Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines, ed. Vince Aletti

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Phaidon Press (here). Paperback in slip cover, 468 pages, with 670 reproductions. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: This elegant tome, clad in Art Deco black-and-gold, is a testament to one man’s ardor for and knowledge of fashion photography. Few writers can match the critic and curator Vince Aletti on either score. As visitors marvel when they enter his paper-stuffed New York apartment, and as lucky readers of this confessional history will learn, he has devoted a sizable amount of his mental energy, income, and storage space to seeking out, collecting, assessing, and celebrating the magazines where these perfumed fantasies of youth, beauty, decadence, ease, and avidity are first bottled and released into the atmosphere.

Instead of birthdays, the annual appearance of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar on the newsstand in the fall is Aletti’s hourglass. The first sentence of his introduction echoes that of Proust’s ode to the powers of involuntary memory and perception: “For some time now, I have measured time by September issues. The fat, cheery fashion magazines that start arriving in August mark the turn of the seasons more reliably than any weather report.”

In his 468-page history, Aletti examines 20th century fashion photography as expressed in its mass-circulation or limited-edition magazines. This is an atypical approach to the genre. Books and exhibitions usually remove images from the various “frames” that initially surrounded and supported them. Fashion photographers must collaborate with art directors, who in turn have to answer to the editor-in-chief who, if they want to keep their jobs, should not offend those paying the bills—the advertisers, clothing designers, and subscribers. Opportunities for fashion photographers to present their work as they conceived it, free of the constraints of the page and without commercial interference, are rare.

By decluttering these photographs, however, well-meaning curators tend to blunt the initial impact on the original audiences. The magazine page is not always a prison, as Aletti points out. It can also be a liberating space where graphic designers can experiment with type and layout and collage, and where photographers test previous limits about what is socially and visually permissible—and be well compensated for doing so. Reports about what is happening with young people—their ideas about lifestyle, sex, drugs, ambition, and gender fluidity are often first detected in fashion spreads. “From De Meyer to Wolfgang Tillmans, photographers have found room in magazines to dream and document, to express themselves, and to enlighten, startle, amuse, and seduce us,” he writes. “More often than not, you won’t see this work anywhere but on the printed page, and that context is critical. Context helps locate an image in a moment—in style, in history, in culture.”

Issues has restored the clutter and the context. To accompany the spreads for each of the 100 specific issues from magazines published between 1925 and 2018, Aletti has written a concise essay, with pertinent remarks about the photographers, art directors, editors, periods, clothes, publication history, and the influence of the images on the world at large as well as on other photographers.

The first half reproduces images he chose from the twin pillars of the fashion photography establishment, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, in their American as well as their French and British editions. The second half, closer to Aletti’s own biography, begins in 1984 and highlights eminent figures who worked for more avant-garde, irreverent, or short-lived publications, such as The Face, Per Lui, Details, EgoÏste, Big, Pop, Dutch, Arena Homme, Joe’s, 032C, Another Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Self Service, I-D, Man About Town, Love, Purple Fashion, as well as W and V and Vogue Italia and Vogue España.

Fewer than 10% of his choices are September issues. Instead, Aletti concentrates on memorable photographs of any sort, from any month, in issues that in his mind signaled pivotal events in art and fashion at the time, reflected the impinging of the real world on these pursuits, or the expanded the boundaries of the genre.

Rather than provide an overarching view of fashion photography, he has used the format to make shrewd observations about the style of canonized masters, such as Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, and Bruce Weber. At the same time, Aletti likes to choose a particular issue of a magazine to extoll individuals whose talents have not in his opinion been widely acknowledged, a line-up of the underappreciated that includes Toni Frissell, Erwin Blumenfeld, Bill Richardson, Mario Sorrenti, Nick Knight, Corinne Day, Bill Cunningham, Steven Klein, and Steven Meisel. (Given their status by previous historians, William Klein and Herb Ritts are comparatively underrepresented.)

Aletti has a solid grasp of the history. For instance, he notes that Man Ray’s cover for a January, 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar—of a manicured hand reaching “for a globe of the star-spangled heaven”—was not only a “surrealist vision of feminine power” but also “the first true photograph” ever to appear on the magazine’s cover. Legendary art director Alexei Brodovitch also let Man Ray do a series of female fashions, as well as celebrity portraits—a straight one of Virginia Woolf and a solarized one of Marie-Laure de Noailles (the French aristocrat who had financed his 1929 film, Les Mystères de Chateau de Dè.) Aletti reproduces these spreads along with ones by George Platt Lynes and Jean Morel for “context.”

World War II shattered the illusion that fashion could be a self-contained, hermetic realm for rich ladies. It’s a toss-up which is more noteworthy: Lee Miller’s photographs of dead bodies at Buchenwald (as well as bodies of Nazi soldiers’ suicides) for the June 1945 issue of Vogue—with the headline “Believe It!”—or the decision by the editor and publisher to present shocking realism in a fashion magazine. Even pros such as Cecil Beaton, whose career in the 1930s was bound up with imagery of theatrical frivolity, had to adjust to the post-war mood of deprivation. Instead of the better-known Beaton series of stunned Londoners among bombed-out buildings, Aletti has selected two somber photographs of female models posed incongruously against scarred walls that Beaton did for the Paris Collections in a November, 1945 issue of British Vogue.

Avedon and Penn receive more space than anyone else, as is only fair. Spreads from the September, 1962 Harper’s Bazaar reproduce Avedon’s famous send-up of paparazzi photojournalism, the staged hurly-burly of Mike Nichols and Suzy Parker fighting off the press while cavorting around the capitals of Europe. Aletti wonders if an all-Avedon April, 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar isn’t “perhaps the greatest fashion magazine ever?” Presented with the cover of Jean Shrimpton wearing a lenticular eye, Paul McCartney in a NASA space suit, and portraits of Ringo, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, it’s hard to disagree that the magazine deeply inhaled the pot high of Pop. An Avedon of a model made up in rainbow colors, from a November, 1970 French Vogue, is a killer image that Aletti has rescued from obscurity.

About a January 1, 1969 issue of Vogue, with 16 inside pages of Lauren Hutton, Aletti writes: “Richard Avedon was often not the first photographer to work with a particular model, but he was almost always the one who made her unforgettable—the one who best defined her.” He doesn’t have to reproduce Avedon’s images of Dovima, Suzy Parker, Twiggy, Penelope Tree, Isabella Rossellini, or Cher for us to realize this truth.

He does not skimp on coldly ravishing Penns either. Issues reproduces the December 1949 Vogue, the first of the photographer’s annual Christmas collaborations with art director Alexander Liberman (this one includes “Christmas at Cuzco,” in color). The portrait of a pale Lisa Fonssagrives (Penn’s wife), staring down the camera with arched eyebrows, holding a white cigarette against a dark tricorne hat, and swaddled  in the folds of a checkered black-and-white dress is no less breathtaking as a two-page spread from the April 1, 1950 Vogue than it is as a print on the wall in a museum.

The second half of the book is no less alert to changes of style in photography and style. Aletti identifies as a breakthrough Corrine Day’s cover shot and inside spreads of Kate Moss in the July, 1990 issue of The Face, when she was only 16. Day “found a muse in Moss, and Moss found someone who appreciated her unconventional looks: not just shorter and less pneumatic than the reigning supermodels”—featured here in a group shot by Peter Lindbergh from a January, 1990 issue of Vogue—”but bracingly, gorgeously ordinary. Together, they seized on a moment that turned into a movement that wasn’t so much anti fashion as a rejection of all the trappings of ‘80s excess that had been weighing fashion down.”

Because Aletti is, unlike many previous historians of fashion photography, openly gay, he is not afraid to analyze the topic through this sensibility. Here he is on Bruce Weber’s photographs for a February, 1983 issue of GQ: “Long before the unselfconscious physicality of bro culture, Web saw the male embrace as a platonic idea. For gay readers, this was a significant opening up—an acknowledgement of our presence in this particular world—but it wasn’t exactly the queering of GQ. Weber was successful precisely because he knew how to work within the conventions he was subverting….For better or worse, he created a new ideal: the jock next door, ridiculously fit, assured but not entirely full of himself: a buddy, a crush, an inspiration.”

Aletti singles out magazines where photographers not associated with fashion (Martin Parr, Cindy Sherman, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Tina Barney, Thomas Demand, Collier Schorr) adapted their talents to ideas about ritual displays of the body and clothes. If at times this roster of blue-chip artists seems assembled for duty to dignify the commercial business being promoted in the book—there are more Diane Arbuses than one would expect, considering her stated aversion to the genre—Aletti does not fail to devote plenty of space and rhetoric to two of his long-time favorites, the innovative, hard-core, no-apologies-for-working-in-fashion Steven Meisel and Steven Klein.

Presenting magazine photography in this format has its disadvantages. Because the spreads are reproduced at a much smaller scale in this book than they were originally seen—something that doesn’t happen in exhibitions, when the actual magazines are there—it’s often difficult to fully appreciate the details in the photographs. No information is given about the dimensions of the pages either, “context” that one would think would be essential for this book to serve as an archival document. Not only do each of these fashion magazines differ in size and thickness, often substantially, many of them (such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and the New York Times Magazine) have also expanded or shrunk markedly, depending on the era.

As with last year’s exhibition Icons of Style at the Getty Museum, the idea of style and fashion is a narrow one, confined to what has been featured in publications from the U.S. and Europe, and to what a high-income crowd is supposed to consume. There are no magazines here from South America or Africa, and only one from Asia (the January 2009 issue of Huge from Japan.) By limiting himself to 100 issues, Aletti had to be ruthlessly discriminating. But the lack of more representation from Japan, a wellspring of Pop ideas and fashions for 40 years (no Fruits? No Vivi? no photographs by Shoichi Aoki?) is puzzling.

Perhaps one answer is that Issues is a personal history, based largely on Aletti’s own collection. Phaidon has a long record of allowing authors to promote themselves and their valuables in this manner. The best-known example for this readership may be Martin Parr’s and Gerry Badger’s 3-volume history of the photobook, which was based on Parr’s vast holdings. In 2017 the Tate Museum acquired his 12,000 volumes for an undisclosed sum. I would expect (and hope) that Aletti’s book should allow him to one day sell his mountains of magazines to a similar institution, perhaps the Getty.

Reproducing covers and spreads in magazines from Aletti’s collection (as well as issues loaned to him) may also be cost effective, a way for him, his editor Andrew Roth of PPP Editions, and Phaidon to avoid paying reproduction rights for individual photographs from dealers, artist estates, and publishing houses. The book has no credits page of copyrighted material. Am I right in suspecting that they were able to use these Steichens, Beatons, Avedons, Penns, Arbuses, Webers, Shermans and dozens of other photographers for free—under the copyright law of “fair use”? Most museums would not allow this arrangement.

I’m not complaining. Without this legal loophole, this book likely would not exist: the cost of the rights would be prohibitive. And that would be a shame. Aletti makes me care about a subject that, under normal circumstances, leaves me sated or bored after a half-hour. He loves everything about fashion and pop culture, especially its optimism and ephemerality. “The most enduring fashion photographs are the ones that capture a moment—an outfit, a model, a mood—most precisely, most compellingly, but with no expectation that it will last. The self-consciously historical image is often the first one we forget.”

For the chance to test my own reactions against the wry observations and informed judgments of such an eloquent obsessive, I will gladly live with the trade-offs—with all of the issues, if you will—that this one-of-a-kind book raises.

Collector’s POV: Since this book is a broad review of photography as seen in fashion magazines, our usual detailed discussion of individual photographers, gallery representation relationships, and secondary market prices is beyond the scope of this particular analysis and has therefore been omitted.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Bruce Weber, Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Lee Miller, Man Ray, Richard Avedon, Phaidon Press

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

2024 Guggenheim Fellows in Photography

2024 Guggenheim Fellows in Photography

Here’s the list of the 2024 Guggenheim Fellowship winners in Photography (with links to their respective websites as applicable). The entire list of current fellows (in all disciplines, including the ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter