Reinventing the Fashion Photograph in The Age of Instagram

Reinventing the Fashion Photograph in The Age of Instagram

Once an idiosyncratic expression by a visual savant, the fashion photograph today reflects the anarchy of the social media image

Two months back, in a move led by well-recognised fashion photographer Colston Julian, the Photographers Guild of India called meetings in Mumbai and Delhi. “The aim was to be defined as professionals, focus on our craft instead of just deliveries and chart our way in the digital age,” says the Mumbai-based Julian.

Around 50 photographers turned up at the Mumbai meet and 37 or so in Delhi. Some among them were popular names in fashion photography, others young entrants whose visual downpour on social media is reinventing the game. If seniors like Daboo Ratnani, Tarun Vishwa, Prasad Naik were among the attendees, there were those whose names have not yet filtered through the clutter.

Visual clutter is one way to describe the state of fashion photography today. Not just in India. We all know the chills and thrills of the truism: everyone with a phone is now a photographer. Or the potent if transient excitement when you can choose between Rihanna’s beauty tutorials, designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee releasing images of his insouciant brides in dramatic couture or actor Sonam Kapoor showing off her new sneakers. The universe of fashion photographs is incredibly inflated–the bride posting her lehnga from Canada or Kutch, everything Virat Kohli steps out in, Wrogn or right, even Hrithik Roshan in a pastel blazer for Paragon chappals that you would see on a hoarding in Kolkata or Surat.


Virat Kohli for Muv Acoustics, photographed by Colston Julian.

If it is about Instagram influencing the highly stylized photograph in fashion magazines, it is also how the magazine image haunts the Instagram photo. Both collide and clash. Sometimes all we have is a visual blur of brands, designers, styles, clothes, commodities, ideas, colours, filters and Photoshop. Occasionally, something goes “viral” till it deflates.

The Endangered Fashion Photograph

Is the classical fashion photograph endangered then? The kind of work created by photographers like the late Prabuddha Dasgupta, Bharat Sikka, Americans Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, British fashion photographer Nick Night, or the French Patrick Demarchelier who was recently called out in #MeToo movement. When Avedon passed away in 2004, New York Times wrote “His fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century.”

Today, the photographer’s dilemma or what Julian calls the “changing dynamics of the fashion visual” is miles away from defining slices of a century. It is rather about ways of survival for weeks or months, sometimes days. Julian argues that the real fashion photograph may well be dead and not only because of the social media clutter. “Fewer pages in magazines, brands insisting on product focused shots, celebrities favouring their individual commercial endorsements, the advent of the advertorial in print media and the endless chase for payments have forced a rearrangement in the craft of photography,” says Julian.

Especially when many design houses recruit top league photographers and concept directors to shoot just for their digital campaigns. When fashion glossies create additional digital covers to keep the connect unbroken. This is an age when a bunch of raving and raging, “photographer kids of the month” arrestingly mirror the zeitgeist and give contemporary fashion the swagger it needs. An age when movie stars hire photographers to shoot their “airport looks”. When crammed Instagram feeds make space for Mumbai photographer Viral Bhayani’s celebrity blog that must thank star kid Taimur Ali Khan on its calling card and other Bollywood celebrities getting in and out of cars, in and out of gyms, salons, lunches, film premieres and each other’s lives.

The Fashion Magazines

Emphasising that there is little fundamental threat to the thoughtfully styled fashion photograph, Nonita Kalra, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar India says “what has changed is the way we continue our conversations.” She elaborates by saying “we start a collaboration in the pages of the magazine, take it to digital with videos and end it with ground events. Ultimately people are looking to connect with each other and Bazaar has noticed that magazines are now at the intersection of this engagement,” says Kalra. Her phrase “connect with each other” puts the finger on the pulse.


The Diversity campaign for Harper’s Bazaar India’s 10th anniversary shot by Tarun Vishwa.

Once an idiosyncratic expression of one photographer’s vision, with a clear signature like that American portrait master Annie Leibovitz or the Scottish Albert Watson, or Prabuddha Dasgupta, Sikka, Dayanita Singh, Raghu Rai in India who created everlasting visual memories, the photograph today, particularly in fashion is a coalition of interests. With an eye on final consumption, it juggles different pressures—the interest of the advertiser, the luxury or designer brand that has paid to be featured, the commercial and personal preferences of the star wearing the clothes or accessories, the networks and biases of stylists. The model, once a clothes hanger with little or no agency has been replaced by a top movie star—he or she arrives with entitled interference. Clothes, photo angles, brands, makeup as well as the post-production handling of the photograph, not to mention celebrity insistence on being consulted about final images have threatened the photographer as the sole master of the shoot. He is no longer the painter of the image.

Even so, fashion magazines ideate to make these very collaborations interesting. In continuance of her argument that content must connect people, Kalra cites the instance of Saree Is Cool event with Satya Paul, the fashion brand. Bazaar invited a group of young accomplished women professionals for the event that was followed up by a video where these women were asked to drape the sari in their own ways. “We saw amazing innovation and creativity but what was special was how the conversation around the sari continued over social media — with specially created images — for weeks after,” says Kalra adding that imagery must be backed with content to stay relevant.

Supriya Dravid, editor of Elle India feels that competition from Instagram is dichotomous. “Even a mediocre image can gain a million likes and become an example of how we are probably not doing our job with our highly stylized shoots. But on the other hand, Instagram shows us how a fashion shoot ought to speak to people in accessible visual language. The #tapforcredits has changed how even a viewer sees an image,” she says agreeing that Instagram has “changed the way we play the game. And if we don’t play the game, then as a medium, we stand to lose.”


Elle India’s April 2019 issue inspired by the Nineties Versace photograph with supermodels.

To explain what goes behind getting viewers to linger over a photograph, Dravid cites some recent projects. Last August, the magazine invited eight photographers to capture what freedom meant to them in a tribute to the late Prabuddha Dasgupta. “The results were astounding–it was fashion in the truest sense of the word and went back to why we are in business of selling magazines in the first place: dreams,” says Dravid. Elle’s photoshoot with English designer and author Tan France for the May issue with Camp as the theme had over the top photography for the editorial and an animated photograph for the digital cover. “And our April 2019 cover where we tried to emulate Gianni Versace’s Nineties supermodel campaign with Indian supermodels was also for the love of the good old fashion photograph,” says Dravid.

New Kids and The Unblock

Designer Sanjay Garg who is currently collaborating with one of the most respected names in Indian photography for his next brand campaign says that for the first seven to eight years as a designer, he never worked with a fashion photographer. “It’s a combination of brand language, culture, and creative conversation,” says Garg who began tapping photo journalists, travellers and diverse talents outside fashion, influenced by the Indian aesthetic to shoot for him often with a diverse selection from his customer base as models. Besides Ashish Shah and Bikramjit Bose, Garg names Prarthna Singh, Ritesh Uttamchandani, Pranoy Sarkar. The representative photographs on the websites of all these visual artists scream neither fashion nor conventional glamour. They are intimate, frank images, stark and in documentary style, framed to invite curiosity, not applaud prettiness. Some of these names may not penetrate as quickly as that of fashion photographers like Tarun Khiwal, Tarun Vishwa, Atul Kasbekar, Farrokh Chothia who have been around for many years. Yet the new ones are also a part of the current fashion ecosystem, which is no longer a closed circuit like Sanskrit poetry or Mohiniyattam to be performed and pursued by a few.


Raw Mango’s Rang series.

Radha by Raw Mango.

Instead, it is “democratic,” as Ruchika Parab founder of Oblique Studio a content and digital agency calls it. “While it is true that the value of content is questionable as nothing holds attention for long, the skill sets have changed allowing a democracy of ideas to seep in. Every talented person today has a platform with Instagram and we can’t be cynical about that even if there is a loss of process in the transition from film to digital,” says Parab.

However, Vaishnav Praveen and Apeksha Maker, the founder duo of House of Pixels, a photography company launched in 2016, who have been noticed for their point of view images disagree that the classic photo shoot that once took weeks from concept to click is the ultimate mirror of fashion culture. The House of Pixels portfolio on Instagram shows umpteen photographs of film actors, mostly the Kapoor girls—Janhvi, Sonam, Kareena and Co, but Praveen refuses to talk about “actresses in designer clothes” even as Maker talks about the still photography and other diverse work they do. “Celebrity photographs are not the only kind liked or followed on social media. They may be more visible but they do not sum up fashion photography in India,” insists Praveen.


A photograph from The House of Pixels.

Janhvi Kapoor photographed by The House of Pixels.

Maker says that they use professional cameras and strategic lighting even for a 10-minute shoot. “Whether we are assigned eight hours or a quick shoot for few minutes, our preparation, mood board, visualization, lighting and research is the same,” she says. “If you notice a hustle on the photography scene it is because there is a huge demand for photography. Both the supply and the demand have considerably gone up,” say the duo.

Say Cheers

The social inclusiveness of the fashion photograph or the “hustle” is also a contribution of accessible technology. Earlier while the final photograph could not be fundamentally changed, today technology aided post-production can infinitely manipulate what was shot in real life– the filter, the colour of the lipstick, the smile, skin, eyes. “Some even light up entire shots in post-production,” rues Julian.

Let’s not forget that photographs authored by savants of the genre that needed us to wait for an entire month till the next edition of a fashion magazine arrived with some lasting forever in memories or museums were informed by an archetype. They were biased towards prettiness, seductive beauty, eye popping glamour, were riveting even when dark, fascinating even when black and white. But new photography’s “kids of the month” have smashed that archetype by pushing the alternative fashion image. They create fashion albums through unconventional concepts, where beauty is not always beautiful and fashion not always fashion obsessed.

So if “image is content,” as Kalra says, we must worry if what we say through it or the written word will survive the jaws of the Instagram Rottweiler. Say cheers.