An Insight Into The Best Fashion Photographers: From Mario Testino To Nick Knight
An insight into some of fashion’s most famous names behind the lens. We take a look at the most well known and impactful fashion photographers over time.
Written by Nick Ainge-Roy.
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It seems rather redundant to say that fashion is concerned with image – it is, after all, a visual medium, and one whose existence as an industry relies on the appeal and demand for images. There are certain spheres of the fashion world who actively reject the appeal of image in favour of garment construction or technical details and treatments, granted, but overwhelmingly the focus is on the visual, and this is reflected in the language: drape, cut, form, silhouette, and so on. At the heart of it, fashion is about how things look, and a great number of jobs and lives depend on this, from designers and stylists through to editors, interns and window dressers.
But there is one role in the fashion world that is more inextricably tied to image than any else, and that is the photographer. Long considered Gods in the industry, the right photographers have the power to make or break careers, create and establish trends, or re-do entire shoots on a whim. Every art form has its own cohort of masters, but when it comes to fashion photographers, there are so many that compiling a comprehensive list of ‘the best’ risks becoming prohibitively long (read:unreadable) or not long enough to include all those worthy of mention.
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So to hell with objectivity, inclusivity, or anything else that could hinder our efforts at insight, for this is a list chosen, at worst, at random, and at best with some semblance of a rationale, which will hopefully reveal itself in the end.
One of the best known names in fashion and photography, Mario Testino has perhaps shot more famous faces than any of his predecessors and contemporaries, all while carving out a style that leaps from austere, dignified portraiture, to lurid, technicolor campaigns.
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Born in Peru to a well-to-do family, Testino originally studied Economics, Law and International Affairs, first in his native Peru and then in San Diego, before he abandoned these pursuits to move to London in 1977 and study photography. Taking his early inspiration from legendary mid-century photographer Cecil Beaton – whose influence can still be seen in Testino’s imposing black and white portraits – the young Peruvian found freedom in London, moving into an abandoned hospital where he and his friends would throw parties dressed as doctors, nurses, and even patients. By 1983 his work was published in Vogue, the first of what would become one of the longest standing and most iconic partnerships in fashion.
Despite this, it wasn’t until the ‘90s that Testino’s career would truly take off, due to two outsized but unconnected names: Tom Ford and Princess Diana. Alongside Ford and the equally luminary Carine Roitfeld, Testino was responsible for the campaign imagery that propelled Gucci into the spotlight in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, while simultaneously creating something of a moral panic for an American society hellbent on protecting its youth from the perversions of sex, video games, and South Park. But even in a world that now takes a much more relaxed view of sex, Testino’s images are highly charged and undeniably provocative, and would certainly create as much of an uproar, if not more, were they to be released today. That being said, his work with Ford and Roitfeld has already cemented its place in fashion history, and arguably paved the way for other photographic provocateurs such as Terry Richardson, who shot subsequent Gucci campaigns for Ford following his falling out with Testino in the middle of the last decade.
Yet given the nature of this work, it is perhaps unsurprising that in January of this year several male models came forward to accuse Testino of sexual misconduct and assault, dating back to the ‘90s, and as recently as 2010. One victim, Ryan Locke, described Testino as a “sexual predator”, a sentiment that has been echoed by fellow models, as well as Testino’s former assistants. To date, 18 separate claims have been made against the photographer, while Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, has suspended all business relations with Testino.
Though his name lacks the star power glitz of some of his contemporaries on this list, Belgian photographer Willy Vanderperre has built a quiet but impressive legacy for himself, while carving out a distinctive and instantly recognisable style. Born and raised in Antwerp, Vanderperre attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the same institution that spawned Martin Margiela and the rest of the Antwerp Six. Originally enrolled in fashion design, Vanderperre made the switch to photography while studying at the Academy, seeing it as a more direct expression of his ideas. While at the Academy in the early ‘90s, Vanderperre would meet one of his longest serving friends and collaborators, and the man he is most commonly associated with: Raf Simons. Alongside Olivier Rizzo and Veronique Branquinho, Simons’ girlfriend at the time, the pair would meet at a café called Witzli-Poetzli, where they would discuss fashion, mainly Helmut Lang and fellow Belgian, Margiela.
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Indeed, it could be said that Vanderperre’s career has largely been defined by his relationship with Simons. Beyond the wicker chairs of the Witzli-Poetzli café, the two began to shoot in their apartment, alongside stylist Olivier Rizzo and makeup artist Peter Philips, a cohort that continue to work together to this very day. These Sunday afternoon sessions would birth some of the most iconic images that Simons and Vanderperre would create in close to 30 years, including perhaps the most iconic of them all, a photo of Robbie Snelders, flat eyed and his face adorned with that of Mickey Mouse, dressed in a Simons overcoat and looking like a grungy Ziggy Stardust.
Like Knight, Vanderperre is also known for his portraits, usually shot in black and white. But where Knight’s portraits frequently border on the abstract, Vanderperre’s are strict representations, earnest, and with a strange depth that absorbs the viewer and brings the humanity and essence of the subject to the very fore. It is this quality that makes his work with Simons so enduring and special; where Raf captures the restless innocence of youth in his clothing, Vanderperre does so in his photographs.
Beyond Simons, Vanderperre has also established a close and ongoing relationship with several prominent magazines, such as AnOther Man and Arena Homme Plus, and many international labels, including Prada, Jil Sander and Dior Homme. Across all of these projects, Vanderperre’s minimal approach and masterful manipulation of light shines through, while more recent campaigns for Raf Simons and Calvin Klein have proven that his evocative style translates equally well to technicolour.
Despite a high-profile career stretching across nearly three decades, it feels as if Vanderperre’s star is only truly starting to shine, and with a visual language that speaks well to the tastes of the current time, it seems possible that Vanderperre could end up being one of the definitive artists of this generation. Regardless of his eventual position in the photographic pantheon, it is undeniable that Vanderperre’s impact on fashion will endure for decades to come.
Another star of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Steven Meisel is one of the most celebrated and secretive photographers of the past 30 years. Obsessed with feminine beauty and the glamour of high society life from a young age, Meisel began his career in fashion as an illustrator working for Roy Halston, following his graduation from Parsons. Although in an enviable position, Meisel considered illustration to be an outdated artform in the world of fashion, preferring the permanency afforded by photographs.
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Luckily, his break came when Oscar Reyes, a booker for Elite Model Management and an admirer of his illustrations, allowed Meisel to photograph some of their models, initially in his apartment or on the street – later photos, such as his series with Linda Evangelista in Cuba, would revisit the latter location in iconic fashion. Known for his cinematic composition, love of bright, candy floss colours, and at times controversial commitment to his vision, Meisel is truly one of the few photographers who can turn regular models into superstars, a talent that has earned him accolades seldom seen in the fashion world.
He has photographed every cover of Vogue Italia since 1987, has shot every Prada campaign since 2004, and is responsible for launching the careers of countless models, including Linda Evangelista, Amber Valletta, Naomi Campbell, Lara Stone and Coco Rocha. But where Meisel’s talent really lies is in his ability to create stories that are confrontational, controversial, and constantly pushing an issue: in 2008, he shot all the editorials for Vogue Italia’s issue dedicated to black beauty, describing his motivation to Pierre Alexandre de Looz of 032c, “Obviously, I feel that fashion is totally racist. The one thing that taking pictures allows you to do is occasionally make a larger statement.”
Indeed, Meisel’s career seems full of statements, on topics ranging from police brutality and the war on terror in 2006’s State of Emergency, through to the uncomfortable relationship between fashion and susbtance abuse in 2007’s Super Mods Enter Rehab, and the industry and wider society’s obsession with perfection in 2005’s Makeover Madness. All of this is to say nothing of his work outside of the fashion sphere, most famously in 1992, when he helped longtime friend Madonna produce her erotic art book, Sex. Though the book was heavily criticised at the time for “going too far”, it reinforced Meisel’s identity as an artist unafraid of risk, willing to step far beyond the lines of conventional good taste in the pursuit of a great photo.
Of course, this only served to enhance the perception of Meisel as a high-powered outsider in the fashion scene, a position that he still occupies today: unlike many of his superstar contemporaries, Meisel rarely gives interviews, and maintains a distance from the glitz of the industry that is refreshing , especially in an age where photographers seem to command almost as much attention as the people they shoot. Few photos of the man exist, and you can safely say that he will never ever ever feature on his own cover, unlike a younger photographer such as Mert Alas, who recently appeared on the cover of Vogue Turkey with Kendall Jenner to give his own hilariously frozen impersonation of Blue Steel.
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Although at 64 he is now verging on retirement age, it seems unlikely that Meisel will stop shooting any time soon, and given his proclivity to churn out work quietly, consistently and without fanfare, it is completely conceivable that fashion’s greatest photographer could continue creating well beyond the foreseeable future.
While none of the names in this list need introduction, Nick Knight is one that should hold a special relevance to the modern reader, a name that has become synonymous with artistry and an eclectic body of work, from fashion to film, music and museum curation. Born in 1958, Knight’s career in photography began when he was still a student at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. Coming from a middle-class background, Knight was drawn to the skinhead scene that had re-emerged in the austerity of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, initially attracted by the fashion, music, and violence that was part and parcel of skinhead culture. In an interview with Alexander McQueen in 2000, Knight recalls:
His first book, Skinhead, was published in 1982, and documented the everyday lives of the skinheads that Knight surrounded himself with between 1979 and 1981, providing an honest and affronting look into a culture that is still incredibly misunderstood. Following this publication, i-D editor Terry Jones commissioned Knight to shoot a series for the magazine’s fifth anniversary – like Skinhead, the photos were exclusively in black and white, and established Knight’s distinctive, highly contrast and statuesque photographic style with portraits of his 100 ‘People of the 80s’, including John Galliano, Tony Wilson, and punk legend Judy Blame. Knight revisited and built on this series for i-D’s 30th anniversary, this time shooting 200 portraits of various designers, models, artists and celebrities for the 2010 issue.
Knight’s next, and possibly most significant break, came shortly after the i-D commission, when Marc Ascoli brought him on board to collaborate with legendary graphic designer Peter Saville on a series of catalogues for the equally legendary Yohji Yamamoto. Beginning in 1986, the trio created images that would go on to make fashion history, the most famous of them being Red Bustle. The photograph shows a model entirely in black, defined only by the silhouette of her peculiarly cut Yohji ensemble, from the back of which erupts a red dressage ribbon of tangled fabric, tumbling to meet the floor, an ethereal buttress supporting the figure above. The image was striking, not least because it eschewed showing any clear details of the clothes it was meant to sell, and marked the beginning of Knight’s work with color, an aspect of image making that he would continue to experiment with through the coming decades. Other defining photographs of this time included Susie Smoking, featuring a porcelain model sprawled, cigarette in hand, in front of a background of brooding, surreal colours, as well as Red Dress, which reversed the colour composition of Red Bustle while introducing movement into Knight’s images, another aspect that would go on to become a key element of his signature style.
From 1992 onwards, Knight’s career exploded, as he began booking campaigns for the likes of Jil Sander – his 1992 campaign photograph for Sander sold in 2016 for HK$2,360,000, or over $300,000USD based on today’s exchange rates – Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Alexander McQueen. McQueen would end up becoming one of Knight’s longest serving collaborators, with the two visionaries working together on dozens of campaigns, and even a fine art installation, ‘Angel’, in 2000; McQueen’s final show, the pioneering and enduring Plato’s Atlantis, was streamed live on SHOWStudio, the website Knight founded back in 2000.
Since the turn of the millennium, Nick Knight has become one of the most recognisable and influential names not just in fashion, but filmmaking and photography as a whole. He has directed music videos for Björk, Lady Gaga and Kanye West, numerous fashion films for labels as distinct as Tom Ford and Comme des Garçons, and was even chosen to shoot Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles’ official portraits for the monarch’s 90th birthday. Where some photographers choose only to speak through editorials and portraits, Knight is a polyglot, communicating his ideas and vision in every medium from film to fine art, creating images that are dynamic, surreal, and unforgettable, all of which have crafted a legacy of Knight as one of the greatest image makers of our time.
As possibly the most talked about designer in fashion right now, Hedi Slimane should need little introduction – but for those who may not be so familiar, let us quickly recap his accomplishments to date. Beginning his design career in earnest as director of menswear at Yves Saint Laurent in the late 1990’s, Slimane was arguably one of the progenitors of the skinny silhouette that is now ubiquitous in fashion, having pioneered the look with his Autumn/Winter 2000/2001 collection, dubbed ‘Black Tie’. Shortly after releasing this collection, Slimane shifted to Dior Homme and began to establish himself as a master of menswear, with collections like Autumn/Winter 2003’s ‘Luster’ , 2004’s ‘Victim of the Crime’ and 2007’s ‘Navigate’ finding immense success with both critics and consumers. Following the 2007 season, Slimane opted not to renew his contract with Dior, and despite rumours of starting his own label under the Kering umbrella, left to pursue his first love: photography.
Slimane began taking and printing his own black and white photos when he was just 11 years old, having learned how to develop them in a dark room. Speaking to the Business of Fashion about this early stage of his life, he says, “I always thought this was clearly what I would do: document the world around me, be an archivist of my time, live in the moment”. Given that he initially wanted to become a reporter for the French newspaper Le Monde, Slimane’s fascination with observing the world around him is unsurprising, especially considering his detached and shy nature, as he recalls:
And perhaps this interest in emerging talents and restless behaviours is what drew Slimane to rock and roll, the constant thematic undercurrent throughout his career, and his primary photographic interest for more than 20 years. Having gained an artist residency at the Kunst-Werke Studio, Slimane spent much time in Berlin between 2000 and 2002, where he worked photographing the indie rock scene, members of whom he would later cast in his shows for Dior Homme. His photos from this period were published as a book, simply titled 'Berlin', before being featured as an exhibit at the MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York. After departing Dior Homme, Slimane focused full time on his photography for the next six years, publishing projects with various fashion outlets and moving to LA, where he continues to reside, in an effort to capture the inimitable rock and roll spirit of California.
Finally, after years of absence that many feared would be permanent, the enigmatic Frenchman marked his return to fashion with one of those full circle moments usually reserved for the movies, ending up back at Yves Saint Laurent, or as it is now known thanks to Hedi, Saint Laurent Paris. Assuming full creative control of Saint Laurent, Slimane was responsible for the entire image and direction of the house, from the clothing, to the boutiques, runway shows and campaigns, the latter of which he shot in his trademark black and white style. It is well documented that Slimane’s second run at the Parisian label is one of the most memorable and successful in recent years, with sales more than doubling during his tenure, propelled by his fusion of traditional Western and rock and roll styles, and aided by somber campaign imagery featuring his favourite indie artists.
With his recent appointment at Céline, Slimane looks set to reshape another storied Parisian house in his uncompromising vision, although exactly what the formerly highfalutin and feminine label will look like under his direction is as yet unknown. As at Saint Laurent, Slimane will be given full control over the artistic, creative and image direction of the house, meaning we will undoubtedly be exposed to his trademark touch throughout the campaigns, lookbooks and promotional images. In spite of his various arrivals, departures, entrances and exits, Hedi Slimane remains one of the most talented and captivating image makers in fashion, be it on the runway or behind the lens, and we are certain to witness something special when he returns in September.
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Author: Nick Ainge-Roy
Header Photo: Saint Laurent Paris S/S 2016 ' Surf Sound' by Hedi Slimane