The Demise of Photography in Fashion

Photography once changed fashion but now fashion is changing photography, threatening to make it obsolete.

Fashion campaigns once relied on sketches and drawings until photography replaced both forms of art as a more realistic and faster way of creating images. Now though, Computer Generate Images (CGI) are challenging both the convenience and cost-effectiveness of photography.

The fashion industry is moving beyond physical reality. Retailers like DressX sell digital-only clothes. There are digital-only model agencies like Diigitals. Events like fashion week are moving to Metaverse. Even Marilyn Monroe has been revived as a virtual model to showcase the latest digital fashion by Balenciaga, Miu Miu, Balmain, and other high-end brands.

If you know the hyper-realistic 3D portrait work of artists like Sefki Ibrahim, it takes little imagination to see how celebrities, fashion models, and other public figures will one day have their digital avatars taking part in image-capture campaigns on their behalf.

Photographers do not have the tools to participate in that future because digital photography is not as digital as it sounds. Photographers rely on human models, physical clothes, and real locations to create compositions and then capture the light reflected from those objects on a camera sensor.

Future image-making requires a process where photographers will hire digital models, download digital clothes, and import digital locations to compose, accessorize, and light everything directly in an image to achieve the same result. Let’s call it Digital Photography 2.0.

Digital Photography 2.0

Until more recently, the problem was that CGI was not realistic enough to challenge photography. However, it’s a matter of a couple of years before the results become indiscernible.

Over at Sane Seven studio, we wanted to test how close we were to the future of Digital Photography 2.0. Our criteria for creating a basic fashion campaign were that a) no CGI skills would be required; b) it would take less or the same amount of time to create the images than in a conventional way; c) lighting options would be similar to using photography lighting.

Currently, there is no software specifically developed for this purpose. It’s not possible to hire models like Diigitals or clothes like DressX to use one software that meets all criteria. As a compromise, we chose set.a.light 3D with DressX clothes applied afterward to create a few basic mock fashion campaign images inspired by Mario Testino’s Burberry shoot from 2016.

At first glance, these images have ‘fooled’ many creative directors that we showed them to and scared equally many more photographers who realized what it meant to their careers. At a closer inspection though, many eagle-eyed viewers would pinpoint their many flaws. But this is just the beginning.

We can either fear or embrace this future. Fear will leave it in the hands of CGI artists. Embracing it means putting down cameras to find and develop the tools that can replicate the satisfaction of photography as closely as possible.

The upside of this process is that, unlike traditional digital images, the models in the image will move, make-up, hair, and clothes will update with a click of a button, and environments, lighting, and camera angles will change without limitations. With the advances in AI technologies, we may even see the return of a decisive moment in capturing a model that will move in the scene in unpredictable ways.

Is it ‘Real’ Photography?

Some will argue that the image will never be the same as ‘real’ photography but here are three arguments against it.

Firstly, a work of art in photography is the image, not the process through which it was created. In digital images, there is no difference between a digital pixel created by the light on a sensor and a pixel created using a computer brush. It’s the same bit of information whether it is digitized by shining a light on a sensor or drawing a line with a tablet pen.

Secondly, traditional fashion campaigns are so heavily retouched that they no longer represent what was captured with the light on a digital sensor.

Thirdly, those who have embraced mirrorless cameras already use digital screens and viewfinders to compose the scene. The only difference is that the model in front of the camera is a physical human as opposed to a digital file.

As an artist, I am not looking forward to it but as a sensible artist, I’d urge everyone to keep their hearts and minds open to stay at the forefront of that innovation.

About the author: Sane Seven is an award-winning portrait/ad photography duo who works internationally on commissions that range from fashion legend Jimmy Choo to heads of state like Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The duo is a regular contributor at The Sunday Times with an interest in future technologies. In 2020, Sane Seven used a remotely controlled robot to create a social campaign for The Women in Data in the UK. In 2021, Sane Seven received Gold in New York Photography Awards and an equivalent accolade in London Photography Awards in 2022.