A History of Fashion Image-Making

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Positioned at the nexus of style photography and artistic vision, Spain’s Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum presents some of the most significant images of the past century in a new show. Highlighting the work of 37 influential photographers, Distinción. A Century of Fashion Photography discovers how these creators pushed beyond static fashion imagery with innovative approaches to styling, concepts, and movement.

A collection of visionaries from Catalonia and Spain—including Juan Gyenes, Oriol Maspons, Manel Esclusa, Maria Espeus, José Manuel Ferrater, Antoni Bernad, Manuel Outumuro, Bèla Adler & Salvador Fresneda, Txema Yeste, Eugenio Recuenco, and Sergi Jasanada—these photographers changed how we see and depict fashion. Distinción explores the origins, evolution, and impact of style photography from magazine reproductions of the early 20th century to the medium’s provocative themes and digital possibilities of the contemporary moment. Curator Juan Naranjo posed essential questions in designing the exhibition: “What have been the common features of fashion photography down through the years? How has it evolved? Why does it elicit such enormous fascination?” Naranjo’s answer is revealed in the show’s poignant imagery, chosen for its distinction in combining the elegance of fashion and the boundless nature of art.

Produced by the Barcelona Museum of Design, the exhibit takes viewers on a chronological, thematic tour of fashion history through Spanish photography over the last century. In the first portion of the show, “Photography and Fashion Before the Advent of Fashion,” the advertising images of Pere Casas Abarca from the early 1900s demonstrate his unique approach to photography. Abarca’s perspective moved past a focus on clothing to tell a more complete story of femininity. This comprehensive view laid the foundation for the future of fashion pictorials. By the ‘30s, as couture became less prevalent, ready-to-wear offered a better fit for modern lifestyles. The visual language of media echoed these ideas and companies sought publicity through advertising in magazines. The first generation of Spanish fashion photographers then emerged: Josep Sala, Ramón Batlles, Compal, Samuel Suñé, and Antoni Ollé Pinell. Drawing on film, literature, and the arts, these creators reimagined what photographs could express through asymmetric positioning, fragmentation, and unexpected vantages. “New Vision” works from Batlles’ El Dique Flotante collection (1934) expose the rich depth and interest that pictures of this time embodied. The period’s advertising and editorial photos uncover the style artistry that developed, not only the photographs’ contents, but more importantly, the images themselves.

The mid-century was also time of great transformation in style photography. Fashion of the 1940s took a less utilitarian view than it had previously. The decade embraced the cinematic idols of Hollywood and the silver screen, who brought with them an aura of mystery and seduction. Techniques of dramatic lighting and ornate backdrops allowed Hollywood portrait photographers and fashion image-makers alike to create an ethereal sense of femininity. Then from the late ‘40s through the ‘50s, a new image of women reigned: modern, refined, and affluent, in keeping with Christian Dior’s polished New Look. In “Interiors and Exteriors,” Juan Gyenes’ and Oriol Maspons’ images show quintessential fashion photography of the time: models in bespoke dresses posed among urban backdrops, lending to impressions of sophistication and advancement. The following decade, the 1960s, brought immense changes in culture and the arts. Hippie and countercultural movements protested the social status quo and the often-kitschy Pop and Mod art trends challenged the nature of fine art. In “Movements,” Maspons’ Pertegaz collection (1966) and photographs by Juana Biarnés and Antoni Bernad illustrate how fashion too evolved during this era. Its imagery celebrated the freedom of the social period through physical movement, dance, and an offhanded snapshot aesthetic.

In the latter 20th century (and the decades since), fashion photography has continued to progress. Today’s style imagery offers a casual, evocative effect with authentic-looking, believable photographs. The portrayals in “Stagings and Fantasies” are well-crafted, deftly influencing viewers to believe their stories. Eugenio Recuenco’s Cinderella (2005) and Txema Yeste’s There Somewhere (2011) give the appearance of vivid images and moments that just happened to be captured in photographs. Contemporary portraiture too has shifted away from its traditional focus, turning towards visual realism in “Identity and Difference.” Portraits by Enric Galceran and Bèla Adler & Salvador Fresneda question how femininity—and aging—are represented, aspiring to a more honest take on what defines a woman’s beauty. These candid developments are the mark of our present, more inclusive era. In “Landscapes,” photographs display the natural, open scenery that is now favored in step with the recent green movement. Modern background stylings tend towards ambiguity, positioning the clothing, models, and story at the forefront. Txema Yeste’s Gala (2009) and Manuel Outumuro’s photographs offer beautiful, conscious blends of storyline and open-endedness.

The Balenciaga Museum exhibition reveals how our greater values and customs are ever-evolving throughout history. Style photography mirrors these changes, developing right alongside the nature of our times. As society advances, so does the viewpoint of the camera, realizing progress in the lives we live and the images that represent them. Our current, plural moment is extraordinary, particularly in its dialog with the look and feel of photography. Distinción is the lived moment, its depictions and the intangible art of these reflections, in fashion and far beyond.

Distinción. A century of fashion photography is on view now at the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum in Getaria, Spain until January 27, 2019.

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