Home Fashion touch of vogue 5 World's Most Controversial Photographers

5 World's Most Controversial Photographers

Monday, 28 June 2010 | by Minyan



If you are the sort who is easily offended or squeamish, proceed with extreme caution, for you are about to catch a glimpse of what goes on in the genius, or some say twisted, minds of some of the fashion industry's most controversial fashion photographers.

Fashion photography started off as a genre of photography devoted to displaying clothing and other fashion items, and is done most frequently for advertisements or high fashion magazines such as Vogue or Vanity Fair. Over time however, fashion photography has developed its own aesthetic in which the subject of photography are enhanced by the presence of exotic location accessories, making for photographs that could practically pass off as art. 

But of course, for every photographer who revel in the beauty of high fashion and stay firmly in the realm of aesthetically pleasing photography, there are those who abhor its stale nature and choose to continually push the limits between high fashion and shock value. Some of these photographers have been criticized as taking it too far, to the point that it's hard to distinguish their "high fashion" pictures from pornography, while other critics have lauded them as being daring and out-of-the-box.

Whether you think these photographs are distasteful, shocking, interesting, or thought-provoking, there is no doubt that they have gotten you to think and talk about it, and that's the mark of the best photographers of our time.

Guy Bourdin

Perhaps the most famous, and influential name on the younger generation of fashion photographers today, Guy Bourdin was considered the first photographer to create a complex narrative and associate it with a fashion item. The narratives were often strange, mysterious, sensual and provocative, and often full of violence, sexuality and surrealism. Shattering expectations and pushing boundaries, Guy Bourdin's daring narrative of his images brought fashion photography of his time to a whole new level.

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Bourdin's images are usually story panels that involve body parts, stylized violence, and death. Rumour has it that the dark, almost macarbre images from Bourdin's portfolio were a reflection of his somewhat disturbed history of relationships; his mother abandoning him; his wife's suicide; the fact that his girlfriends always seemed to end up injured or dead.

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What sets Bourdin's pictures apart is their tendency to disturb. It was said that "Bourdin had a hotline to his subconscious, and - unlike most people - he wasn't afraid of what he found there." In other words, the pictures' shock value isn't immediately apparent; it creeps up on you, and crawls under your skin.

A woman is stretched across tabletop while lipstick colored paint spills like blood from the mouth of a beautifully positioned woman who is face down on a sterile white floor...  Bourdin's dedication to perfection and demanding work ethic pushed the boundaries of photography, leading him to be lauded as one of the best fashion photographers in history.

Terry Richardson

There are few people who haven not heard of Terry Richardson. Even if the name is unfamiliar to you, his works would not be, one of the most recent of which is the shoot for Gossip Girl's costars Blake Lively and Leighton Meester for the cover of Rolling Stone. He also shot campaign pictures for President Barack Obama.

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Because of his high profile portfolio and relationships with some of the most influential and powerful figures in the fashion industry, Terry Richardson is perhaps the most popular fashion photographer in the industry today. Outside of his celebrity portfolio, Richardson's photographs are often to some extent autobiographical and are noted for their controversial, graphic sexual subject matter.

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And the man behind these graphic pictures is far more disturbing than what meets the eye. Only recently, he was accused by Danish model-turned-filmmaker Rie Rasmussen of habitually exploiting and abusing the models he works with, and her accusation was backed up by amateur model Jamie Peck who alleged that during her photoshoot where she posed nude, Richardson got naked with her, and also interrupted their shoot to "strong suggest" she touched him sexually.

Other stories of Richardson's behavior at work poured forth after the initial accusations, each one far worse than the previous. Richardson has been described as, "... like any predator, is a powerful individual who manipulates and victimizes the weak. When they speak out against him, people try to silence them." An insider said that on a public level Richardson is tolerated because of the extraordinary power he yielded within the industry, but in private, many are disturbed by his history of behaviour with many of the models he worked with.

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Richardson of course has denied these allegations. But no matter whether he's telling the truth or not, you cannot deny that some of his photographs are indeed intensely, and disturbingly graphic and sexual.

Oliverio Toscani

Never far from controversy is Italian photographer Oliverio Toscani. The creative brain behind Benetton's controversial advertising campaigns, there's no denying Toscani's ability to grab the public's attention with his pictures.


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Toscani's advertising campaigns for Benetton often featured pictures that displayed Toscani's oft-professed wish for thought provocation. For example, in the photographer above, it poses the question: who is the policeman, who the criminal?, and the answer is that although we are taught by our social conditioning and the popular media to think of law-enforcers as white and the perpetrators of crime as black, in fact of course we do not know.

Indeed, Toscani was given full authority by Benetton to to produce advertisements which would project the company as caring about, and engaged with international socio-political issues, and perhaps more importantly, to help differentiate the company in a fiercely competitive marketplace. There was little wonder that the company, and Toscani, often went under fire, accused of cause-related marketing. Some critics have slammed the advertisements, calling this fusion of commentary and commerce as blatant moral hypocrisy, and using "arresting contemporary art as easy exploitation". 

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Toscani finally retired in 2005 after another wave of controversy surrounding the use of this particular death row picture as part of their ad campaign. It was not long after he was yet again embroiled in controversy following photographs for an advertising campaign for the men's clothing brand 'Ra-Re'. The advertising campaign came amidst Italy's on-going debate on gay rights, and the label's portrayals of men participating in homosexual behaviour angered groups such as the Catholic parents' association who called the pictures 'vulgar'.


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The fact that Toscani's photographs sparked much controversy despite the lack of sexual graphic content or content of disturbing nature also exposed the many deep-rooted problems in society today, and society's double standards of dealing with them. Sure, sexually explicit pictures featuring near nude models are fine, but chaste kisses between lesbian and gay couples are not. His pictures daringly brought to attention issues that made people uncomfortable, and would rather have buried, such as racism and homophobia.

Toscani is undeterred, saying that that the outcry is exactly what he's aiming for. "Sure, you want to get people's attention. This is communication," he says. "But I still can't understand why people are shocked by something that obviously exists. It's like in a family that always avoids talking about its real problems."

Steven Meisel

Meisel often creates layouts which are controversial, by juxtaposing fashion and politics and/or social standards. For example, in the September 2006 issue of Vogue Italia, Meisel played with the concept of restricted liberties post-September 11th America, with the models portraying terrorists and highly trained policemen. It caused a stir in the press, as the models were presented in violent compositions where they could be seen as being victimized. It also elicited a negative response from feminists which saw the role of the women as being undermined by their male counterparts.

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His "Make Love Not War" series depicts sweaty, dirty soldiers in the middle of a war-zone interacting with models in a very “heated fashion." Critics say that Steven's images glamorize the war in Iraq,

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Robert Capa

The first war photography started by Mathew Brady in 1862. This 1st civil war photographer made his own history through his silver gelatine pictures when he displayed the very-few-of-its-kind collection of photographs (then) titled, The Dead of Antietan.



While Robert Capa (October 22, 1913 – May 25, 1954) was the first to die on the battlefield in the course of duty at Indochina, joining the fate of his Polish fiancée, Gerda Taro who died on the battlefield of Spain. The most famous war photographer of the 20th century, Robert Capa covered five different wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across Europe, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and his last, the First Indochina War.


"Robert Capa, the impetus behind the founding of Magnum, stepped on a land mine and was killed while photographing there in 1954, the first of many American correspondents to be killed in Indochina.”

How real is the death scene and how immaculate are the tears? How true the colour is the blood and how raw is the wound of misery? How far can these evidences be telecasted and shown to the rest of the world?

The test of war and civilisation was witnessed by the lenses of Robert Capa where he came face to face with the battle of mankind - war...


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