Sweeping exhibition traces fashion photography’s evolution from niche industry to powerful cultural force

HOUSTON—April 24, 2019—Beginning in June, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will explore the rich and varied history of fashion photography through the exhibition Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography. Through more than 200 photographs by famous practitioners and lesser-known yet influential artists, the exhibition traces fashion photography’s trajectory from niche industry to powerful cultural force, and its gradual recognition as an art form. First organized at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the show will be augmented with works from the MFAH collection, as well as local, national, and international loans. Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography will be on view in Houston June 23 through September 22, 2019.

This presentation of Icons of Style explores a broad and diverse view of fashion and fashion photography from elegant portraits made in the early 20th century to trendsetting fashions of celebrities including Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Jones, David Bowie, Run DMC, Salt N’ Pepa, and Beyoncé and photographs that have graced the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Ebony, and Essence. 

Icons of Style not only chronicles the trends in fashion over the past century, it also reflects broader cultural shifts. From aristocratic aspirations to the rough and tumble of street style, from Hollywood stars to supermodels, from the Black Is Beautiful movement to the globalism of today—fashion photography has often defined the ways we see ourselves,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

“Many of the photographs in this exhibition resulted from a complex collaboration between the designer and the photographer, not to mention the model and the client—a balancing act meant to simultaneously display the fashion, express a unique pictorial vision, and entice the viewer to become a consumer. Some images have become iconic because of their subject’s fame, some because of their groundbreaking fashion, some because of the photographer’s novel approach to the medium … and in the very best, all of that came together,” commented Malcolm Daniel, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham curator of photography at the MFAH. 

Exhibition Overview
Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography opens with fashion photography’s emergence as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar transformed from social and literary journals to cutting-edge fashion publications in the early 20th century. Editors sought avant-garde photographers, including Edward Steichen and Baron Adolf de Meyer, to evoke artistic expression in soft, Pictorialist photographs. 

Fashionable dress of the 1920s and ‘30s reflected luxury and aspirations of social status, incorporating shimmering silks, sleek fur, and rich brocade. Photographers emphasized these elegant materials with sharp focus, strategic lighting, or well-chosen props to create rich, complex imagery. This modern style of photography echoed the bold geometry and long lines of Art Deco design through images composed with abstract effects of light, shadow, and form. Photographers forged a new relationship with consumers by utilizing star performers such as Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich as models, and the public began imitating the looks of their favorite celebrities—ultimately propelling Hollywood into a force in fashion. 

Photography’s avant-garde expression evolved with the influence of Surrealism. Emerging out of Paris as an intellectual and political movement, Surrealism sought to unlock creativity and imagination from the subconscious. Photographers, including Man Ray and Erwin Blumenfeld, embraced these principles and experimented with the medium to produce imaginative and dreamlike photographs through nontraditional techniques, such as double exposure, solarization, combination printing, and montage. 

The 1950s marked a Golden Age of fashion photography as post-war fashion returned to glamour and couture through designers Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, and Jacques Griffe. Photographers, including Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, brought these elegant designs to life with different, yet equally personal approaches to their work. Avedon focused on the movement of this formal attire, capturing the energy and personality of the models. He also created dramatic scenes by bringing models out of the studio to novel locations. Penn focused on the details of the garments, adopting a minimalist approach and using natural lighting and soft backdrops of plain white or pale grey that enabled garments to speak for themselves.

The 1960s and 1970s were a time when youth culture, the sexual revolution, and later the women’s liberation movement were catalysts for new possibilities in fashion photography. As designers debuted dazzling new looks, ranging from hippie to space age, photographers accentuated the designs with equally eye-catching aesthetics: odd angles, harsh contrasts, and striking, patterned compositions. During this transformation, the fashion industry also saw increased diversity with African American models, including Donyale Luna and Beverly Johnson. In 1962, photographer Kwame Brathwaite and his brother Elombe Brath also established the Grandassa Models—a New York agency that celebrated African American identity and challenged the definition of beauty in fashion. 

Ready-to-wear clothing lines by Halston, Anne Klein, and Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s were coveted by working women attempting to balance their work and personal lives. Photographers like Helmut Newton and Chris von Wagenheim countered gender stereotypes with aggressive, sexualized images that presented women in a position of power.

The 1980s and '90s saw the rise of supermodels who revolutionized fashion and fashion photography. Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Christy Turlington among many others exemplified beauty and power, and were offered enormous salaries for walking runways around the world. MTV’s launch in the 1980s also influenced the fashion industry as its 24-hour stream of music videos created megastars in pop, rock, hip-hop and more.

Towards the end of the 20th century, fashion photography shifted its attention to the streets. Responding to the economic downturn and Seattle-based grunge movement, haute couture and fashion houses incorporated the popular trends of street fashion into their designs—the antithesis of the over-the-top glamour seen in previous decades. Artists such as Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott exemplified this shift in their series Defy for W Magazine. The seemingly candid photographs featured models dressed in high-end designs that mirrored the street style captured by photojournalists. The gritty realism of the 1990s was then complemented with storybook inspired fantasy fashion photographs. With large production budgets, artists of the new millennium engaged their imagination to produce visionary photoshoots that challenged the mundane of everyday life.

The exhibition culminates with a selection of contemporary photographs that reflect the ongoing possibilities within fashion photography. Today, fashion and fashion photography are influenced by an increasingly global culture and the inclusive landscape of social media. Celebrities, including Beyoncé Knowles, have enabled diversity to permeate the industry and usher in a new generation of subjects and photographers, such as Tyler Mitchell. At just 23 years old, Mitchell was hand-selected by Knowles for her Vogue cover shoot in 2018—the first time an African American had shot a cover in the fashion publication’s history.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Established in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums in the United States, with an encyclopedic collection of nearly 70,000 works dating from antiquity to the present. The Museum’s photography collection of more than 30,000 works spanning the history of the medium is internationally renowned. The main campus comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Rafael Moneo and opened in 2000; the Caroline Wiess Law Building, originally designed by William Ward Watkin, with extensions by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completed in 1958 and 1974; the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi and opened in 1986; the Glassell School of Art, designed by Steven Holl Architects and opened in 2018; and The Brown Foundation, Inc. Plaza, designed by Deborah Nevins & Associates, Inc., and opened in 2018. Additional spaces include a repertory cinema, two libraries, public archives, and facilities for conservation and storage. Nearby, two house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Rienzi—present American and European decorative arts. The MFAH is also home to the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art. mfah.org 

Organization and Funding
Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography is organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and was curated by Paul Martineau, associate curator of Photographs at the Getty Museum. This presentation has been adapted by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Generous funding for this exhibition is provided by:
River Oaks District
Dior

Media Contact
Katie Jernigan, publicist
kjernigan@mfah.org | 713.639.7516

General Media Inquiries

Miranda Proctor
mproctor@mfah.org 713.639.7554