Fashion’s power women – Glass meets some of the world’s most influential photographers

Fashion’s power women – Glass is honoured to meet some of the world’s most influential fashion photographers to discuss the pressing issues facing the industry today

The strange paradox of fashion is that in an industry built almost entirely around creating images of and for women, only a small fraction of those images are actually created by women. This is something of a contradiction in terms and poses some rather difficult questions, such as, why are there so few female fashion photographers? Is there discrimination within the industry? And should we be concerned that the vision of ‘perfect’ women that fashion images portray is not realistic?

We set out to interview some of the world’s leading female photographers to learn their thoughts on these subjects. Some were adamant that they considered themselves photographers, not “female photographers”, and that they had spent their lives avoiding female-focused exhibitions or projects and were cautious not to label themselves. Others welcomed the chance to bring these topics to the fore and spoke passionately on the inequality of women on both sides of the camera. One thing that was clear was that each woman’s opinion was as different and unique as their photographic style.

For all the women I spoke with, their desire to make beautiful and meaningful images was their raison d’être, and though their differences in opinion on the portrayal of women in fashion were striking, the one thing they all agreed on is that there are not nearly enough female photographers.

MarieSoMarie Sophie by Sheila Metzer 1986Sophie by Sheila Metzer 1986

Camilla Akrans, a highly renowned Swedish photographer who has photographed for almost every major title in the industry, puts it thus: “It’s strange that in the fashion industry, it is so male dominated in the photography and design. But if you look at the leadership roles, they are female. How come it is all the editors that are females and yet there are so few designers and photographers that are female? Maybe magazines aren’t pushing for female photographers. Why aren’t there more women in the industry? It would seem that we should support each other.

“When I started I was the only female assistant, and I just thought ‘that is the way it is’. Photographers said that they did not always want female help because they thought women could not handle the physical work. However, a lot of the new photographers now have all types of assistants – and they are freelance, not employed assistants. I think this should bring out a lot more female photographers and therefore in the future females will be more dominant.”

TheEvolution_of_Fashion by Cathleen NaundorfThe Evolution of Fashion by Cathleen Naundorf

One such photographer, Leonn Ward, a 26-year-old fine art graduate currently making waves in the London photography scene, is among this new generation and has had some interesting experiences. “I’ve been taking photographs for five years. I started out in my career four years ago when I shot a global Adidas Original campaign. The experience can be very split, to be honest. There’s one side where it’s great: I love walking into a room full of males who I’ve never met and they’re expecting a male photographer as my name gets mixed up for a boy’s name all the time. I love the face they make when they realise that I’m Leonn. However, I have had situations with people, mostly male, where I’m working with them on a job and you can sense that they doubt me. Little things really bother me, like in emails they ask me the dumbest questions as if I’ve started shooting yesterday, and I sometimes think, ‘Hmm, if I was a guy would they be this patronising?’ For example, a client once said to me, ‘We can rent a camera for you if you don’t have one. Are you familiar with the make, Canon?’ It pretty much felt like he was patting me on the head when actually I was about to shoot a campaign for this guy.”

Cathleen Naundorf, a highly acclaimed German photographer and winner of the 2016 American photography award, has had similar experiences of discrimination. “You are very often ignored if you apply for a job. For reportage photography it is mostly men; I was the only woman in my agency, as well as the youngest. You also get paid less. For example, for my travel book I got 30 per cent less than a male photographer would have been paid for the job. Very often I feel like even in fashion nowadays when it comes to production I get asked, ‘Are you sure you can do the job?’ and I reply ‘What do you mean?’ I think maybe society is just not ready to consider men and women equal in the world of fashion photography yet.”

Sussi Bick Cave By Dominique Isserman 1990Susie Bick Cave By Dominique Isserman 1990

This experience doesn’t seem to go across the board, though, and for legendary photographer Sheila Metzner, being a woman was never of any consequence. Metzner has photographed for Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and American Vogue at their heyday and has shot campaigns for the likes of Valentino, Elizabeth Arden, Fendi, Shiseido and Ralph Lauren. “Every photographer and every person sees things in their own way,” she says. “We are all unique individuals so I never really thought of myself as a woman photographer. In fact, I avoided exhibitions that were specifically just women. I might have even avoided what you are doing now because I like to see myself as a person who takes photographs, not a woman that takes photographs. But I know I’m seen in that way obviously.” (laughs).

“It was never my intention to be a fashion photographer. Alexander Lieberman saw a portrait of mine and called me to Vogue. When I got there, the first editor I met was Amy Gross and she asked, ‘Where did you come from?’ I was very naïve, very innocent. I was in my early 40s and had five children and a good marriage but I didn’t know anything about lights or fashion. It was pretty much Vogue editors Grace Mirabella and Grace Coddington who introduced me to designers and sent me to shows to introduce me to the world of fashion.”

Gisele by Elaine Constantine for Big Magazine 2001Gisele by Elaine Constantine for Big Magazine 2001

Elaine Constantine, who rose to fame in the ‘90s with her raw and fresh photos for The Face, also feels that being a woman didn’t hold her back. “I was one of Thatcher’s three million unemployed. I didn’t get an education, I came from a very working-class background in the North of England. There just happened to open up a free darkroom and workshop studio in the town where I lived for unemployed people and I went in there and fell in love with it. I then went to London and worked for photographer Nick Knight as his first assistant. Once I started taking my own photos, I think The Face recognised that I had something unique in me and they really championed me. I don’t think it was because I was a woman but I do agree that you have to work harder to be a woman and go do something, that’s for sure.”

But what of the sexualised nature of fashion images that has become so prevalent these days? How do women photographers feel about the growing, and highly hypocritical, backlash from the media that women, and even young girls, are being made to feel negatively about their own bodies when compared to the ‘body perfect’ portrayed in fashion images? And do these images undermine women’s position in society?

Yelena Yemchuk, a Ukrainian photographer who shoots for some of the most respected titles in the world, feels very strongly about this subject. “Growing up in the Soviet Union, because we did not have advertising, the women were portrayed as total equals to men. So it was very interesting when I came to America because I grew up with my mum being just as powerful as my dad, and older women working. Style was combined with your brains. When I came to the States I was looking at magazines and remember not feeling the same feeling I get now when I look at magazines. The girls were bigger than life and the clothes were glamorous but I did not feel like the women were being sexualized in any way.

“As a woman and as an artist, I feel kind of sad at the state of images that are being put out there now. I think and hope that the younger photographers are moving away from it but the way that women are being portrayed in commercials makes me speechless. I cannot comprehend it. And looking at Victoria’s Secret? It is all over-sexualized and ‘over-barbied’. Tacky has become the norm and it is so bizarre to me. I am not against the female body and I love it. I just think that the kind of over-sexualised idea is hurting the younger generation – they are constantly seeing it and it is set in their minds.”

Hyatt McCarthy by Leonn Ward 2014Hyatt McCarthy by Leonn Ward 2014

Leonn Ward agrees. “If I see another photo of a girl’s arse from a low angle, holding a banana or something, I am done! I think it’s great that girls are feeling good about themselves and don’t mind showing a bit of skin – go for it. But if it’s done to prove a point, it just loses all its meaning. I am all for feminism – however, this new ‘free the nipple’ feminism I’m not keen on. ‘Men and women are equal’ kind of feminism – yes. Showing your bum in a photo shoot, in my opinion, isn’t what feminists have been fighting for for decades. Feminism is humanism.”

Cathleen Naundorf agrees that the portrayal of women has gone too far. “Some people say to me that the women in my photographs are so romantic and I say, ‘No, they aren’t romantic, they have dignity.’ I don’t always want to show the legs and if I do I don’t want to make them longer and make the hips smaller. What makes me very happy with my work is that it is both women and men collecting my photographs, so there are also a lot of men who are fed up with how women are treated.

“Nowadays a lot of models come to me saying, ‘If you have a shoot just tell me and I will come.’ Another thing I am fed up with is how young the models are. Even the models who are 20 to 22 are telling me that they are not being booked any more because they are ‘too old’ and I think, ‘Are you kidding me? This is a woman, a young girl, she is 20 something and she is old?’ The industry is looking for kids that are 14, 15 or 16 and I am tired of this, it is unbelievable. Even if someone is 60, 70 or 80 years old, do they have to be out of society? No! They are human beings. Respect please. On my set I have all ages, religions, skin colours, everybody. We should be all together and not selective.”

 Nicole And Flowers Camilla Akrans for Vogue Germany July 2013Nicole And Flowers by Camilla Akrans for Vogue Germany July 2013

For Sheila Metzner it’s not as simple as images just being too sexualised, but rather the lack of any real emotional connection at all. “I went through heroin chic and I never thought it was chic, and I know there have been periods where women weren’t expressing anything at all and their arms were hanging in some unfashionable way and not even ‘alive’ way. In my day there was more of a sense of the person. There was definitely an emotional involvement, the model was a real person and that is something I wanted to bring out in my work. It was still sexy and sensual and about fashion but it was also a story about a girl. It was expressing something about this person. These young women became my friends and part of my family – it’s the same as if I was photographing my daughter or son, I got to know these girls. There was always a story. I thought that models were wonderful human beings.

“I remember Grace Mirabella asking me, ‘What’s real beauty?’ And I had to think about that. And it’s also what Alexander Lieberman said once, ‘It’s a portrait in clothes’, and that’s not so much being expressed any more.”

Dominique Issermann, one of France’s leading photographers, who has shot campaigns for the likes of Dior, Chanel and Sonia Rykiel, also cites emotion as being the most important aspect of her photos and only takes a picturewhen I feel the fusion between me and the model, the landscape, the architecture, the tree, whatever I am framing; I hunt for the relieving click.” Issermann disagrees, however, with the furore over retouching and doesn’t believe that fashion images should be obliged to mimic real life.

Story Lorna Foran by Yelena Yemchuk for Violet Book 2016Story Lorna Foran by Yelena Yemchuk for Violet Book 2016

“Women in places like magazines, on billboards, these places are very theatrical, extreme, they entertain, it’s a show. The lens, the light, the frame are already building the stage of the dream, the excitement of ‘the new’, ‘the unseen’, without even retouching. And retouching did not start with Photoshop; hand retouching on the negatives or the prints was born with photography. I don’t know where the idea that photography should clone reality, or even better, has a moral duty to do so, came from.” Issermann also believes that one’s sex has nothing to do with their style of photography. “Why do women photographers have to be differentiated from male photographers? In literature why do you have to differentiate Bronte from Thomas Hardy? I don’t see how whether a photographer is a man or a woman is relevant.”

According to Camilla Akrans, the problem of sexualisation is being blown out of proportion. “I feel like the last couple of years we are starting to go away from that. I think we are not objectifying the idea of sexy any more and I think it is more that it is in everyone’s head that women are portrayed that way. It is getting more common that women are portrayed as normal people. That supermodel era is not really here any more. I think fashion is looking more at portraying real women and that women are not sexual victims any more in fashion magazines. In magazines for men you might find women being portrayed that way but I think the future is looking good.” Camilla’s images are often very sexy and I ask her if this isn’t something of a contradiction. “I want to shoot women the way I would like to be shot or perceived, which is sexy and beautiful. I make my women come alive and it brings out the way I want to be portrayed.”

Elaine Constantine feels that the notion that women are somehow damaged by the images around them is absurd and insulting to women’s intelligence. “I have a bit of a problem with this idea that photography disturbs young girls. I mean I obviously get irritated when I see an image that is so retouched that it has lost all naturalness – especially if its aim was to be a natural image. I don’t have a problem with, let’s say, a Helmut Newton image or if the style is just ultra retouched because that’s the intended style of it, but I kind of get annoyed about the idea that women are too delicate and too sensitive to look at these images. I recently went to a talk given by a friend of mine. She was on the panel and it was all about how Beyoncé or particular role-model women allow images of themselves looking incredibly sexy, or very thin or highly retouched was wrong, and I just think women are much more intelligent than that.

“They don’t look at anything and say, ‘Oh my God, I have to diet to be that weight. I have got to get rid of all of my wrinkles’. I think people who take part in that kind of body surgery have much deeper reasons than what is going on in visual language in the media. I’m sure that some things don’t do a lot for people’s confidence, but I grew up on Linda Lusardi and Sam Fox and didn’t desperately crave to have a breast enlargement. So I do get a bit annoyed about that, because I think that women are intelligent creatures and I don’t think they should be protected from visuals, and a lot of this stuff that people are getting over excited about really isn’t that bad.”

 Anna Ewers by Camilla Akrans for Vogue Germany March 2015Anna Ewers by Camilla Akrans for Vogue Germany March 2015

If there’s one thing that our interviewees do agree on, however, it’s the advice that they would give to young photographers starting out today. “Never give up,” says Issermann, “don’t compromise, keep your joy and your freedom alive, don’t copy, don’t paste, trust your own style. Work hard.”

For Constantine it’s the same advice that her mentor, Nick Knight, gave to her. “Nick told me, ‘Don’t go making images that are the same as everybody else’s. Strive to be different. Strive for excellence.’ The most successful fashion photographers have always been the people who presented the new idea of what a woman is.”

Yemchuk concurs, “The most important thing is to stick to your own vision and not repeat what everyone else is doing. It is important to have your own soul and heart in your work because that is how people will be attracted to your images.”

Naundorf says, “Work, work, work. Look at good photography, read about it and train the eye. Money doesn’t rain and success doesn’t rain either. Just do your thing, train yourself, don’t get too influenced by your surroundings. The most important thing I think is to have peace within yourself and that you are doing what you believe in. Accept the doubts and accept that there will be ups and downs.” Akrans concludes poignantly with, “Believe in yourself, because if you don’t believe in yourself no-one else will. And never give up. I think with that state of mind you can become president if you want.”

by Nicola Kavanagh

From Issue 28 of Glass – Equality

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