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Construction of Identity Through Photography

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2854 words Published: 10th Aug 2021

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This essay the researcher will attempt to document the use of fashion photography namely two sets of fashion photographers with very different styles, Guy bourdain, Helmut Newton who worked predominantly in the 70s and 80s and Richard Avedon and Irving Penn who worked predominately in the 50s and 60s. the essay attempt to show if fashion photography contributes to promoting a positive influence in constructing identity of the female viewer. To do this the essay will define the use of semiotics fashion photography, he will show techniques and models that are used to create and sell an idea to the viewer. And determine whether the majority of the ridership of editorial fashion photography are influenced positively or negatively.

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The average readership for Britain’s most popular and renowned fashion publication is Vogue Britain is 646 thousand people, the parentage age of the ridership is as followed from 17 to 19 =15 % 20 to 24 25 % 25 to 34 26 % 35 to 44 17% and 44% to above 17%, 84 % of these readers are female, there for 81 % or 523,260 readers of the publication are females between the age of 17 and 34 (Vivacom, July, 2009 [online]).

“The process of developing identity begins with the infant’s discovery of self, and becomes the focus of adolescence. Erik Erikson, identified the goal of adolescence as achieving a coherent identity and avoiding identity confusion. Identity is multidimensional and may include physical and sexual identity, and usually make commitments to their identity as they move into early adulthood. Adults may revaluate and alter certain aspects of their identity as life circumstances Change.”(http://social.jrank.org/ 2006 [online]).

The physical, cognitive, and social changes of adolescence allows teenagers to develop there identity that will serve as a basis for their adult lives. The emergence of abstract reasoning abilities allows adolescents to think about the future and experiment with different identities.

James Marcia hypothesized that identity development involves two steps. Step one, “the adolescent must break away from childhood beliefs to explore alternatives for identity in a particular area i.e. clothing”. (http://social.jrank.org/ 2006 [online]). The Second step, marcoa states that “the adolescent makes a commitment as to their individual identity in that area. Often adolescents begin to question their ideas and beliefs and enter a “moratorium.” The moratorium status is characterized by exploration of alternatives. Identity may occur at different times. For females, an important component of their identity is related to their physical appearance. Identity achievement during adolescence serves as a basis for our adult expectations and goals for ourselves. As individuals enter early adulthood they use their understanding of whom they are to develop a life span construct a link between the identity developed in adolescence and the adult self”. (http://social.jrank.org [2006]). As the statement above suggests people predominantly woman are at there most influenced at there adolescence and young adults stages. As stated a large percentage of readers of magazines such as vogue fall with in this age group of adolescent to young adult.

The two main types of fashion photography in fashion magazines such as Vogue are advertising and editorial, both of these photography forms use the use of signs or semiotics, in communicating the fashion to the reader mainly a woman between the age of 17 and 34.

“Fashion photography speaks both the reality and illusion of garments and of bodies, and in deconstructing how these elements are organized and presented, a new language and system emerges from the photographic work” (Roland bath)

A sign as anything which is so determined by something else, called its Object, and so determines an effect upon a person, a sign is constructed of three inter-related parts: a sign, an object, and an interpretation, in fashion photography the sign is the photograph, this doesn’t necessarily mean the focus of the image i.e. the clothing it could be the entire scene and the narrative behind it. The object might be the clothing or the jewellery but it may also be the model and the interpretation. A reading of both the previous factors, take for example the photograph below by renowned fashion photography Corrine day.

Plate 1

Corrine Day, 2007 Stem Golden Years, Vogue UK

This is an example of an editorial fashion photograph. If this image were to be red as a “sign” first of all the image must be broken down first of all the sign the two dimensional object of a three dimensional seen, in the image the reader can see facts, the location is the London tube system it is between the hours of 7 am and 12 pm as we can see the train in the background and the train only runs between this time we can tell even with out knowing about the photographer we can tell that the image was taken between the 20th century and present day as this is when the tube was made. We can also see that the image included strobe flash as the models movement has been frozen yet the trains movement is blurred this also suggests that the image was taken between this time as the electronic flash was also created in this time. All these facts start to tell as story a narrative and sets up the stage for “The object” being the clothes and the model.

Models play a key part in selling the item as well as the ideal, and research shown in; The influence of fashion magazines on the body image satisfaction of college women: an exploratory analysis by Sherry L. Turner, Heather Hamilton, Meija Jacobs, Laurie M. Angood, Deanne Hovde Dwyer has sets out to find if women are influenced negatively by fashion magazines. The research shows work by Sheldon and Stevens done in the 1940s; the research found that ectomorphic (having a build with little fat or muscle but with long limbs) individuals were perceived negatively. By the late 1980s, the perception had shifted. Ectomorphics were considered to be the most sexually appealing. The research states that “in 1978, mean weight of models has dropped to 84% of the population mean”, and “among the Miss America Pageant contestants: Prior to 1970, mean weight of the contestants was approximately 88% of the population norm” The research shows that these figures are consistent with the courageousness of models appearing in Vogue from 1901 to 1981.

A study done in this research proves that adolescent to young women are influenced by fashion magazines, the experiment took 49 undergraduate females enrolled in a psychology course at a New England women’s college. 24 were assigned to the fashion magazine group, and 25 were assigned to the news magazine group. tests revealed no significant differences in the mean height, weight, or age of the two groups .Eight magazines were chose on the basis of its popularity and availability Four that had reputations of fashion and models Vogue, Bazaar, Elle, and Allure. And four news magazines used in the control Time, News week, News & World Report, and Business Week.

The participants were then assessed on perceptions of their bodies and their dieting attitudes. Examples of these questions are: “I am very frustrated about my weight”; “I am afraid of getting fat”; and “I diet to improve my looks.” Participants were then asked to indicate which of the eight magazines they read prior to completing the questionnaire.

A three-part, self-administered questionnaire was used to assess women’s body image satisfaction. The first portion of the questionnaire consisted of adult figure drawings designed and illustrated by Stunkard, Sorenson, and Schulsinger (1980). Each participant was asked to examine nine female silhouettes of varying size and to indicate the figure that most clearly reflected her perceptions of her own body type, her ideal body type, and the body type considered to be most ideal by society. A nine-point scale was used, with the lowest numbers corresponding to the thinnest silhouettes.

The applicants were then asked to wait in a waiting room one at a time four magazines were placed in front of them. For half of the participants, the waiting room contained news magazines and for the half, there were fashion magazines. After 13 minutes, participants were given the questionnaire to complete. Unlimited time was given for completion.

Ten participants indicated on their questionnaire that they did not read a magazine while waiting. These students were eliminated from the data analyses. The resulting sample consisted of 18 (37%) participants in the fashion magazine condition and 21 (43%) in the news magazine condition. The research results prove what they hypothesised. Ideal weight differed for the two groups. Women who viewed fashion magazines perceived a lower ideal weight than did women who viewed news magazines.

Women who viewed fashion magazines reported more frequently feeling very frustrated about their weight, weighing themselves more than once a week, exercising only to lose weight feeling guilty while eating, feeling guilty after eating, being preoccupied with the desire to be thinner and being afraid of getting fat, Similarly, when compared to women who viewed news magazines, those who viewed fashion magazines less frequently reported being pleased about their bodies, and feeling satisfied with the shape of their bodies.

This research has proven that the media has is influential to adolescent and young women it shows that the fashion magazine show and ideal rather than a reflection of societies perception of the female form.

These results shows that the models in the photographs have a philological effect on the women that view and therefore read them, this leads to ” the interpretation” the interpretation is a reading of both the previous factors the sign and the object, if the target audience i.e. woman 17 to 30 years of age Weston hemisphere middle income, feels jealousy for the shape and figure of the woman they will associate the clothes she is wearing with the model her self i.e. (if I want to be like her I have to get those clothes) or in other fashion photographs like the one below by renowned British fashion photographer Norman Parkinson, the images often show a glamorous location i.e. beaches far away cities such as New York Paris etc this adds another layer to the sign if people associate the object with the sign or the model and clothing with the location there interpretation may be that if I want to be like that model and have that life style then I have to get the clothes.

Plate 2

Norman Parkinson, 1980, Pilar Crespi

As the research earlier stated by the late 1980s, the perception had shifted ectomorphics were now considered to be the most sexually appealing, the research shows that fashion magazines changed from using larger models to thinner ones during two prominent fashion photographer working in this time were Guy bourdin and Helmut Newton.

Guy Bourdin, Gaby wood from the observer says trailblazing image-maker of the Seventies and eighties, doyen of photographic perversion, godfather of countless images we see in magazines and advertising today. Bourdin pioneered what might be called the new soft porn – the acceptable face of sex to sell anything, an aesthetic too knowing, too caught up in unveiling the world of the fetish, to be actually pornographic. (The Observer, 2003) Gaby reiterates the point that this photographer although giving a lot of new ideas and style to the fashion photography industry, is somewhat responsible for the change of models in fashion photography and along with other photographers of the 80s set the theme of models getting thinner in fashion photography.

Plate 3

Guy Bourdin (1983) The Guy Bourdin Estate, 2003

The image above is a prime example of guy bourdin image, typically containing naked or semi naked women and featuring shoes the main focus of the image is the body, bourdin heavily crops a large amount of his work focusing on the body rather than the persons (models) face. When looking at this photograph it is hard to concentrate on any thing but the vivid colours of the objet the fashion and the purposely lit models, the back ground has been lit but with a much lower ratio than the models again drawing the focus to the body.

Helmut Newton was another renowned fashion photographer that worked in the 60s 70s and 1980s Newton’s work like bourdin’s in controversial and provocative. More than often the images contained naked females, His works appeared in magazines including, most significantly, French Vogue.

Plate 4

Helmut Newton (1998) Mugler

Above is a prime example of Newton’s work often shot in black and white in high contrast the female is presented square on and the clothing has a relation to sadomasochistic and the fetish. The model is corseted witch exemplifies the narrow thin shape of the model. “SM is a fashion statement today because of him” (Independent on Sunday, May 2001). Although a lot is wrote about Helmut’s work being sexist, exploitative and misogynist but Helmut’s wife renowned photographer Alice springs whom edited and curate Helmut’s books and exhibitions says that “he gives women power. The chains, whips and handcuffs are jokes, These women are no victims” (Independent on Sunday, May, 2001) further more The “Barbican curator Tomoko Sato, who collaborated on the exhibition with June, its Guest Curator, says they “define the role of women as commanding partner rather than passive object””(Independent on Sunday, May, 2001)

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In contrast to the work of guy bourdin and Helmut Newton the researcher will now show and discus how the work of fashion photographers who worked primarily in the 1940s and 1950 features models and signs and themes much different to the ones of the 70s and 80s the photographer that will be discussed are Richard Avedon and Irvin Penn.

“Richard Avedon shot the Paris collections for almost 40 years, and was staff photographer for Vogue from 1966 until 1990, Known for bringing the fashion models of the day, including and Sunny Harnett, to life, Richard Avedon injected a previously unseen vibrancy into the medium of fashion photography”. (JO CRAVEN 22 April, 2008)

Plate 5

Richard Avedon (1950s)

Above is an image by Avedon taken in 1957 of model Carmen Dell’Orefice. The image following the style of the time features the model looking curvy and not stick thin confirming the results of the tests of the students. Avedon used models like this through his carrier.

Irvin Penn was another photographer working in fashion photography industry during the 50s and 60s Penn was 26 when he began working for vogue, photographic covers for the fashion magazine Vogue. He began photographing his own ideas for covers and soon established himself as a fashion photographer. “His austere fashion images communicated elegance and luxury through compositional refinement and clarity of line rather than through the use of elaborate props and backdrops”. (1994-2010 Encyclopaedia Britannica,)

Andy Gruenberg wrights in the New York times “one of the 20th century’s most prolific and influential photographers of fashion and the famous, whose signature blend of classical elegance and cool minimalism was recognizable to magazine readers and museum goers worldwide”.

Plate 6

Irving Penn. 1950, Vogue America Cover

Above is an example of Penn’s fashion work, again notice the size and shape of the model this image taken in the 1950 for a American vogue cover. Reiterating the point made in the studies and again contrasting the work and change in model shape by the 1980s


It would apeer that there was a shift in the way that the media fashion photography in particular presenter and advertised an ideal towards it main demographic the research has shown the effects of this change with study’s. It has also suggested ways in with this is achieved i.e. semiotics the researcher then applied these rules in semiotics to fashion photography works. Noted fashion photographers were then selected and shown and compared for their noted works in the decade’s witch they predominantly worked. Over all I believe that the essay proves and highlights the point that it set out to do but more research to reiterate the findings would have been preferred to give the argument more definition. Also more research in to other metered of philology towards the model and advertising could have strengthened the argument more so.


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