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The Power of Fashion Photography & Nicole Erni’s Collection at The Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

A vital component of the Artscope: Palm Beach programme last December was a visit to The Norton Museum of Art. Through the exhibition A Personal View on High Fashion and Street Style: Photographs from the Nicola Erni Collection, 1930s to Now, the force of fashion photography as a tool for communicating sociocultural currents and reinventing modes of artistic expression was powerfully explored.

A view of one gallery displaying the Nicola Erni Collection exhibition at The Norton Museum of Art. Photo by Kate Fensterstock, 2023.
A view of one gallery displaying the Nicola Erni Collection exhibition at The Norton Museum of Art. Photo by Kate Fensterstock, 2023.

Already an iconic and internationally recognised collection in its own right, a mounting at the Norton gave it the context it deserved in the wider history of twentieth and twenty-first century art and culture, placing it at the epicentre of Palm Beach County’s ever-evolving modern and contemporary art narrative.


Founder Ralph Hubbard Norton, a steel industrialist from Chicago, would eventually develop a sizable collection of art that included Impressionist and European masters as well as iconic American painting and sculpture. He retired with his wife in 1935 and began spending more time in the Palm Beaches, traditionally a winter resort enclave. In 1941 they were inspired to found a museum in order to share their collection and offer South Florida its first progressive visual arts institution. From its inception, the Norton became a key force in fostering art appreciation and supporting culture in and around Palm Beach and, in the decades since, continued its work in creating new and innovative ways to bring twentieth century arts education and programming to the community.

Ralph Hubbard and Elizabeth Calhoun Norton, circa 1941. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art.
Ralph Hubbard and Elizabeth Calhoun Norton, circa 1941. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.

The mission continues into the twenty-first century. In 2011, to name but one initiative, the Norton would publicly recognise a number of seriously overlooked female artists who had been left out of the socio-cultural conversation, and establish Recognition of Art by Women (RAW). An exhibition series that celebrated the contributions of living female painters and sculptors followed, with solo exhibitions mounted for artists including Jenny Savile (2011), Phyllida Barlow (2013), Krista Kristalova (2014) and Njideka Akunyili Crosby (2016). Similarly, the Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers was established in 2012 a biennial award for those on the leading edge of the field who have not yet received a solo museum exhibition. Winners have included Analia Sabin (2012), Rami Maymon (2014) and Elizabeth Bick (2016). The award, created by collector and fervent patron of burgeoning talent Beth Rudin DeWoody in honour of her father Lewis Rudin, brings together as ‘beacons’ both the discerning private collector eye of DeWoody with the considerable public reach of the Norton as a critical cultural outpost and a centre for energetic supporters of the next generation.


As Palm Beach’s year-round population began to grow, seeing a very recent and marked influx during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Norton responded to this opportunity with a bold and visionary expansion plan, including a 2019 Foster + Partners addition. Meeting the challenges brought on by Covid-19 lockdowns, yet embracing a steady and growing community of art and culture enthusiasts arriving from art-centric regions such as New York, Texas, California and the Midwest, the Norton responded assertively yet discerningly. The institution developed programmes, educational series and other unique channels for delivering a competitive offering and continued to enhance Palm Beach’s on-the-rise status as a respected destination for modern and contemporary art. This past winter, the full extent of The Norton’s capacity for exceptional arts programming was flawlessly delivered with A Personal View of High Fashion and Street Style: Photographs from the Nicola Erni Collection, 1930s to Now.


Current exterior view of the The Norton Museum of Art. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.
Current exterior view of the The Norton Museum of Art. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.

Inspired by both her passion for fashion and for photography, Nicola Erni embarked on collecting work that reflected a combination of these two great loves. Curated by Birgit Filzmaier and Ira Stehman, the exhibition expertly drew out the vitality that resides at the very core of great fashion, and revealed to visitors both the artistic and socio-cultural significance of fashion photography; the power of the genre was fully explored here.


In the 1910s, photography replaced illustration as the visual form for fashion in magazine editorials and advertising. This technological development would mean that the communication and dissemination of fashion trends could reach vastly broader audiences and make both the styles and the models wearing them more believable and relatable. George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst would draw on classical art forms using shadow and light to emphasise curves of the body and accentuate the unique features of the new style. Toni Frissell was among the first to shoot outdoors, showing the fashions in more life-like settings as he began to link lifestyle and personal identity to the increasingly independent and free-spirited female individuals of the period.


Horst P. Horst, 'Lisa as V.O.G.U.E for US Vogue', 1940. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.
Horst P. Horst, 'Lisa as V.O.G.U.E for US Vogue', 1940. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.

Where the photographer had historically been limited to the strictly visual characteristics of the subject, the way in which fashion would categorise new depth of socio-cultural significance meant it would be regenerated again and again as a tool for creative expression. By the 1940s, several decades after photography and fashion first found new symbiosis, these idealised, staged images of models in studios became stale. It became clear that style, possibly defined as ‘how fashion is embraced’, would be the key to connecting real people to the aspirational lifestyles of those featured in the images, and thus reach a new level of meaning for the public.


Jacques Henri Lartigue oscillated between the couture of Paris and the casual chic of the Cote d’Azur, and Helen Levitt captured fleeting moments of city life for the women of New York City. The fashions sprang to life because they now visually communicated universally experienced aspects of everyday life. Style became what everyone would strive for yet, it was simultaneously understood, in a deeply personal way. Great fashion photography could deliver this. Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar began to reach much wider audiences, where the imagery of and William Klein and Frank Horvat were shooting their models in situ and bringing the glamour and prestige of fashion into the streets of great cities around the world.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, "St. Paul de Vence', 1938. Courtesy of Fetcher X, 2023.
Jacques-Henri Lartigue, "St. Paul de Vence', 1938. Courtesy of Fetcher X, 2023.

As fashion photography and street style fused, elements of personal expression, art, culture and, of course, business, the medium would also develop into a crucial leading indicator in capturing the sociological climate of the time. The commercially driven intent of these images would reveal truths about the contemporary economy and attitudes to it, as popular tastes, opinions and emotions became embedded in the standards of beauty. The consumer mindset that drove much of this photography would govern what would last and what would date. It all coincidentally provided viewers with a rich and diverse snapshot of cultural history.

Joel Meyerowitz, 'Florida', 1967. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.
Joel Meyerowitz, 'Florida', 1967. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.

The 1960s and 1970s were decades of revolution, signalling a sharp aversion to the homogeny and traditional social structures of the post-war world. The liberation of youth culture was reflected in rock n’ roll music, political and social activism (in the form of anti-war sentiment, feminism and civil rights) and ultimately more daring fashion trends. These currents yielded imagery that reflected this sense of adventure. Richard Avedon alluded to the Space Race in capturing Jean Shrimpton in a helmet-like pink cut-out for Harper’s Bazaar, and David Bailey dominated the Swinging Sixties culture of London, starring Twiggy and the miniskirt. The sexual revolution gained momentum through the work of Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, who began to reference fetish and fantasy in their imagery. Designers like Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro and Yves Saint Laurent successfully offered ready-to-wear in addition to the formal couture collections, providing access to high fashion via a mass market.

Richard Avedon, 'Jean Shrimpton (cover mock-up), for Harper's Bazaar US, 1965. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.
Richard Avedon, 'Jean Shrimpton (cover mock-up), for Harper's Bazaar US, 1965. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.

Fashion photography would also yield a fresh and multi-dimensional artistic medium that referenced traditional modes of expression whilst adding new depths to traditional understandings in art. As the creative concepts, sets, props and materials became more adventurous, photographers would find new ways of engaging with fashion in their practice as they might with sculpture, installation, film, or landscape, still life or portrait painting. Anglo-Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj brought a fantastical blend of Moroccan/Far East/Western Pop Art influences to life in his dreamlike stage sets. The photography of Sarah Moon and Deborah Turbeville referenced traditional styles of painting, steeped in romanticism, and the work of Paolo Roversi even featured gold leaf applied to his Polaroids in the Byzantine technique.


By the 1990s, natural beauty, rawness and imperfection were the aesthetic in fashion photography. A societal interest in health and athleticism was reflected in the body types of models like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell, and the shoots often took place in wild, natural environments like the desert or near the ocean. Peter Lindbergh, Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber’s intensely physical imagery began to drive the supermodel era, featuring iconic names such as Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Helena Christensen.


Peter Lindbergh, 'Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patzig, Christy Turlington, Estelle Lefébure, Karen Alexander, Rachel Williams', for US 'Vogue', Los Angeles, 1988. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.
Peter Lindbergh, 'Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patzig, Christy Turlington, Estelle Lefébure, Karen Alexander, Rachel Williams', for US 'Vogue', Los Angeles, 1988. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.

Fashion photography had revealed and reflected changes to established society and challenges to constructs for decades, but by the 1980s photographers like Amy Arbus were dedicating their practice to the societal subculture, and creating a platform whereby alternative, or even marginalised communities could be spotlighted. Street style went from the ‘off-duty celebrity’ to the ordinary person, democratising fashion even further and establishing creative access to style affectations previously overlooked.

Amy Arbus, 'Flip Family', 1987.
Amy Arbus, 'Flip Family', 1987. Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, 2023.

By the new millennium, the advance of technology in digital mediums such as social media and style blogging made this access even greater, and a new tastemaker – the Influencer – was born. The Sartorialist led the way with one of the first editorial channels, forging a new media outlet and PR opportunity in the cybersphere. The open arena of Instagram and blogging offered opportunities to 11-year-old Tavi Gevinson and generated the over-50s audience for The Grey Fox, whilst Filippino style blogger Bryanboy not only surfaced as one of the first of his kind overall, but additionally paved the way for non-white, hetero-male challenges to what is aspirational.

Tavi Gevinson at the Marc Jacobs show in 2010. Image by Patrick McMullan/Getty Images. Courtesy of British 'Vogue', 2023.
Tavi Gevinson at the Marc Jacobs show in 2010. Image by Patrick McMullan/Getty Images. Courtesy of British 'Vogue', 2023.

As we forge ahead through the second decade of the 21st century, fashion photography continues to challenge and reconfigure not only creative concepts, but notions of social change and shifting cultural perspectives. Nicola Erni’s private collection, with the institutional support of the Norton Museum of Art, has provided a brilliant critical public platform for underscoring the power of fashion photography and emphasising its potential for both instigating and recording change.


For more information on The Norton Museum of Art, Nicola Erni and the Artscope: Palm Beach programme, please email kate@artscopeintl.com.


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