How? The most recent photograph on this page, of Kate Moss, effectively ended the Eighties' stranglehold on gloss, glamour, and almost genetically modified beauty. (There is the argument that one ideal was replaced by another but that is an issue for another article.) Although the photo appeared in Vogue in 1993, the photographer, Corinne Day, had already shot Moss at her fresh, natural best for The Face - a more ground-breaking and risk-taking publication than the mighty Conde Nast title - three years earlier. But Vogue was the Establishment seal of approval and brought it to a wider audience (including the tabloids which incorrectly lumped this "realistic" genre of photography in with "heroin chic").
Five years later, Vogue allowed the deliciously large and milky thighs of Sara Morrison (photographed by Nick Knight) on to its pages, to a huge and positive outcry. That we see models today who have bumpy noses, no eyebrows and, occasionally, big bottoms, can be directly traced back to a fashion shoot that appeared in The Face in 1990 and allowed reality to pass through the lens.
For Day it was a chance to put things right. She too had been a model in the late Eighties but her looks - very similar to Moss's - were too early for their time. "I was too short, too gawky, too English," remembers Day. "When I did those early pictures of Kate for The Face, I felt like a freak because I had this idea of beauty but nobody else liked them. Kate hated them and her agency hated them, saying `but we can see every line on her face!'"
Similarly, when Nick Knight started his career back in the early Eighties doing music stuff, "pretty" was still very much in. "I'd done these pictures of real people with skinheads," says Knight, "and all the approaches I made in the fashion industry were useless. A magazine - that will remain nameless - said `oh no, we want pretty stuff'." But, after shooting portraits of real people for i-D, Yohji Yamamoto asked Knight to shoot his ad campaign, a shot of which you see here.
It needed a visionary like Yamamoto to see Knight as a fashion photographer when others couldn't. As well as photographing the luscious Morrison in an entirely positive, sexy, inspirational way (all things seemingly impossible to those who reserve this magic touch solely for thinner models), Knight also consciously attempts to photograph the under-represented. His photographs of Sophie Dahl, the Levi's campaign using older men and women, and those of a girl with artificial legs in Dazed and Confused - all of these were ground-breaking in
showing that glamorous fashion photography does not lose its strength if it addresses important issues.
For Knight - and ultimately the rest of us - this is just the beginning. "Fashion photography should start taking an active political stance. It's not just about making a girl look pretty anymore. It's much more than showing the latest hem. You can't keep showing one vision of women. If a girl's nostrils aren't symmetrical in a photo, so what? You don't fall in love with her because of her symmetrical nostrils." (A photographer of Knight's standing can even change the way air-brushing die-hards in the cosmetics industry do things. Expect a different approach in the way make-up is advertised in the near future.)
One of the very first fashion photographers, Baron de Meyer, who started his career in 1914, had a less conscientious idea of beauty. "What was fascinating about de Meyer," says Martin Raymond, Senior Lecturer at the London College of Fashion, "was his idea of beauty. Born from practical reasons - he often used his wife as a model - it nevertheless became the dominant form of beauty for years to come. That haughty, ethereal look we associate with models came from de Meyer."
Although not shown here, the photographic reporting of Christian Dior's "New Look", from his debut collection in February 1947, changed our lives because it was the first time the reporting of fashion had such a huge effect. There was an outcry because Dior showed skirts that used 25 yards of fabric; photos of this signalled to the world that the war, and rationing, was over. It also changed the way fashion was reported in newspapers. Prior to this it had been a filler to keep the little woman happy, but here was something that made the male editors sit up. On 27 July 1953, as the Daily Express was going to press, a messenger delivered the news that Dior had raised his hemlines. Mindful of the impact his New Look had, the editor held the front page; the next day Dior commanded four columns across it. That fashion is given so much space in newspapers today is a direct result of this.
Confidence in fashion grew throughout the Fifties, as captured by Richard Avedon. This was the beginning of the "model"- Dovima and her contemporaries were the supermodels of their day. Also, there was no war on, labour-saving appliances started to make an appearance and life felt lighter for women. You can see it in this picture. Even though she is physically dwarfed by the elephants, Dovima looks powerful. "Fashion photography has always mapped what goes on," observes Raymond. "In the Fifties there was a move in photography to show women outdoor more in testament to their new found `freedom'." The Fifties also started the dubious trend of photographing women with animals as props... Well, not everything can be a step forward.
Even so, Avedon's picture looks starchy compared to that of Twiggy taken 12 years later by Cecil Beaton. The Sixties saw a change in photographic techniques; the automatic 35mm camera started replacing big glass plate ones that would have been too cumbersome to capture Twiggy's spontaneous playfulness. These nippy cameras also had a secret weapon; their motor drives had, according to David Bailey, a "sexual rhythm that models subconsciously reacted to". But there weren't just technical reasons that this picture is so important. It shouted freedom to women, in what they could wear and how they could act. You can see right up Twiggy's skirt. Yet who looks more in control, her or the photographer? (Remember, she's looking down at Beaton.) Twiggy and her Sixties counterpart Penelope Tree also paved the way for the kookier looking model.
Now study carefully the picture of the woman lighting her cigarette off the tuxedo-suited man. It isn't a man at all but another woman, captured by Helmut Newton in 1979. And you thought lipstick lesbianism was new! This photograph turned stereotypical images of women on its head. It was provocative: women as men, as sex objects; there were now no boundaries left to break. Confusing, yes - but deeply empowering for women, and only a hint of what was to come in the gender wars of the Nineties. Plus the models are wearing Yves Saint Laurent - who is single-handedly responsible for making trousers sexy for women. And think what an impact that's had on our lives.
These photographs are not mere fashion plates. To take a fashion photograph that turns a corner is really something. "I always say to new photographers: don't do things you've seen, do things that are different," says Knight. "Fashion photography is a zeitgeist way of communicating and, if you say it in an exciting way people will want to listen to you."
The next picture that changes lives could be yours.
`Silver & Syrup: Selections from the History of Photography' is showing in the Canon Photography Gallery at the V&A until 30 August. The exhibition includes fashion photographs by Richard Avedon, Nick Knight and Corinne Day. Enquiries: 0171 938 8614.
HOW TO ENTER
Today Real Life and the V&A launch a fashion photography competition. It is notoriously difficult for photographers to get started but Real Life has a reputation for giving fashion photographers their first break. Sean Ellis (who went on to direct the award-winning All Saints video), Liz Collins (currently shooting the Chloe ad campaign) and Valerie Phillips (who shot the Triumph "Flaunt" campaign) all started here. One overall winner and three runners-up will have their work published in the IoS and subsequently exhibited in the V&A in October. The winner will also get a paid commission to shoot fashion for the IoS and start his or her career. The judges are: Liz Jobey, deputy editor of Granta magazine, Charlotte Cotton, assistant curator of photography at the V&A and Annalisa Barbieri, contributing editor of the IoS and editor of Real Life's fashion pages. Judging will take place in the summer and will be anonymous. For a full list of rules and an application form please send an SAE to: Victoria Yiasoumi, Independent on Sunday, 1 Canada Square, London E14 5DL.
Please do not contact any of the judges directly. The editor's decision is final.