Photos of Naked Models Are Not Fashion Photography

The vast majority of fashion photographers have worked with nude models. A smaller minority work only with nude models. As a fashion photographer, I am often asked if I shoot nude models. While I find the question silly, it’s important to understand that nude photography is absolutely not fashion photography.

For many reasons, fashion photography is a wild beast. It’s complicated and requires a huge team to produce anything of substance. When it comes to business, making it as a fashion photographer is quite hard. But it is also an undeniably appealing profession since fashion photographers shoot stunning models in high couture. Yes, sometimes that couture is revealing, and sometimes, the model is semi-naked for the effect of the story. But fashion photography is overwhelmingly about the presence of clothes, not their absence.  

Whenever I tell people I’m a fashion photographer, someone inevitably asks if I shoot naked models. The question is largely based on the false assumption that all a fashion photographer does is, indeed, shoot naked models. Unfortunately, when starting out, a beginner may see a “fashion photography” page on Instagram with tens of thousands of followers and decide that’s what they need to be doing in order to gain success. In fact, there’s a genre of Instagram fashion photography dedicated to naked models. But my advice for a beginning fashion photographer is to stay away from Instagram. Instead, surround yourself with real fashion photography. Buy Vogue, Marie Claire, GQ, and aim for that level. You’ll get there eventually. 

So, What Is Fashion Photography?

This is the key question you want to ask yourself when deciding to pursue fashion. It’s not an easy question, and it doesn’t have a definitive answer. The simplest one I can give is this: it’s the genre of photography depicting clothes and fashion accessories. This is achieved through lighting, posing, and effective composition. 

Fashion photography is about fashion; fashion is about clothes. 

Why Aren’t Naked Models the Subjects of Fashion Photography? 

Glamour Versus Fashion

Let’s distinguish between glamour and fashion photography. For me, glamour photography means kitschy, exaggerated, in-your-face nudity. There’s nothing wrong with this. If you’re a glamour photographer, good for you!  But don’t call your work fashion photography, as it’s not fashion if it’s not about clothes. And, don’t call yourself a specialist in underwear photography if your portfolio is only naked models. That genre is female glamour photography. 

Naked Models Are Not Groundbreaking Fashion Work 

Fashion photography is complex, and artists aim to give their own unique perspectives on it. Most successful fashion images are provocative, one way or another, but it’s not because they feature nude models. We don’t live in the 19th century; Western society is generally liberal when it comes to nudity. There’s nothing new about naked models. Sexy, yes, groundbreaking, no. On rare occasions, well-executed artistic fashion images feature nudity; however, I can count those photos on one hand. Usually, those well-done images offer commentaries on sexism and the objectification of women. 

Photographers With Portfolios of Vulnerable-Looking Models Sitting On Beds

Seriously? Frankly, there is something problematic with having a portfolio of only naked models sitting on a bed. That’s not to say the image idea is bad. There are no good or bad images, only portfolios. Annie Leibovitz shot Nicole Kidman as a vulnerable girl on a bed. Is her whole portfolio like that? No. Does that individual image work for the situation? Yes. 

Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh 

Both worked with nude models. Yes, Helmut Newton is a fashion photographer who shot naked models. But he is also an artist who commented on society through his art. It is not uncommon for fashion photographers to have nude work in their portfolio, and there are certainly iconic fashion images that feature nudity. But the question you should ask yourself is “are these photographers only shooting naked models?” The answer is a clear no. The portfolio of any industry-respected fashion photographer is vibrant, featuring both men and women, nude and clothed. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can be like Lindbergh if you shoot a naked model. 

Art

Fine Art

A popular label put on some nude work is fine art nudity. The term itself is often misunderstood. I am not a trained art critic; however, I’m aware that art often carries a message or comments on society. The work that is displayed in a gallery is often categorized as powerful art. That’s not to say that nude photographs can’t be art or nudity artistic. Formento+Formento, a creative couple, utilize nudity as a tool for storytelling. In their project “Spies, Lies, and Saboteurs,” female nudity is used to pay homage to female heroines of The Second World War. Importantly, not all images are nude. To this end, I’d like to say that creating art should have a purpose behind it. Simply taking photos of naked models and claiming it to be artistic nudity won’t cut it if you’re going for fine art. 

Art Is Subjective 

A common argument to use is that art is subjective. What classifies as art for me, may not be art for you. While this is true, some objectivity is always welcome. The gatekeepers of the art world — the critics — will ultimately decide if your work is worthy of a gallery display. This is especially true if you’re starting out and trying to join the artistic photography party and make a name for yourself. The subjectivity of art becomes quite objective when you look at fine artwork on and not on gallery display. While fine art is personally not the direction I want to head to, I know many photographers are looking towards it. I suggest immersing yourself in the work of people you see in galleries, not Facebook groups. Insisting that "art is subjective" shuts down discussion and is, frankly, self-serving. It is also an easy way to dismiss anyone who is giving constructive criticism that can help you progress. It’s like me asserting that my work is the best in the world because it is and dismissing what anyone else says. Sure, I love my photographs, but they are works in progress. My work is constantly developing, meaning there are objective things that can and should be done better. 

Is There a Place for Nude Work In Photography?

Absolutely, yes! I am not writing this article to attack glamour, fine art, or other photographers. There are fantastic artists who do beautiful nude work. Nudity is a powerful tool in your artistic arsenal, and if used carefully, it can deliver powerful results. I am simply taking a stance against the (mostly male) photographers who shoot naked models for their own prurient reasons or claim to be fashion photographers when they are not.  

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28 Comments

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

This is the first I've ever heard anyone (not the author) thinking they were the same.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Good for you! I unfortunately saw photographers confuse the two quite a lot.

Paul Mark's picture

In the context of photography, I agree with the author. But others made it so technical since fashion is not limited to dresses and accessories. There is even fashion in speaking, character, mood, body language and whatnot.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Yes, my definition of fashion here is quite limited.

Graham Glover's picture

Fashion is about products: clothing, makeup, hair products, jewelry, and other accessories. If you're showing a full body nude model to "photograph" lipstick, that's not fashion photography.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Yes, absolutely!

Mike Ditz's picture

If selling lipstick is in the fashion genre (depends on how you fine you define categories) I could see an ad with a nude model wearing nothing but lipstick with ad copy like "Now that you have on Acme lipstick, everything else is unnecessary" Originally I typed "an accessory" but was autocorrected to unnecessary which may be better LOL.

Obviously today that would be a hard sell but in the golden era of advertising it may have worked.

David T's picture

Do jewelry, accessoires, perfumes not count as fashion? Def. plenty of nude models in those campaigns. The intent/story/emotion matters more than the hard presence of clothes imho.

Illya Ovchar's picture

They do! However I don’t recall any campaigns with explicit nudity. Besides, I can’t think of a fashion brand that only features nude models in their advertising.

Dwayne Campbell's picture

Wow really? Soooooo Calvin Klein? Gucci? Tom Ford? None of them are fashion then???

Brahm Sterling's picture

He never said they are NOT fashion. He said he doesn't recall. He ain't a walking fashion encyclopedia.

Try reading what he wrote first please. Be kind.

Dan Howell's picture

Yeah, but no. Just google 'fragrance ads' and you will find high end campaigns over the past 10 or so years. While a few are implied nudity, you will not see an exposed female nipple in any of them. You will not likely see or have seen a bare nipple in US distributed fashion or general interest magazines due to guidelines placed on magazines by the single biggest magazine retailer for the past 20 years---WalMart.

If you want to debate the 2% of ads that feature nudity in fashion magazines outside of the mainstream and then only in 5-10% of those ads, then sure you can plant your flag on that tiniest slice of pie.

In my observation (as a working professional photographer who shoots both professional fashion and published nude and glamour) from looking at a wide selection of fashion modeling agencies in NYC and Miaimi that 1 or 2 models in 10 show anything more than an implied topless shot in the professional agency portfolio. Within that group about 1 or 2 in 20 images fit that category. So that's like 10% of images from only 10% of the models. My working assumption is that were nude models big money winners in the fashion marketplace you would see more nude images.

Personally, I find it more productive to put the best fashions I can get ahold of on fashion models and select working nude models for glamour and nude projects.

Jaap Venhovens's picture

Is there an actual problem being addressed here? Or is this just another virtue signalling, fingerraising moral stance against toxic males shooting nudes? Regarding the first, why would I care if someone shoots nudes and calls it 'fashion' or even 'art'? Just as much as someone shoots a landscape and calls it 'still life'.

Regarding the latter, if someone likes to shoot nudes, in any kind of fashion (pun intended). I assume it's with the models consent. If not, then there is a problem. Anyway, I don't feel obliged to publicly speak out against malpractises in our industry to show how virtuous I am.

J.d. Davis's picture

Had to read the article twice to understand it, here is what I think(again, just my opinion):

The last sentence is really the subject and should have an article on its own - Most of the writing above it just shows how nudes in fashion are done well.

Your writer Andy makes good points about being outraged by underaged models engaged in sex acts, as he should

Illya seems to have a problem with GWC's - OK, but that is a completely different article and really has nothing to do with fashion.

Daniel Medley's picture

"it’s the genre of photography depicting clothes and fashion accessories."

Not necessarily; at least not overtly. Just like not all nude photography is fashion, some fashion photography has implied nudity or partial nudity; in some cases full nudity; or at the minimum can be very sexually charged. Think campaigns by Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, etc. Really, you could go on and on.

There are plenty of examples of fashion photography that has little if anything overtly to do with clothing or product. Peter Coulson gives a great example in his explanation that fashion photography is more about creating vibe for viewers to associate with a certain brand. A perfect example of this: Google Calvin Klein Obsession for Men Campaign. See how many nude, implied, or partly nude images of Kate Moss you see, and no image of the product itself.

Nah, nudity of various degrees can definitely be found in fashion photography.

Elliot Nahm's picture

I think that's why so many companies are now describing themselves as "lifestyle" brands. Fashion is still a part of it but, now they can better sell the "lifestyle/idea" without being bound to physical products.

Jacques Cornell's picture

But, apparently, dental floss is clothing.

Hugh Tull's picture

Fashion iPhotography s about the clothing and the fantasy of having that clothing ..

Nude Photography is about the model ant the fantasy of being with that model.

Thats it...

Thinking anything different is just typical men (boy) not owning what they are doing and promoting while trying to dress it up as something more acceptable.

When I see and hear people desperately trying to defend what they are shooting, what ever it is, especially nude photographers, generally, they personally know that the "images" or "art" isn't passing the sniff test with other people....

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Tantrums of a sexist and misogynist. You might want to crawl out of your rock from time to time and take a look around. Nude photography isn't limited to male photographers. Maybe you've heard of them, they would be female photographers. Just don't call them chics or broads.

Let's take Lindsay Adler as one example. She's mostly known for her fashion work, https://www.lindsayadlerphotography.com/index . In addition, she also shoots nudes, https://learn.lindsayadlerphotography.com/fine-art-nude-photography-work... .

Then, there's also Ana Dias, Playboy photographer, http://www.anadiasphotography.com/

And, so on and so on.

Best to move on with the times and be aware of the changes in the industry, and century.

Daniel Medley's picture

Yep. And I would also add Ellen Von Unwerth.

Hugh Tull's picture

Having nudity in your fashion photography is completely different than having some mouth breathing adolescent thinking neanderthal, taking pictures of a nude woman who looks and feel completely uncomfortable...and then call it fashion. Even if the woman is a well known nude model, she will tell you...its not fashion...its nude artistic...(or damn near porn if not porn in some cases).

Let's say it again for the low forehead sloping ones ing the cheap seats in the back of the balcony.

A fashion photograph is, simply, a photograph made specifically to show clothing or accessories, usually with the intent of documenting or selling the fashion. Photographs of fashionable dress, in existence since the invention of photography in 1839, are not fashion photography. The distinguishing feature—and the common denominator in the enormous diversity of style, approach, and content—is the fashion photograph's intent to convey fashion or a "fashionable" lifestyle. At the end of the twentieth century, the Calvin Klein advertisement featuring only Calvin's portrait changed the very definition of a fashion photograph from a picture of the featured clothing to the selling of a glamorous lifestyle.

It also reflects women's image of themselves, including their dreams and desires, self-image, values, sexuality, and interests.

The psychology behind a fashion photograph as a selling device is the viewer's willingness to believe in it. No matter how artificial the setting, a fashion photograph must persuade individuals that if they wear these clothes, use this product, or accessorize in such a way, the reality of the photograph will be theirs. The fashion photograph can offer a vision of a certain lifestyle (from glamorous to grunge), sex, or social acceptance (via the most current, the most expensive, or the most highly unattainable), but it is the viewer's buy-in that makes the photograph successful.

Lindsays nude art work is not fashion...and she would tell you that...it says it in your damn link.

Playboy has never been a fashion magazine...it still is not. people buy it for the naked women and not the clothing articles.

Ellen Von Unwerth is a fashion photographer who's fashion through her unique use of sexuality in the clothing and fantasy of that lifestyle.

My next question is where are all the female photographers? Why are they not speaking out with their opinions...Oh thats right misogynist photographers, much like yourself, will all come out to shout them down....

Sexist...no...but if your feelings got hurt because I challenged your position and dared to speak then I suggest you go see a therapist and and talk to them about your low self worth because I don't care about your feelings.

Mike Ditz's picture

People buy Playboy for the articles...always have.

Jon Winkleman's picture

also Annie Leibowitz, Marilyn Minter, Eve Arnold, Cindy Sherman, Bunny Yeager, Diane Arbus, Sally Mann,
I wholly agree the pearl clutching is sexist. Aside from erasing the hundreds of women who shoot female nudes by labeling the images dirty porn that is only about the photographer’s sexual gratification it tacitly implies adult women models who chose to pose nude are prostitutes and porn stars.

Hmmmmmm.....Who has posed nudes for art photographers? Betty White, Vanessa Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Jaqueline Kennedy, Dr Laura Schlessinger, Helen Mirran, Serena Williams and the list goes on

Dwayne Campbell's picture

This is a very limited manner of thinking, especially in the world of art. The next thing we're going to be hearing is fashion is not art because you can't hang it on a wall. The beauty of Photography is that its expression is near limitless because what it offers is based on presentation and context, not simply the medium. Nudity is as much fashion as an anonymous form can be still life, just as fabric attached to a structure blowing in the wind can be a sculpture. Your opinion on what is fashion is just that, your opinion. Feel free to believe what you choose without pushing your beliefs on others. Art no matter how objective it is is ultimately subjective.

Jon Winkleman's picture

Avedon, Weber, Ritts, Penn, Horst and so many other fashion photographers are in the permanent collection of fine art museums. Art historians and critics alike recognize many of their images as art. I agree with you 100% but would add that the issue is not really debatable as art historians all agree on the subject.

Jon Winkleman's picture

The author’s one major fashion magazine credit is Marie Claire which has their famous "Naked Issue”

Acclaimed fashion photographers that shoot nudes: Scavullo, Annie Leibowitz, Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Mario Testino, Patrick Demarlchelier, William Claxton, David LaChapelle, Horst P Horst, Irving Penn, Marilyn Minter

Top fashion brands and designers that use nudity in their campaigns: Calvin Klein, Versace, Abercrombie, Rudi Gernrich, Armani, Dior, Raf Simons, Alexander Wang, Gucci, Tom Ford, Saint Laurent

Fashion photography like product photography, food photography or any other commercial photography is about telling a story. It is not a simple snapshot of the product. Most of those fashion stories are not about nudity or sex. However the most acclaimed and successful fashion photographers of all time have sometimes used nudity to tell their stories. The most elite high fashion brands have used nudity and sex in their fashion campaigns.

Also if one wants to have a better sense of what is good art and bad art (P.S. bad art is still real art) do not go to your local commercial gallery which sells to tourists or people looking to decorate their homes. If you do not live in a major city with high end fine art galleries or nationally recognized museums, go to the library, bookstore or Amazon and buy art photography books about the history of fine art and fashion photography. Look at monographs of important photographers.

It is fine if a photographer decides that they do not want to use nudity in their photographs but let’s get real, the image of someone clutching their pearls does not make one an artist either. Shaming any of the photographers or fashion brands above only displays an ignorance of the subject.

David T's picture

Any recc for fashion photography history books?

Brahm Sterling's picture

Have any of you fashion divas seen the film "Pret-a-Porter" by Altman?
Spoiler: The end is a fashion show with full bush and tittles. Now that is fashion!
***WERK***