Reclaiming Elegance: Resurgence of the Goddess in Modern Glamour Portrait Photography
Glamour photography evolved with the changing attitudes and social mores of the emerging ‘youth culture’ that flourished in 1920s America. Free from the bonds of austerity and mundane practicality of a world at war, America and her allies partied.
After long years where the pursuit of luxuries was considered self-indulgent and unpatriotic, women finally had permission dress up again. The roaring 20s was an era that liberated the west.
Throwing off the constraints of early 20th century modesty, young women began shedding their corsets and long skirts, firing the first shots of a couture revolution that would change forever the way women viewed fashion and themselves. With sleek, short hair, bared calves, make up and tassels aplenty, these pioneers of fashion shimmied out of their kitchens and into the jazz halls and picture theatres of the world. They were young, stylish, daring, and very confident in their own skins.
The first glamour images
During this time Hollywood emerged as the world’s first film capital, becoming the fifth largest industry in the United States by the end of the decade. Extravagant and hedonistic, it represented the dreams and aspirations of a whole generation of women – the flappers and those who came after, through the 30s, 40s and 50s – the glamourous years of Old Hollywood.
With motion pictures rapidly growing in popularity, increasing competition meant studios needed to advertise their movies. Enter glamour photography, which would become the defining and most enduring visual art of that era, in many cases outlasting the films they were originally intended to promote.
These early glamour photographs were a revolution in portraiture, moving the genre from science to art. The new breed of portrait photographers understood that in order to engage audiences it was important to capture the internal qualities of the big screen goddesses and create a vision of a relatable character, a real person, with whom audiences could identify.
Gone were the deadpan faces and formal poses of previous decades. In their place were the smoky eyes, luscious lips, gorgeous clothes and devil-may-care attitudes of the bold, classy dames of the vintage big screen.
Technology, Free Love and sexual liberation
The huge cultural and social revolutions of the 1960s changed glamour photography again. Youth counterculture that began in the 1950s gained traction in all areas of life not the least of which was the campaign for women’s legal rights and sexual equality.
The introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1960 helped. Liberated and in control of their fertility women were finally free to explore their sexuality, and they did so, in their personal relationships, in fashion, in music and in art.
A technological revolution also occurred in the 1960s that changed the face of professional portraiture. Huge strides had been made in camera and film technology that would take do-it-yourself photography into homes across the world. In 1963, Kodak launched its virtually foolproof, point and shoot Instamatic camera. By 1970, over 50 million were sold world-wide, and the numbers continued to skyrocket over the succeeding decade.
People no longer needed professional photographers to capture family memories. The business landscape changed rapidly for portrait photographers and it seems only the daring survived.
The age of the glamour kitten
Having reached their coming of age during the height of the sexual revolution, the fabulous pin-up girls of the mid 1960s through to the 1970s challenged the long held perceptions of glamour and what society considered glamourous. New glamour photography was unapologetically and overtly sexual in style. Erotic and occasionally mildly pornographic images of actress such as Bo Derek, Farrah Fawcett and Jane Fonda became commonplace on theatre walls, shopping arcades and newsstands the world over.
Big, bold and brassy
By the 1980s, women were finally enjoying the fruits of the early women’s rights movement. With access to reliable family planning, more educated and with more legal rights than ever before, 1980s women were independent and career driven. They had money of their own to spend, and spend they did. Women from all walks of life could now have their own glamour portfolio.
In an era remembered for its excesses of materialism and consumerism, where overt displays of wealth and status were valued over substance, a tacky sort of glamour portraiture, often verging on soft porn emerged as the trending portrait style of the decade. Soft focus images, highly suggestive poses and clichéd costumes, big hair, slack jaws, bedroom eyes and bared flesh was du jour.
The Death and Resurrection of Glamour
Sadly for photographers, the 1990s was an age of conservatism and the art of portraiture stagnated. Big and flashy were out as people began to develop a greater social conscience and sense of fiscal responsibility.
The decline for glamour portraiture lasted for over a decade until, in 2007, Sue Bryce won the Portrait Photographer of the Year by completely reinventing the genre.
Reviving the Goddess
Up until Sue’s appearance on the international stage, to a lot of people, glamour photography still reinforced the 1980s views that a woman’s appearance, and her ability to appear sexy and be sexually available, were the hallmarks by which her value was determined.
Sue’s images completely changed the glamour portrait industry, and was a breath of fresh air for women everywhere. The women in Sue’s photographs were not out of focus. The composition of her images was interesting. Their poses were artistic and stylish, more akin to the studio portraits of the early sirens of the silver screen. Their clothing, or lack there-of, was used to enhance aesthetics, create mood and movement and to help reveal the nature and character of the woman.
A decade on and glamour portraiture is still on the rise. Today, in our family run, Perth-based studio, we are still inspired by Sue Bryce’s work.
As a glamour photographer Perth my aim is to truly empower women, not just to display them, but help them recognise their own unique beauty and strength.