This Getty Exhibit Tracks The Rise Of Street Fashion Photography
By Mary Knauf with Marialexa Kavanaugh
Until recently, fashion photography was the domain of magazines and advertising. They featured big campaigns, glossy spreads and well-known models. But cameras and Instagram have shifted fashion photography from the hands of the elite into those of, well, almost anyone.
Exhibit Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911-2011 at the Getty Center tracks how the artform's evolved over the last hundred years. It includes photos by Scott Schuman, who brought digital street-style photography to the masses in the early 2000s with his blog the Sartorialist.
For Schuman, the compilation of decades of photos in one location was nostalgic. When he paused at a 1955 Richard Avedon photo, he was reminded why the industry grabbed his interest in the first place.
"I grew up in Indiana, and so the world came to me through magazines and images, because Indiana didn't look like this," Schuman said. "But this is the perfect example of the kind of photograph I think really captures people about fashion photography. It's a life very few people lead, but at the same time it's very intoxicating."
Fast forward to 2005 — Schuman was well-integrated into the fashion world that fascinated him as a kid. He'd recently quit his job as director of men's fashion at his New York City showroom and was in the midst of starting the Sartorialist site.
Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.
His life was in an exciting transition, but the ins and outs of photographing people on the street could be tricky.
"So the first day, you know it didn't go so well. The first couple people said no," Schuman said. "And a lot of it turned out to be very intuitive. You know, the way you approach a guy is different than how you approach a girl. I really had to put myself in their place — no one in New York wants to be stopped."
But he persisted. Mostly because he knew he had a good idea.
"I knew that if people shot front row, they were only kind of shooting the celebrities and the known people — and a lot of times, I didn't think they looked very well dressed," Schuman said. "There were a lot of editors in the third row, or the fourth row, or people's assistants who were working backstage with the designer. Those are the people I thought, 'they look really cool. Nobody knows who they are, but they're the actual really cool ones.'"
The Sartorialist quickly took off. By 2011, it had reached 13 million monthly views — today, there's over a decade's worth of images in its archives.
Four of them are featured in the exhibit. Curator Paul Martineau thought it was important to close out the show with them.
"I wanted the show to end in 2011 at the point where digital photography had become the dominant force, because it is changing how photographers do their work, and how fashion photography is transmitted to the public," Martineau said.
We live in the Instagram age, so that means fashion photography is in-the-moment, digital and accessible. It's fast. But Schuman has been working that way for a long time.
"I don't have a stylist with me, I don't have lighting with me," Schuman said. "And I'm also very much a New Yorker, I like to move quick, I don't like to spend a lot of time. I'm charming for about five minutes, and then that's it — I move on."
Charming or not, you can argue that today's social media-savvy photographers are following in Schuman's footsteps. But the industry is bound to shift in another direction sooner or later, according to Martineau.
"In order to remain interesting, fashion photography always has to be changing," Martineau said. "It's always changing in the face of economic, political and cultural changes in the world. And only the people who can keep up with those changes can remain on top."
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