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.
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.