How to Create Iconic Fashion Portraits: Lessons from Arthur Elgort
We pay tribute to Arthur Elgort’s iconic fashion portraits, and break down his secret techniques for creating engaging fashion imagery.
If you’ve ever leafed through a copy of Vogue, you’ll have no doubt viewed the work of iconic fashion photographer Arthur Elgort. Over the course of a prolific career, Elgort produced some of the best-known portraits of supermodels, Hollywood stars, and renowned creatives from a variety of industries.
Known for his naturalistic “snapshot” style and for curating an unforgettable cinematic mood in his absorbing images, Elgort revolutionized fashion photography in the 1980s. His work helped transition fashion portraiture from stiff and posed to dynamic and energized.
Here, we pay tribute to Arthur Elgort’s iconic and memorable fashion portraits and discuss his secret techniques, as well as the influence he had on other creative fields.
Who Is Arthur Elgort?
Elgort was born in 1940 in New York City. He studied painting at college, but found the medium too lonely. So, Elgort turned to photography instead. His first major photoshoot was for Vogue in 1971, after which he became a near-permanent fixture for the magazine.
Many in the fashion industry consider Elgort to be a welcome breath of fresh air. Elgort encourages his subjects to move freely in the frame, and prefers an outdoor, real-world environment to a studio setting. Still based in New York, and with over fifty years experience shooting fashion imagery, Elgort remains one of the most sought-after photographers in the world.
What Makes Elgort’s Fashion Portraits Iconic?
Before Elgort, fashion portraiture was for the most part formal, stiff, and staged, with mannequin-like models. Then, Elgort broke with tradition. He fostered a sense of movement and natural energy in his images instead, drastically changing the perception of what fashion portraiture could be in the process.
While his talent is unique, aspiring fashion photographers—and, indeed, all photographers—can learn from Elgort’s techniques to create images that are more engaging, memorable, and iconic. Some of the groundbreaking photographic techniques Arthur Elgort developed are below. We’ll explore each of these in more detail throughout this article:
Discover more about each of these techniques, and how you can channel Elgort’s dynamic spirit in your own portrait photography.
In the early 1980s, Elgort anticipated the naturalistic style of fashion photography that would be ubiquitous during the 1990s. Today we’re used to seeing a naturalistic approach in fashion photography. However, this is only because Arthur Elgort initiated a sea change in the industry in the 1980s.
In the era of power shoulders and heavy makeup, Elgort was more interested in cultivating a natural, carefree spirit instead. He promoted natural beauty, preferring to work with models who wore less makeup. He also established rapport with his subjects, allowing models to feel more comfortable and relaxed in front of the camera.
Elgort’s famous snapshot style allowed him to capture his subjects at their most relaxed, resulting in images that feel much warmer and more inviting than the stiff portraiture style of older fashion photography.
Arthur grew up in New York City, so he was a great observer of people. His interest in street fashion photography also informed his naturalistic approach to fashion imagery. In the past, Vogue featured expensive haute couture in formal and posed studio settings, which only added to the lofty and inaccessible feel of the photographs. While these are beautiful in their own way, Elgort’s natural photographs made even the most expensive of clothes feel like people could wear them in real life—offering women the gateway to exciting and liberating opportunities.
During the 1990s, the fashion industry embraced grunge—naturalism and casual dress were suddenly very much in Vogue. Arthur Elgort was the perfect photographer to capture the carefree spirit of grunge, and his fashion images from this time are notable for the minimalistic clothing and the natural beauty of supermodels like Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, and Kate Moss.
Pro tip: Shooting in natural light is an instant way to promote a sense of naturalism in your images. Avoid artificial studio lighting and, instead, seek out daylight in outdoor settings or via large windows. If your shoot is taking place at night, use candlelight or downcast pools of light to create a softer atmosphere, rather than bright, overhead lighting.
Arthur Elgort once remarked in an interview with Vogue:
I’m good at the studio, but I wouldn’t hire me. I would hire Steven Meisel instead. I’m better at location.
– Arthur Elgort
While he was being humble about his studio skills, many of Elgort’s most iconic and memorable photographs were shot outdoors, whether it was capturing models and jazz musicians on the streets of NYC or shooting supermodels like Naomi Campbell on rodeo-themed road trips.
Looking back over Elgort’s portfolio, it’s clear that location shooting always brought out the best in both his subjects and his own images. The sense of adventure and escape is palatable, and makes a natural pairing with the photographer’s movement-filled snapshot style.
For readers of Vogue, Elgort’s sense of adventure wasn’t only novel for the magazine, but was reflective of the travel-filled lifestyle many of its readers aspired to. His ability to combine high fashion photography with sometimes gritty or unconventional environments only served to heighten the excitement and infectious fun of his images. Elgort wasn’t simply shooting clothes, he was also selling Vogue readers an experience. “Buy this dress and this exhilarating experience can be yours, too.”
Pro tip: Taking photography out of the studio and into the great outdoors can open up creative opportunities, but it does require some pre-planning. Investing in good portable storage for your equipment is essential, and it can be useful to have a team on standby to assist with scouting, transport, and costume changes. Shooting in the hours before sunset will give your images a flattering golden glow that lends itself beautifully to fashion portraits. Of course, always check the weather forecast beforehand, too!
3. Cinematic Narrative
Portraits don’t have to simply be records of people’s faces. For Elgort, portraiture is an opportunity to tell a story that extends beyond the edges of the photograph. One of the things that makes Elgort’s pictures truly iconic is their memorability. These fashion images tell a narrative and transform the model into a character, and could easily pass for cinematography.
You can take a picture or you can make a picture. I much prefer the latter.
– Arthur Elgort
Arthur Elgort’s shoots often reference famous movies or literary genres, giving his images a cinematic quality and transforming a series of photographs into a complete story. Elgort honed this approach in the 1990s by photographing supermodels as sultry anti-heroines in restaurants or launderettes. He also created surrealism-tinged images that blended fantasy and reality, such as the iconic image of model Stella Tennant diving into a pool in the Hamptons—fully clothed—in a formal tweed skirt suit.
The latter photograph was styled by Grace Coddington, a long-term collaborator of Elgort during their years at American Vogue, and a dream creative partner for Elgort. The duo created some of the most cinematic fashion images of all time.
In his 2007 shoot of Keira Knightley for British Vogue, Arthur Elgort collaborated with Coddington again. They Knightley styled as a vintage Out of Africa heroine, wistfully typing letters in the mess tent or photographing lion prides on safari. Elgort used Knightley, known for her roles in period dramas, expertly in this suitably cinematic shoot.
Pro tip: Fashion portraits can be about more than beauty and clothes alone. Indeed, Arthur Elgort’s portraits show how photographers can enhance the memorability of their images by constructing a narrative that extends beyond the frame.
Consider what character the subject could play. Can each photo reveal a different part of the story? Or can you instead create intrigue by suggesting the image is part of a wider story? When you start to treat a shoot as movie stills, you can bring new depth and dimension to fashion imagery.
4. Movement and Noise
While some fashion photographers shoot only fashion-related images, Elgort has always been fascinated by other creative disciplines—in particular, jazz and dance—choosing to photograph jazz musicians and ballet dancers with as much avid interest as his fashion subjects.
Over his career, Elgort has taken an interest in the Phoenix Rodeo, even producing a documentary film on this event. He also holds a well-known enthusiasm for jazz =, featuring renowned jazz musicians alongside models in many of his fashion shoots. In a similar vein, he reserves a passion for ballet. He has captured the stars of the New York City Ballet and other dance troupes both in performance and backstage preparation.
It’s clear that Elgort is attracted to the energy and spectacle of performance and performers. Movement and noise that go hand-in-hand are perfectly captured with his snapshot style. Many of his fashion portraits feature performative themes, whether it’s balletic poses or music ensembles. He also once commented that one of his favorite fashion models to photograph is Karlie Kloss, a former ballet dancer.
He often encourages his models or celebrity subjects to embrace their “crafts” or active passions, whether it’s playing instruments, dancing, swimming, or riding.
Pro tip: A portrait may be static and silent, but it doesn’t need to be either of these things in mood or style. Arthur Elgort cultivates a sense of life and energy in all of his images, which help his fashion images to feel enduringly positive and youthful. You simply can’t feel lethargic after looking at an Elgort image. While portraiture generally encourages photographers to capture a still subject, Elgort’s techniques show a complete revision of this traditional approach.
High shutter speed and good ISO sensitivity are crucial for capturing a crystal-clear focus on moving subjects. The results are certainly no run-of-the-mill portraits.
Over the course of a fifty year career, Arthur Elgort has completely reshaped what fashion portraiture can and should be. Thanks to his naturalistic and energized photography style, fashion imagery is no longer static or over-posed. Elgort has shown that fashion portraits can have just as much movement and life as street or event photography.
Additionally, his collaboration with imaginative stylists like Grace Coddington at Vogue resulted in some of the most memorable and cinematic fashion photography of all time. Photographers still look to these images for inspiration today.
Perhaps the greatest lesson budding fashion photographers can take from Elgort’s work is to not be too careful. The best portraits come from when subjects are at their most relaxed and the setting isn’t necessarily a formal studio. Instead, look to the most offbeat and unexpected of places—parking lots, rodeo bars, and so much more.
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