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8 most iconic fashion photographers to know

Photography has nothing to do with the cameras. It is about communicating with the subject. “When I say I want to photograph someone, what it really means is that I’d like to know them,” said acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz.

A good photo is one that sends a message, touches the heart and inspires people with a different point of view. But the life of a photographer is and was never an easy one. The effort needed to just stand out from the crowd is synonymous to grasping at straws. It is a vicious cycle, especially when photography revolves around highly opinionated people like editors, creative directors, fashion designers, stylists and famous celebrities.

Annie Leitbovitz in action. (Credit: Getty)

In the context of fashion photography, it covers a wide spectrum of not just the pretty little things but also all the movements that take place in fashion. It is more than just beautiful clothes, big hair and the poses of a contortionist.

Delved in the pop culture vocabulary of hyper-sexuality, cyberpunk, feminism, diversity, social equality and the bourgeois society, photographers in the early 1980s and 1990s used their lenses to send a strong message across the glossy pages of the magazines they worked with. During that time, popular international magazines like Vogue, Rolling Stone and GQ were the platforms for the opinionated to have a voice – and it was through photographs that created a new generation who changed the world of fashion and entertainment forever.

A controversial photo shot by Bruce Weber. (Credit: Bruce Weber)

The subjects of photography were also worshipped like Greek gods and goddesses on pedestals. In the early 80s, aspiring young models rose to stardom with just one photo taken. Actors and artists begged for a career through under-the-table connections with photographers and filmmakers.

It seemed like photographers had an ultimatum on the careers of so many famous personalities including the likes of Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Farah Fawcett, Tom Hintnaus, Alex Lundqvist, Linda Evangelista, Tyra Banks and many more.

A portrait of Madonna by Patrick Demarchelier.

While it is said that photography “takes an image, freezes a moment and reveals how rich reality truly is”, each captured image is a reminder of the little things, long after one has forgotten everything. When Madonna had her first daughter, she engaged renowned photographer Mario Testino to take photographs of her little girl. Testino also immortalised the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton. And of late, he shot a picture perfect moment of Serena Williams and her daughter for the 2018’s February issue of Vogue.

These famous photographers have been known for their unapologetic points of view and with their talented eye in capturing (and composing) their vision effectively, they push boundaries with just the right amount of controversy. Each of them is unique and carries an individual style. We take a look at some of the most iconic yet controversial photographers in history, and how they have changed the way we look at fashion photographs today.

1
Irving Penn

Dubbed the ‘quintessential Modernist photographer’ by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Irving Penn (1917-2009) has influenced people to see photography as a medium with the capacity to be as powerful and iconic as the finest paintings. The American photographer has been known for his fashion photography, portraits and a 66-year career at Vogue. Penn was always interested in the way people present themselves and the way they dress up. Through his photography, his aesthetics invoke a sense of inquisition – questioning what makes elegant fashion. “I don’t photograph what I see. That’s not what interests me. I photograph only what I find intriguing,” Irving Penn (1991).

2
Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz began her career working as a photographer for the Rolling Stone magazine in 1970. In just ten years, she left her Chief photographer position with 142 covers shot — including the iconic photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono for the publication. She was the last to photograph Lennon professionally before he was shot dead in 1980. She was also featured in the documentary ‘The Editor’s Eye’ (2012) where she photographed the “Alice In Wonderland” fashion editorial for Vogue under the creative direction of the legendary Grace Coddington.

3
Steven Meisel

Steven Meisel remains as one of the most wanted photographers every model aspires to work with. An influential name in the industry, Meisel has been accredited with discovering and jumpstarting the careers of successful models including Linda Evangelista, Coco Rocha, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell. His works have also been spotted on the cover of Madonna’s Like a Virgin (1984) and Mariah Carey’s album Daydream (1995). He also uses fashion photography as a way to convey his critical views on cultural appropriation and social issues around the world.

4
Mario Testino

Born in Lima, Peru, Mario Testino’s road to success started in London in 1976 when he took up photography as his education. Hundreds of Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer’s contact sheets later, he is today one of the world’s most influential photographers. His culture and commercial zeitgeist has made him the perfect candidate for creative partnerships in the fashion and beauty world; infiltrated in elements of pop culture. The talented Testino is a favourite of the English royal family and admired across the globe, and his contribution to the world of photography has been said to be the most prominent in the past two decades. He is known for his exotic, polished and exquisite aesthetics with images that are erotic and sensuous at the same time.

5
Steven Klein

Steven Klein is enigmatic. His aesthetic crosses between high energy and couture, breaking the boundaries of expressing a genuinely dark vision. He first took up painting at the Rhode Island School of Design before moving into the field of photography. Klein has shared that “his work is collaborative, yet his subjects are proverbial clay in his hands, twisting themselves into pretzel formations to accommodate his disquieting vision.” As eccentric as Klein is, the famous photographer has shot high-profile campaigns for big players including Dolce&Gabbana, Tom Ford and Alexander McQueen.

6
Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber is a famous American fashion photographer and filmmaker who is widely known for his fashion campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch as well as Versace. In fact, he came to public attention when he first started taking commercial photos for Calvin Klein in the early 1990s. Most of his works are monochrome and illustrate a hidden controversial message – featuring pictures of men only in their underwear and lots of skin.

7
Ellen von Unwerth

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Ellen von Unwerth is listed as one of the best female photographers and directors specialising in erotic feminity and capturing the sensuality of women. She started as a fashion model herself but moved behind the lenses and was involved in various campaigns and shoots. Within a few years, she shot to fame when she first photographed Claudia Schiffer for a Guess campaign. Her aesthetic revolves around beauty and fashion campaigns; using her talents to push the limits of female sexuality in photography.

8
Patrick Demarchelier

For nearly four decades, Patrick Demarchelier has been one of the world’s pre-eminent celebrity portraitists and fashion photographers. While his photographs have always been centred on princesses and superstars (he is the personal photographer of Princess Diana), his interest remains in fashion. Demarchelier once said: “My job is to make clothes look beautiful but with couture, it’s easy.” Photography was a discovery for the 74-year-old – starting as a freelance photographer to shooting international ad campaigns for almost every big fashion brand and legendary celebrities you can think of. He also appeared in a cameo in Sex and the City the movie; shooting Carrie Bradshaw in immaculate bridal couture.

Martin Teo
Editor
Martin has a bent for history and food culture, especially of the Peranakan heritage. Since the pandemic, he finds joy in plant parenting and continues to expand his collection of Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Syngoniums. He's now on a lookout for the elusive Philodendron Florida Beauty to add to his urban garden.