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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears