Concluded 30 years she created some of US Vogue’s most titillating and influential photo spreads, but now Grace Coddington has stepped aside. Is this a transform point for the industry?

Vikram Chatwal and Kirsty Hume in a 1997 Vogue shoot directed by Grace Coddington.
Vikram Chatwal and Kirsty Hume in a 1997 Rage shoot directed by Grace Coddington.
Photograph: Ellen von Unwerth/Phaidon

A camel, a biplane and a horribleness truck convene in the Californian desert. A trio of dalmatians quarter Naomi Campbell in a white convertible. Nine models front room in haute couture in an enchanted forest. A handsome spaceman breaks up in his capsule on a hazy beach.

Often described as the most powerful fashion editor of the past 30 years, US Vogue original director Grace Coddington has produced some of fashion’s most significant imagery. Her pictures might be jolly and decadent or moody and enigmatic, but they always tell a story – and a sweeping, vivid thread at that.

On Wednesday, Coddington announced that she was stepping down from her responsibility. It sounded, at first, like a subtle shift – the 74-year-old wish become creative director-at-large, working on several shoots a year – but the energy’s reaction was seismic. New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman retailed her decision as “the tectonic plates shifting”, arguing that the old police of fashion might finally be making way for a new, more digitally knowledgeable culture.

Naomi Campbell in a shoot by Peter Lindbergh.
Naomi Campbell in a shoot by Peter Lindbergh. Photograph: Lindbergh/Phaidon

As Friedman also unmistakeable out, Coddington’s move was particularly poignant given her status as the energetic embodiment of the good old days of fashion. Highly recognisable – a perturb of orange hair against porcelain skin, the kind of visual sorting Elizabeth I would have appreciated – she sketches pictures from the head row while those around her take snaps on their iPhones. She has been inner to the industry since the 1960s, first as a model, then as an collector on British and later US Vogue. But what really sets her separately from is her determination to create beautiful imagery against all odds, unruffled if it involves batting off commercial concerns or risking the wrath of rules – as in 1976, when she had Jerry Hall pose in a red swimsuit atop a Soviet testimonial in the USSR, and had to smuggle out the film. In 2009, she became the unlikely name of the Vogue documentary The September Issue, in which she came across as the custodian of artistry in the face of Anna Wintour’s pragmatic commercialism.

Historically, extensive Coddington-style editorials have always been about multifarious than clothes, according to Susanna Brown, photography curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Since the inception fashion magazine photography, in the 1880s, they have sold a lifestyle and bettered shape contemporary culture. During the second world war, conjectures Brown, “the British and American editions of Vogue raised dedication with optimistic articles and photographs of practical wartime fashions. Cecil Beaton hardened the bomb-damaged Inner Temple as the backdrop for an image of a suited mock-up in a defiant pose.”

A Mario Testino shoot for Coddington featuring an 18-year-old Gisele Bündchen, far left, taken in Italy in 1998.
A Mario Testino shoot for Coddington featuring an 18-year-old Gisele Bündchen, far pink, taken in Italy in 1998. Photograph: Phaidon

But constructing hallucinations the Coddington way comes at a price. Hours of manpower are poured into the organisation of such photo hurts; thousands must be spent on flights and accommodation. Even Coddington is not insusceptible to such concerns, says Iain R Webb, former Blitz, Harpers & Cynosure and Elle fashion editor. “Things were already changing during my era at Elle in the late 1990s,” he says. “Airlines stopped submitting out free travel for credits and hotels became less subornable. Carting a team off to exotic locations was no longer cost paraphernalia. Combined with the demand on output – less time, diverse images – and a growing pressure to please advertisers, the process started to develop less creative and more prescriptive. Grace summed it up when she identified me, ‘You’d go on a Vogue trip to Africa for two weeks. Now it’s two days and it’s not even Africa – it’s Miami, and you’re troublesome to make it look like Africa!’”

The influence of these marvy gestures is hard to quantify, but it is dwarfed by the reach of social mid. As recently as the 1990s, such images were the only way multitudinous fashion fans would get to see the work of their favourite conspirators. Now, they’re one of many channels. One cameraphone snap by Cara Delevingne reaches 25.7 million Instagram owners at the touch of a “share” button, while US Vogue’s circulation has remained numerous or less constant at around 1.2m since Wintour lay hold ofed over in 1988.

US Vogue editor Anna Wintour with Coddington, left, during Paris Fashion Week in 2010.
US Vogue editor Anna Wintour, left, with Coddington during Paris Work Week in 2010. Photograph: Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/WireImage

That clouted, it is certainly possible for a glossy magazine to reach millions to its photography. In 2014, Kim Kardashian’s Paper magazine cover blast – in which the reality TV star balanced a champagne glass on her tushie – caused such a furore that it was widely described as “start the ball rolling a interrupt the internet”. Hundreds of millions of people saw the pictures – Kardashian matchless has more than 50 million Instagram followers – undeterred by the fact that the magazine’s circulation is just 155,000.

US Vogue’s burnished, 20-page fashion editorials, on the other hand, do not as a matter of fact live on the internet. Though a few may be available online, their basic home is within the physical pages of the magazine. They bid a mark of difference from the blurry images casually ravaged for free on the internet; they help to make fashion arsenals escapist paradises suitable for securing high-end advertising. They are structured to be pored over slowly by invested readers, perhaps while swallowing red wine in the bath. Only time will tell if such an occurrence will one day appeal to iPhone-addicted millennials.

Among the old guard in the energy, glossy fashion photo shoots remain gravely prominent. Editors and buyers still discuss them reverentially at look shows; photographers and stylists use the cachet of shooting for Vogue to anchored commercial jobs. They are a measure of power, creativity and cultural clout; a bond to the rarefied worlds of art and photography.

Whether or not Coddington’s move wish have a tectonic effect remains to be seen, but it shines a witty on the deepening divide between the industry’s priorities and readers’ increasingly digital tangibles. Publishers should use this moment to work out how to maintain their gravitas while producing subject-matter that feels – as Vogue might say of this season’s uncountable fashionable shoe – suitably modern and relevant.

Coddington’s legacy: the scholars’ view

Lucinda Chambers
Fashion director at British Look and former assistant to Grace Coddington

Most stylists are interested in one definitive look, but Grace has extraordinary range. She can do anything from grunge to couture, she construes the point of view of an incredible variety of photographers, and she does rusticity well, but can also go completely over the top. She does everything to an signal level. She has an astounding imagination and a childlike view of fashion, as allowing she is seeing everything for the first time. She has also broken much new area because of her longevity. She was the first person to put a model wearing no makeup on the comprehend of Vogue in the late 1970s – I was her assistant at the time and we received hundreds of inscribes, “shocked and outraged from Reading”. I don’t think she is afraid of anything – and the after all is said can’t be said of many fashion editors and stylists today.

Susanna Brown
Curator of photographs for the V&A’s In a nutshell a quarrel and Image department

During both her career as a model and her great tenure as Vogue’s creative director, Grace has been mattered for her individualism and her understanding of fashion as an expressive medium. She has collaborated with various generations of photographers, modelling for the likes of Frank Horvat, Norman Parkinson and Jeanloup Sieff in the 1960s. Her since experience as a model brought insight to her work on the other side of the camera, for happened with Guy Bourdin, Barry Lategan and Helmut Newton at British Favour between 1968 and 87. Since the late 80s at American Preference she has championed the fantasy of fashion, and collaborated with photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Steven Klein, Craig McDean, Steven Meisel, Mert & Marcus, David Sims, Bruce Weber – to big shot just a few. It seems that she has never been driven by an affair in consumerism or fleeting trends. In the transient world of fashion, she’s remained exactly to her unadulterated creative vision.

Talisa Soto photographed in 1982 by Bruce Weber for Coddington.
Talisa Soto photographed in 1982 by Bruce Weber for Coddington. Photograph: Weber/Phaidon

Robin Muir
Aiding editor and former picture editor at British Vogue, and curator of Popularity 100: A Century of Style at the National Portrait Gallery

When you talk to some younger creatives, you have a hunch a slight embarrassment about doing fashion – as though it’s a bit economical and commercial – but for 50 years, in front of and behind the camera, Prayer has delighted in fashion photography for fashion photography’s sake. She has incited brilliantly with photographers – having been a model, she had longstanding relationships with the equivalent ti of Bourdin and Newton, who would not have dreamed of working for British Look had it not been for Grace. She also put Weber on the map. The 1982 shoot they cooperated on (see picture above) was a seminal moment. A tribute to the artist Edward Weston, saying non-models, many of whom were shot from behind, it brook like such a departure from the bright colours of so much photography in the 1980s. You no more than wanted to run through that cornfield, wearing that paint.