By Bill Dobbins
The earliest fashion photography was necessarily stiff and awkward in a time when lenses and emulsions were slow and studio lighting was essentially primitive. But even as photo technology improved the fashion images remained much the same since that was the style that was accepted and expected.
One photographer who had a great deal to do with changing this presented himself as Baron Adolph de Meyer, who claimed to be French but was actually born in Germany, added the “de” to his name and seemed to have no legitimate claim on the title “baron.”
But what was very much real about him was his photographic eye and talent, so much so that publisher Conde Nast appointed him as the first official staff photographer for Vogue Magazine in 1913. According to writer Lynn Yaeger, Meyer was “a magical portrait photographer, employed by Vogue from 1913 to 1921, so gifted that Cecil Beaton dubbed him “the Debussy of photography.”
But when Baron de Meyer began working at Vogue, because of the limitations of photography, or the most part, models and clothes had been represented through illustrations and drawings. His photos, on the other hand, we’re the beginnings of “fashion photography” and he used soft focus and dreamlike images to breath life into what had previously been largely lifeless.
So Baron De Meyer is generally accepted to be the actual founder of fashion photography. He was helped in this by his social contacts. In 1899 he married Olga Caracciolo, a professional beauty who introduced him to the highest levels of society. Once he had access to these glittering social circles, de Meyer was able to photograph many of the celebrities of the time. His delicate, impressionistic idiom is characteristic of the photographic style most fashionable at the turn of the century.
His images were published in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work in 1908, and he later worked not only for American Vogue Magazine but also its rival magazine Harper’s Bazaar.
The Baron was famous for making up his own history. In the book A Singular Elegance: The Photographs of Baron Adolph De Meyer (Chronicle Books, San Francisco in association with International Center of Photography, New York: 1994) we learn a few facts:
“De Meyer was born around 1868; it seems likely that his parents were Adele Watson and Adolphus Meyer, and (although he spent some of his early years in Paris) he was educated in Germany. He changed the spelling and arrangement of his name frequently during the 1890‘s; exhibition catalogues list him variously as “Adolf” or “Adolph,” “Meyer” or “Meyer-Watson” and add or delete a “von” – his identity, even in this initial period, is nebulous at best.”
Bill Dobbins is a veteran photographer and videographer located in Los Angeles who has exhibited his fine art images in two museums and a number of galleries and has published eight print and 16 eBooks, including two fine art photo books: