I understood when tackling this story that many young people were going to say, “Who?”. Think Benetton, and the supposedly detached and shocking ads between 1982 and 2000. That was Oliviero Toscani. Not only the photography, but the art direction. Because it was an original approach to an ad campaign that has not been repeated to this day.
He was born in 1942 in Italy. While he became a world renown photographer, he has really never moved his base from Italy. But at least his birth in Milan put him in the center of the action in Italy.
He found taking up photography quite natural; his father was a photojournalist for an Italian periodical, a fairly well known newspaper . He was afforded the ability to attend a Swiss school, and appeared to start working for a slew of Italian fashion magazines right out of the box. They included such biggies as Italian Elle, Vogue, L’Uomo, Italian Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Working with the 6×7 Mamiya RZ67, his images were stark and clean.
Humanity in Fashion
However, it was not until he started working as an art director for Benetton that he found his wings. He felt stepping back from the actual photography worked to his advantage.
Famous campaigns include David Kirby dying of AIDS. Due to AIDS being at its worst at the time, and this had what to do with clothes and fashion? Well, nothing. But it showed a humanity, and brought an awareness, to an important social issue. Something never done before. In fact, it was the long beginning to a first,…. a fashion company using its’ sizable audience to expose many social ills. In other words, it was a success, and has almost become a warped kind of logo for Benetton. Racism, war, religion and capital punishment were all subjects of sometimes shocking, but always socially relevant subjects.
He co-founded the Benetton magazine, Colors. It was a magazine that photographically dealt with social issues and multiculturalism around the world. No issue seemed to be off limits. A brave stance for what was basically an Italian fashion house.
While 2005 saw him in a whirlpool of controversy again, as his photographs for “Ra Re” men’s clothes. He portrayed men participating in acts of homosexuality. Italy is a fairly religious nation, and the Catholic parents’ association was outraged! They referred to the photography as vulgar. To be fair, Italian Gay Rights groups applauded the stance. A 2007 campaign against anorexia. Again shocked with photography of an emaciated woman.
Although he is now retired, in Tuscany, he left an indelible mark on photography, and its ability to sway feelings on humanities woes. From a fashion bully pulpit!