Obituary: Henry Clarke

Henry Clarke arrived on the US fashion scene in 1948 as an assistant in the props department of the Conde Nast Studios, and immediately became a witness to the changing face of post-war fashion photography. While American imagery was still dominated by Vogue's two great European style magicians, Horst P. Horst and the the British photographer Cecil Beaton, the replacement of high elegance and whimsy with a photography more rooted in "the real" was already firmly on the agenda. Like many other photographers of his generation, Clarke was compelled to absorb into his work the pressing demands of the "new woman". While Christian Dior was successful in his launch of the billowing fabric-heavy New Look in liberated Paris, for many women, the freedom offered by full-time employment and tailored trousers in the mid-1940s was not to be easily relinquished.

For photography as well as for fashion, the Second World World War had changed everything. Picture magazines had multiplied, and dominating them all was Life magazine, which brought to the United States public grainy and dramatic reportage from the war zone, depicting the horrors as well as the heroism. Even British Vogue, which continued, Blitz or no Blitz, to promote haute couture to the wealthy, commissioned fashion photographs by Lee Miller and Cecil Beaton made against a background of bombed London, and wheedled its readers to support the severe lines of the Utility Suit. The post-war years saw the emergence of two photographers, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, who were to begin to ease fashion photography out of its elegant closet and bring it even closer to the dynamic of reportage.

Henry Clarke was the son of Irish immigrants settled in California. Like so many of his generation, he found employment in the burgeoning American consumerism of the late 1940s, directing display at the Oakland department store, I. Magnin. But the cultural energy of New York City soon drew Clarke away from the West Coast, and in 1948 he travelled East to take up a temporary job with Conde Nast.

He soon became fascinated by photography, observing closely the differing styles of Penn, Beaton and Horst. He realised that the pace of the new photography depended very much on the use of the smaller more adaptable camera, and familiarised himself with the workings of the twin-lensed Rolleiflex. But perhaps the most important step in his career was his decision to enrol on a course at the New School for Social Research, where Alexey Brodovitch, the now legendary eminence grise of the new photography was set to become a major force in the magazine world. Like so many of Brodovitch's students (who included both Avedon and Penn), Clarke learnt how to combine the fantasy of fashion with the energy of photo-reportage. Both models and gowns became players in a rich social drama.

Clarke's career in US fashion had hardly begun, however, before he decided, against the cultural tide, to move to Paris. Photographs in two early-1950s issues of the magazine Ka- leidoscope are virtually all that remain of his American beginnings. In Paris, he worked for the designers Jean Desses and Molyneux, and for Femina magazine, also accepting commissions for Harpers Bazaar and Album de Figaro.

By the mid-1950s, he was working exclusively for Vogue magazine, producing pictures of consummate elegance, but still with that inimitable edge of New York realism. In 1955, French Vogue published his photograph of the model Dorien Leigh wearing a dress by Jacques Helm. Posing Leigh against the background of a Courbet painting of two naked figures locked in a passionate embrace, Clarke made a picture of an angular elegant woman exuding both disdain and and intense sexuality. Though enclosed in a carapace of close-fitting silk, Leigh is energised-high style in a hurry.

Unlike so many of the photographers who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s (during which time he continued to work for French Vogue), Clarke never victimised women and fully accepted that fashion, though beguiling and extraordinary, is merely the stuff we put on our backs.

Since Henry Clarke worked for Vogue in the 1950s, styles in fashion photography have changed beyond recognition. New democrats of the fashion world such as Rankin, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ellen von Unworth and Corinne Day have situated fashion quite firmly in the here and now, in sparse bedsits, in clubland and even in the cold tiling of the public lavatory. It may seem a world away from Henry Clarke's cool wit, but the structure remains the same; irony and a little displacement, an innate satire of an industry which depends so heavily on a longing for the unattainably perfect.

In the 1950s, just as much as in the 1990s, the best of fashion photographers codifying a society made up of signs and signals and picture a world in which the real is sublimely false, but where make-believe becomes inescapably real.

Henry Clarke, fashion photographer: born Los Angeles c1917; died Le Cannet, France 26 April 1996

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Ashdown Group: HR Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A mainstream Secondary school in C...

Guru Careers: HR Administrator / Training Coordinator

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: An HR Administrator / Training Coordinator is requi...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic