Condé Nast: So much more than a pretty face

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The best fashion shoots can be classed as art, and no one has done more to champion such creativity than Condé Nast. Susannah Frankel introduces a book which proves that great photography never goes out of style

'Fashion photographs are part of our visual culture. Each image tells a story and invites us to engage with it in a pleasurable way, but it also encapsulates something of the tastes, aspirations and the dreams of its time." So writes Nathalie Herschdorfer in the introduction to Coming into Fashion: A Century of Fashion Photography at Condé Nast.

And she's right. While the culture of looking at fashion magazines as a guide to shopping is relatively new, the history of fashion photography says much more about life, and in the case of women's glossies and Vogue in particular, about the nature of femininity than that. This despite the fact that the genre is, and always has been, driven and at least partially funded by the marketing of clothes. Fashion photographers are often labelled as artists – and their personal work may well merit that status – but their contribution to more mainstream fashion magazines is commercially driven.

Nonetheless, since Condé Montrose Nast launched his empire in 1909 with the purchase of Vogue, that magazine and the publishing company's other titles have commissioned the world's finest fashion photographers, allowing them to express their vision far beyond the realms of fashion and clothes.

This new book includes quite an edit, from the aloof elegance of Edward Steichen's work in the 1920s to Peter Lindbergh's portraitf of the supermodels at the height of their fame, barely recognisable styled as The Beatles; from Erwin Blumenfeld's pioneering and abstracted images in the 1940s to Sebastian Kim's bright, breezy pictures commissioned for the pages of the equally bright and breezy pages of Teen Vogue. Fashion photography is nothing if not varied.

"Glamour, elegance and sexiness are concepts that are endlessly redefined," Herschdorfer continues. "Each image tells a story and invites us to engage with it in a pleasurable way." In fact, that is not always the case. After all, at least some of the great names – Man Ray, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton and, more recently, Nick Knight, Mark Borthwick and Corinne Day included – communicate a more challenging and at times even disturbing world picture.

Although Condé Nast titles are fundamentally aspirational, it is a credit to not only the photographers themselves but also to the huge teams of people that work together to create an image – designers, models, hair and make-up artists, stylists, set designers, art directors and more – that their impact is often more complex than that. "During the 1990s in particular, they went hand in hand with their opposites – the ugly, the shocking, the unsightly…" Herschdorfer concedes.

In the end, the most successful images on these pages – and many of them are the finest of their kind in the world – arouse a powerful response. And whether that be positive or negative, the stuff of dreams or nightmares, attraction or repulsion, that is the point.

More than any other publishing company in history, Condé Nast has supported the creativity that commands such responses. Its magazines showcase the ever-changing genre of fashion photography more effectively and, for the most part, beautifully than anyone else. Indeed, it might not be overstating it to say that they are ensuring that the right people have the greatest visual impact on our world.E

'Coming into Fashion: A Century of Fashion Photography at Condé Nast' is published by Thames & Hudson

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