“The first thing we have of a person is the impression from the outside,” said F.C. Gundlach, one of the twentieth century’s most notable fashion photographers. So powerful is the element of human perception that it contributes largely to decisions we make every day and to the unfolding of stories which gradually, over time, influence the course of history. During a conversation with F.C. Gundlach, we spoke about the role of fashion photography in society, history, and the ultimate guiding force of the art of perception.
Gundlach began taking his photographs during the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most important decades in the last century for societal change which included, among other developments, the emancipation of women. “The image of women changed,” said Gundlach. “They began to work which led them to express themselves with more freedom.” This newfound freedom was captured in fashion and photography; women were emancipated in their gestures, the way they socialized, and in how they perceived the world around them.
During this time there were also changes in the world of fashion. prêt-à-porter or “ready to wear” was developed which made it possible for the general public to wear the fashions of some of the world’s most acclaimed designers. Some thought this signaled the death of the exclusive haute couture but it didn’t, it made the art of fashion more accessible than ever before to the masses. Gundlach worked at the highly popular German magazine Brigitte from 1963 to 1986 and captured these changes taking place in the fashion world. There was a greater excitement toward fashion; an eagerness to express oneself that hadn’t previously been present. “Fashion is always a manifestation of zeitgeist. It is movement. The way one is sitting depicts the gestures of fashion and the spirit of the moment,” he told me. “Fashion allows you to express your personality.”
Gundlach’s photography took him to the distant lands of Egypt and Morocco and the cosmopolitan cities of New York and Paris. There he took images of fashion models against foreign and exotic backdrops with the pyramids or ancient classical ruins as the set scene for his photographs. In the west, busy and flamboyant city streets of Paris and New York allowed him to play once again with the photograph, the background and the fashion model. The fashion design was thus influenced by a societal and cultural backdrop rather than just purely the aesthetics of its making. “You cannot create fashion without the sentiments of the people. Fashion is the manifestation of society,” said Gundlach. “I gave space to the models. I wanted to give them the freedom to express and the space to feel.”
Often cited for his unique approach to narration and story-telling, I asked Gundlach about the influence of history and capturing a present fleeting moment in his work. He responded by telling me that there is always a story. Even if you take a picture of a young girl playing on the street while other people pass by there will be always be stories, and multiple stories that the photographer and the viewer can pick up on. With a laugh he told me how he used to tell his models to just walk down the street, “Just walk and I’ll photograph you,” he would say. “The photograph is inspired by history- there is always a story. Fashion photography has the spirit of the times; it changes every single time depending on the moment in history in which it was taken.”
What many don’t know is that Gundlach is an avid collector of fashion photographs. Just before our conversation he was bidding online for an auction in New York City. He was greatly influenced by the late Hungarian photographer Martin Munkasci (1896-1963) of which he owns several works. Munkasci was the first photographer who did not have models pose. He let them experiment and act naturally, walking down the street, a technique which was later employed by Harpers’ Bazaar and by Gundlach himself.
Fine art has also had a great impact on Gundlach’s work particularly when it merges the photographic. During the 1980s and 1990s painters such as Eric Fischl, David Salle, Elizabeth Peyton and Luc Tuymanns made paintings that used photographs as their source. The photograph is thus used as the grounding base, as the real object from which to depart on a creative journey in an artist’s depiction of reality. “Photography,” says Gundlach, “Is a cultural asset to guide people through history.”
Gundlach’s enthusiasm was contagious. Although we were not face to face, I could sense that he had a sparkle in his eye. He has captured many stories in his photographs, many cultures and fashionable moments. This unique art of perception, one which allows cultural and historical influences to play a grand role, has truly crafted his photography.