The dressing up box: Unravelling fashion photography

This post is written mostly with my Year 11 students in mind and their current project, The Dressing Up Box: Fashion and Performance. I do love a grand title. Fashion Photography is a theme we’ve touched on before with Year 12 students (see here and also here) and I’m excited to see some new Year 11 responses emerging. With reduced curriculum time for GCSE it has certainly become a bit more of a challenge.

What follows are some insights into the project so far, with some recent student examples and a few prompts to help things along…

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With a reduction in GCSE lesson time (thankfully rectified for 2016-17) finding the balance between teacher led learning and creative ‘play’ is a challenge – and trying not to panic when quality work takes a while to surface. Tom and Seb, above, have been great examples of students progressing steadily through hands-on collaboration

Why do a Fashion Photography project?
We currently have a large majority of girls studying GCSE Photography (22 out of 30) and ‘Fashion Photography’ has often been expressed as an area of interest. I’m not surprised, most young people spend their days pickled in fashion-based imagery – often unwittingly – drip-fed via advertising, music videos, reality shows and social media.

The negative influences of the fashion industry have long been documented and, truth be told, are a key motivator in addressing this topic lower down the school. Teenagers, girls in particular, can face tremendous pressures to look a particular way or be a particular size, as any parent (or experienced teacher) knows all too well.

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Year 11 students initially experimented with basic fabrics and various lighting set-ups

I’d love to think that our fashion themed project could lift the lid – if only for an individual or two – on these particular teenage pressures. But of course, growing up (and teaching and learning itself) is rarely that straightforward. And Fashion Photography is by no means an all-out-evil. It does provide a complex and compelling narrative, woven across the histories of photography and art. Also – for better and worse – it can hold a telling mirror up to society itself, which really is worth a look.

“Perhaps the best we can do is teach students to be suspicious and discerning; to build self-confidence through creating culture rather than the unquestioning consumption of it”

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By Becky and Abbie, Year 11

In straightforward practical terms, there are many great reasons to do a fashion themed project. This half term has already provided us with an opportunity to:

  • experiment with studio lighting
  • learn more about camera settings – aperture and depth of field, shutter speed, ISO, colour balance etc.
  • Plan and construct original images
  • Apply and experiment with compositional rules
  • develop experience working with (and directing) others
  • develop project management skills – preparing resources, including people, costumes, studio spaces
  • develop post-production skills – editing using Photoshop

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Your sketchbook or blogs should now show evidence of each of these aspects via thoughtful images and explanations. Go on, best double-check.

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Not to be left out, Caprice, above, and Eleanor, below, our Photography prefects, have also been having a play

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But to get under the skin of fashion photography, I’m hoping my Year 11′s will be scratching a bit deeper still. Below are a couple of bigger questions that we touched on in our initial introduction – A* food for thought, if you like.

  • How has the portrayal of women changed within fashion photography?
    For example, consider the four images below, of different times and different extremes:

In our introduction we touched on a wide range of issues including: the changing role (and portrayal) of women after the second world war; how the fashion industry can reflect society – or rebel against it (for example, reinventing itself to appeal to youth); how fashion photographers might intentionally aim to provoke reaction; how photographs might reference previous styles, often in an ironic or humorous way…

  • How have technological advances influenced fashion photography?
    For example, consider the four images below and the various influences of technology:

Here are just a few examples of technological developments that have helped to shape fashion photography:

  • Camera technologies – camera size, portability, invention of colour, emergence of digital cameras…
  • Our ability to travel – leading to an awareness of (and desire for) other cultures and exotic locations; the ease of which media can be distributed.
  • Print, film and digital media  – the development of printing processes, colour printing, mass circulation; the emergence of ‘celebrity’ culture (as defined by cinema and the media), the internet, social media…

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Remember: you haven’t got to know all the answers, or even write too much. But a deeper understanding will help you to develop meaningful practical work – to create images beyond the stereotypical – and that is important.

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By Year 11 students Ellie, Izzie and Gaby. There was much discussion whether to keep the moving figure or not (final decision was this added movement and tension).

After half-term it is possible to go deeper still; there are so many rich seams to tap into, not least:

I’m hoping students might also want to experiment further with film. Nick Knight’s ShowStudio provides a great example of someone pushing at the boundaries of fashion photography and video work.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Follow the links above and gather ideas and inspiration. Remember that this theme is very broad and these are only potential starting points. It’s fine to follow your own connections too. Producing regular experiments and trying lots of different ideas and approaches is a good thing.

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 As with these atmospheric experiments by Seb and Tom, the photographs do not need to use a model to provoke curiosity

Please do use the comment boxes below if you have any thoughts, suggestions or feedback for students.

Supporting resources:

Fashion Photography, not just a pretty face

Model Students: Inspiration from Year 12

Pinterest board: The Dressing Up Box

Download a project overview / checklist here

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For any teachers interested in delivering a fashion photography unit there is also a downloadable lesson outline on the Photopedagogy website. More to follow.

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