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
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies