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Fashion Photography Has a Big Problem, but It Is Not Photoshop

What comes to mind when you think about fashion photography? If you are aware of the stereotypes surrounding fashion, then it’s certainly something along the lines of young, sexy models in revealing clothes. In this article, I will try to explain why fashion is so much more than that. 

The stereotype isn’t new. The '90s saw the rise of young supermodels such as Kate Moss. The concept of a supermodel — a young successful model working for major shows and campaigns — was amplified in Peter Lindbergh's work in the ’90s as well. His work featured models in a relatively new way: independent, strong, but also feminine women people could relate to. Yet, when I look at the work of prominent fashion photographers such as Lindbergh, I struggle to find examples of older models. It’s usually young female models and old male fashion designers. While there is certainly sexism involved in this, I will not explore that in this article. My focus is ageism: the underrepresentation of older age groups in fashion photography and advertising. 

Hair& Makeup @karinajemelyjanova 
Styling @nagyemesestylist 
Model @polgar_tunde_official 
Agency @silverchicmodels 
Assistant @marthonmarcell 
Retouch @justlike_magic

In its simplest form, fashion photography is advertising. People photograph a model wearing an outfit with the purpose of selling that outfit to the person seeing the image. These images are tailored largely to young people and always have been. Young people are the vehicle for trend, and trend is synonymous with fashion. Naturally, this feeds into the idea that young people are stylish. Those no longer young are not stylish. 

A lot of commercial advertising includes different groups, ethnicities, and nationalities. Benetton ads are the best example of that, and I’d struggle to find a major brand ad campaign that wasn’t multicultural, at least to some degree. This wasn’t always the case. With the rise of anti-racism movements, fashion photography diversified. Nowadays it seems like an obvious move: why should fashion photography be targeted at one small group of the population? The more people can relate to the image, the better for company sales and the overall success of the ad campaign. 

Hair& Makeup @karinajemelyjanova 
Styling @nagyemesestylist 
Model @polgar_tunde_official 
Agency @silverchicmodels 
Assistant @marthonmarcell 
Retouch @justlike_magic

Statistics on Ageism

While that capitalistic concept seems blatantly simple to understand, apparently it is only limited to issues such as racism. Ageism is rarely addressed, neither by fashion photographers nor by fashion adverts. In fact, the opposite is done: the fashion industry celebrates youth and only youth. The mental health implications of anti-ageing propaganda can be seen everywhere. Many women over 40 feel forgotten and no longer relevant when it comes to fashion trends.  

Hair& Makeup @norabrownmakeup 
Styling @lillacsokasistylist 
Model @eve__land
Agency @silverchicmodels  
Retouch @retouchconcept

A lot is lost by leaving this significant population group out of fashion advertising. The International Longevity Centre has calculated that excluding older models will cost £11bn to the industry over the next 20 years. In fact, people over 40 have started to spend more on clothes in the last few years. Between 2011 and 2018 they bought 21% more on clothes and shoes than previously. The spending power of this age group is so significant that some project that by 2040 people over 50 may be the main target group for advertising. 

Beauty 

If statistics aren’t enough to convince fashion photographers to be more inclusive in their work, let’s discuss beauty. As a fashion photographer, you need to have a good idea of what beauty means to you. Ask yourself: what do I find beautiful? Often the answer is evident from your portfolio. For example, one of the things I find beautiful is strong color. In a very loose way, that is my style of work. I look for that color in light, clothes, makeup, and so on. I am able to make images that I consider beautiful by using color. In my opinion, fashion photography is about fashion, not about the model; therefore a photographer who is fascinated by beautiful young women can’t hide behind the mask of fashion. Portrait and nude are genres too, as good as fashion. 

Hair& Makeup @norabrownmakeup 
Styling @lillacsokasistylist 
Model @csmyra
Agency @silverchicmodels  
Retouch @justlike_magic

My Projects With Models Over 40

Because I love color, I am able to apply it to any model who poses for the camera. I photograph them my way. Let me tell you a little bit about my first experience working with an older model. 

The initial idea was inspired by Maye Musk. A good friend sent me her images and asked if there were any possibilities there. Feeling inspired, I agreed to work with this idea. What the photoshoot taught me is that fashion was for everyone. People, all people, love feeling beautiful and seeing other people like them look beautiful. The photoshoot was published by a magazine that was more than happy to take it on.  

Hair& Makeup @karinajemelyjanova 
Styling @nagyemesestylist 
Model @polgar_tunde_official 
Agency @silverchicmodels 
Assistant @marthonmarcell 
Retouch @justlike_magic

One of the most important things I learnt from that photoshoot is that fashion should be for everyone. In very basic terms, fashion starts the moment you’re born and ends the moment you die. As a fashion photographer, I am looking at ways I can include more and more age groups in my work to ensure that my portfolio is well-rounded. With the great diversity of clothing, it should be a no-brainer that fashion ads feature equally diverse models. 

Positive Dynamic in the Last Years

There is hope, for there are some efforts being made to normalize aging in the fashion industry. I say normalize because seeing an older model on the cover of Vogue is still unusual. Nonetheless, models such as Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren have been in L’Oréal campaigns while Julia Roberts is prominently featured in Lancôme. 

Why Is This on Fstoppers? 

I anticipate this question to be in the comments, so I will answer it before it is asked. I wrote this article to shed light on a problem that fashion photographers can make great contributions to solving. Just by organizing test shoots with older models, you can help reduce ageism in the fashion industry. Identify what you think is beautiful in your other work, and try to apply that to a photoshoot with an older model. In a way, this article is a call to action for fashion photographers. At the end of the day, photography should be a voice for change, and photographers can be the agents of change.  

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21 Comments

J.d. Davis's picture

Only worked with ONE model in her 70's - what i found was MANY women over 50 weren't comfortable enough with themselves to model.

That isn't to say there aren't SOME PEOPLE...men & women who model as elders, and yes we CAN use that word, but just try to hire one.

Very few photographers get up in the morning with these words on their lips 'Not going to hire anyone over 18 today' - elder models are scarce.

We don't promote ageism, sexism, colorism or ism ism, and don't kid yourself, the 40 somethings are easy, try the real wrinkle brigade if you want a challenge!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Few photographers are deliberately not hiring older models. However a lot seem to have all the excuses in the world to not be creative, strip themselves of judgement, and go outside of the little bubble known as the comfort zone. I think this article isn’t so much about the amount of wrinkles a model has as it is about trying new things that may be different from mainstream. Ageism is one of many problems that the industry has.

J.d. Davis's picture

So, where are the elder models? - And I'm not talking about the ones in your article, where are the everyday men & women over 50, over 60 and over 70?

It isn't the reluctance of photographers ~ so many elder people just hide!

Michelle Maani's picture

Older women are treated as they are invisible. They don't hide, no one sees them.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I second that!!

Michelle Maani's picture

They aren't comfortable with themselves because they are still held up to the same standards as younger models, just with gray hair or white hair and a few wrinkles. Usually they are around 50-60 but treated like they are antiques.

Kelly McKeon's picture

You asked why is this on Fstoppers? Followed in part with this answer ‘’Photography should be a voice for change’’.

Photography has always been a medium that prompts discussion, and that for me, is why I’m here. I like to believe most contributors on Fstoppers feel the same and thus, we collectively give voice to our industry.

To your article. I’m sixty and experience ageism often when competing for projects, so there’s that.

Fashion tends to be ahead of the curve and imagery is weighted towards the age groups that will influence, transform, and direct the industry into the future. Cultivate buyers interest early and you have brand loyalty for decades.

The makeup industry is heavily weighted towards older groups with campaign imagery of products that offer ageless, timeless, and wrinkle free solutions.

One industry promotes moving forward while the other promotes moving backward. I applaud women of all ages for even buying into all the nonsense, it appears exhausting to keep up.

We are a world of the unjust, sexism and ageism is very much alive in the advertising industry because at the end of the day, the imagery and messaging must do its job and sell, and the young are the largest demographic.

Jan Holler's picture

I agree, just one thing: "the young are the largest demographic" in Africa maybe, but not in Europe. It is the other way around: the older are the largest group and it is growing:
https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/248980/umfrage/altersstru...
We call that "aging society".

Illya Ovchar's picture

Yes, that’s why some estimate 50+ to be the target demographic in the coming years.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

To be honest, I like it just the way it is. No need for change.

If this venture of yours gives you the warm and fuzzies inside, then, more power to you.

I think it's going to be an uphill battle for you, though:

-- https://www.fordmodels.com/city/division/los%20angeles?filter=women

-- https://www.wilhelmina.com/new-york/women/women/

-- https://willowmodelmanagement.com/results/girls-main/women

M L's picture

I think the title should be " I have a big problem with fashion photography"

Illya Ovchar's picture

Feel free to submit your own articles with such titles in the relevant section of the website. Cheers!

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I noticed Polgar Tunde om your website some time ago, and wantet to complement you on that. She is beautiful and a interesting model and enjoyable you added her to your portfolio.

From the perspective of a portrait photographer age adds, it does not subtract.
Just look at this lady, she is beautiful!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Thank you for reading and commenting, I'm glad you found her beautiful!

Lee Christiansen's picture

The funny thing with this article is whilst it tells us there is a bias towards younger models and that the world should be featuring older models, (nothing wrong with that), the examples are all of very attractive ladies...

So from this pulpit of righteousness, the author seems to be himself ignoring the larger ladies, the less conventionally beautiful ladies, the ladies who aren't perfectly symmetrical or the ones who can't fit into a slim dress. And whilst the makeup artists are undoubtably talented, I'm not seeing examples of fashion images in this article of ladies with skin issues - all seems pretty flawless here... which in itself is a stereotypical perception that fashion models must look a certain way, (apart from age of course, according to Mr Ovchar)

The reality is that the fashion industry is a business. There is a lot of money at stake and there are people who know their numbers and demographics.

If the fashion industry thought that 4ft high, bearded ladies with orange hats in a space suit would sell more product - then that is who they'd photograph.

The reality is that whilst the older demographic, (since when did 40 become "older" - I can't even remember being 40...) would certainly relate to images of people in their age group, they can also imagine wearing the fashions presented by younger models. But the reverse is rarely true. So when a fashion company has one opportunity, one page spread, one advert, to show a garment - then the appeal is broader with a younger model.

And let's face it, fashion is often an aspirational thing - and who of us often think, "oh if only I had more wrinkles, if only I could shrink an inch, if only my skin needed a bit more help in the morning, I wish my stomach would fill out a bit more just by looking at that chocolate...) Relating to younger models makes us feel young, and statistically people want to "feel" younger. (Yes I'm aware of the study that suggests people's favourite age is the age they are currently at).

This article would have had more weight, more gravitas, if the examples weren't airbrushed, didn't all have beautiful, slim models, and didn't stop at a convenient "older but not too old" age range.

If we want to have true equality without stereotypical imagery, then fashion photographers should pop down to the mall, (see how as a Brit, I adapt to the mainly US readership... ha), and pop average shoppers into these outfits without care for who is beautiful, old, young, slim or fat - and then photograph them as they are - with lovely lighting but no special makeup or airbrushing. Because if we're after true equality, then why the celebrity features in this article.

Do that, and then write about it. Otherwise fashion imagery is just what it is - a representation of the dream, and rarely the actual demographic who are buying it. And I'm just fine with that.

RU KiddingMe's picture

You made some excellent points. The company is going to use the model that will that will connect to their targeted demographic. In the end, their goal is sales, not promoting a narrative.

Lucas Images's picture

I just checked Fstoppers "Editors Pick" feed and did not notice any older woman that had fashion tags. Interesting.

Rosalind Furlong's picture

Speaking as an older woman I have to say while I admire the sentiments expressed I have to disagree. Models are there not for themselves but to make the clothes look good and young, thin models make the clothes look better than older or bigger models. I love the beauty of youth. I don’t want to see older women modelling clothes - in fact seeing something modelled by an older woman would put me off buying it. If it’s “old ladies” fashion I’m not interested!

Michelle Maani's picture

You're probably not really that much of an older woman. Maybe a little on the other side of 50. Those who are in their 70s appreciate seeing what an outfit would look like on them, not on some svelte woman who just happens to have gray or white hair and a wrinkle.