue. They were for "Under-exposure", an underwear story. "What to Wear Beneath Effort-Free Clothes?" asked Vogue. And "Barely-there Underwear, Naturally", it answered. A thin, pellucid and awkward 18-year-old called Kate Moss had been photographed in daylight by her closest friend, the model-turned-photographer Corinne Day on only her second assignment for the magazine. The prints, a dozen or so, spread out on the art room table, were defiantly "anti-glamour", like pale and eerie stills from a gritty documentary, or freeze-frames from someone's home movie. Whatever they were, they weren't fashion photographs. They were raw and natural, completely without "style", in the sense that there was nothing artificial in their conception as there always seemed to be in every other fashion story. Moss's hair was ungroomed, her make-up minimal, and the setting - the West London flat she shared with the photographer and model Mario Sorrenti - was as far removed as you could get from the exotic locations popularly associated with the fashion shoot for Vogue. Props were TV remote controls, nylon bedspreads and cheap bedside lamps. But, of course, they were not props at all; they were just there, as they might be in any teenager's bedroom.

They were the most fascinating fashion photographs I had ever seen - and the most unlikely to pop up in Vogue. They seemed effortless, like snapshots that, on a good day perhaps, you and I could take. You could do so much without a Hasselblad or a motor drive or legions of assistants. For some of us in the art room that day, fashion photography - in the context of Vogue - changed for ever. It certainly changed Corinne Day and Kate Moss, for when the pictures were published three months later, the press greeted them with a tidal wave of hostility. Accusations against Day ranged from child exploitation to promoting anorexia and, incredibly, condoning under-age sex. Kate Moss, who had been nurtured by Day since she was a 15-year-old beginner, never worked with her again, on the instruction of her agent. Few saw past the grimy setting to the innocent beauty in the pictures, or their humour. "American tan tights falling down Kate's legs - we were poking fun at fashion," said Day, adding wistfully, "Half- way through the shoot, I realised that it wasn't fun for her any more, and that she was no longer my best friend but had become a `model'. She hadn't realised how beautiful she was, and when she did, I found I didn't think her beautiful any more."

The most haunting picture from that series was of Moss's stick-thin body haloed by Christmas-tree lights tacked on to her bedroom wall with masking tape. Four years on, this unassuming masterpiece joins the great works of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Horst and Sir Cecil Beaton as part of the Victoria & Albert Museum's collection of fashion photographs. An exhibition of 20 or so recently acquired prints, drawn from the "cutting edge" of the medium, are on show from next month.

That, four years on, Day's photograph looks so uncontroversial, is due largely to the doors that she opened for others. David Sims, Juergen Teller, Craig McDean and Glen Luchford, who ploughed similar furrows in the "underground" magazines and in the American fashion monthlies, all appeared in British Vogue after Day, and still bring a similar sensibility to its pages.

Many of them are friends, and all are associated with a loose-knit and informal "school of London", so christened by the press keen to see a "swinging Sixties" revival in fashion and photography. They surfaced from such youth and style magazines as The Face and ID, with their sights firmly trained on the world of the high-fashion glossy and the most prestigious advertising campaigns their agents could find. Theirs is not really a "school" at all; they just share some values while maintaining their own distinct aesthetic, most notably an anti-fashion stance. "Don't call me a fashion photographer," McDean recently admonished an interviewer for The New Yorker. Teller has put it with equal force: "I am not interested in pieces of clothing." In their pursuit of an informal aesthetic, and to distinguish themselves further from the mainstream, all frequently abandon the traditional modus operandi of the fashion photographer, despite vast advertising budgets that make anything possible. Sims, for example, shot much of a recent Calvin Klein campaign not on celebrities or models but on "real" people. The common aim of their assault on the fashion world is to remove themselves as far as possible from any association with "glamour", and, of course, to refuse corporate overtures that might compromise their integrity.

America has been seduced by that "off-kilter" approach. On the eve of his first campaign for Klein, Sims had the following exchange with the creative director Fabien Baron, quoted in The New Yorker.

Sims: I'm not panicking - yet.

Baron: Calm down, relax, it will be great. You got

new sneakers.

Sims: So my feet won't stink.

One cannot imagine that from Steven Meisel, let alone Avedon, yet Sims's photographs for Harper's Bazaar have as much joie de vivre as anything Avedon produced for the magazine in its heyday.

Charlotte Cotton, assistant curator of photographs at the V&A, has made an inspired choice, with few serious omissions. Well, maybe one - Saul Fletcher, who is currently taking New York by storm - but that's not her fault. True to the "school of London's" guiding ethos, Fletcher convincingly disqualified himself by claiming that he isn't really a fashion photographer.

An image by Nick Knight of Naomi Campbell, for the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, dates from 1987 - the earliest of Cotton's selection, and it seems apposite to mark the start with him. Nigel Shafran, Craig McDean and Mark Alesky, all in the V&A show, worked with Knight as young assistants. Indeed, after one of McDean's early shoots for Vogue, he had to fly immediately to Japan, and the contact sheets were biked over to Knight to make the final selection, which is customarily left up to the art department. Glen Luchford's large-format colour prints for Prada are the most recent photographs: beautiful, narrative studies shot at twilight.

It comes as no surprise to learn that, like so many of his predecessors (David Bailey, Bruce Weber, Jerry Schatzberg and Just Jaeckin, for example), he intends to turn his hand to film directing. He has been working with Ken Loach's lighting cameraman.

The final word belongs to Corinne Day. "It is all about freedom, really - and being proud of the holes in your jumper."

Her uncompromising aesthetic, celebrated by Vogue and denounced by the press, has found a home in the heart of the photographic establishment. And in the print room on the fifth floor, after the exhibition closes, this soft and shimmering masterpiece can be examined and handled by members of the public as well as academics for decades to come

`Contemporary Fashion Photographs' at the V&A, 9 March to 26 May 1997

Anti-glamour:In 1993, young photographers began introducing an informal, dressed-down aesthetic to their fashion images, setting themselves apart from the mainstream. David Sims's artfully `natural' shot of Linda Evangelista (opposite) was taken for Harper's Bazaar in America, and was influenced by Corinne Day's landmark pictures of Kate Moss (this page)

Robbie Williams knickers (above), photographed by Rankin for fans who pant after the former Take That star. Picture by Donna Trope (right), published in the cutting-edge youth magazine Dazed and Confused. Craig McDean's photograph (opposite) for a Jil Sander catalogue looks as impressive on the wall as it did on the page