Whether perceived as distasteful, shocking, interesting, or thought-provoking, here are 10 photographers who’ve transformed the role of fashion advertising via the art of controversy over the years.

Developed in the mid-1800s for the sole purpose of displaying and selling clothing and accessories, fashion photography has since morphed into a complex genre of photo-taking that tells a story; reflecting a distinct lifestyle and mood via a photographer’s manipulation of subject(s), location and props. But for every photographer who revels in the beauty of gloss and glamour and stakes themselves firmly in the realm of commercially acceptable photography, there lies an artist who defies the industry’s prevailing codes and motifs; pushing the limits between fashion, art and shock value.

While many of these photographers have been criticized for realizing their vision to a point where art and fashion are almost indistinguishable from pornography and exploitation, other critics laud their daring efforts. The industry is filled with these innovative image-takers, so we’ve compiled a list of 10 photographers who we feel have withstood the test of time in transfiguring the role of fashion advertising through arresting social commentary and thought-provoking visuals.

Terry Richardson 

One of the fashion industry’s most divisive figures, Terry Richardson has been causing controversy since his very first campaign shoot for Katharine Hamnett in 1995; which saw barely-legal models wearing short skirts that revealed their pubic hair. Richardson’s heavily sexualized, almost amateur-level photography – typically defined by high-contrast images, high-speed flashes and stark white backgrounds – has been used by everyone from Supreme and Tom Ford to GQ and Rolling Stone, starring seemingly every A-list celebrity under the sun; be it Rihanna or Barack Obama.

Allegations of sexual misconduct have followed Richardson throughout his 20-year career, with many models accusing the photographer of coercing them into performing sexual acts during their shoots – or even with the man himself. His creepy persona and tarnished reputation don’t seem to have harmed his career, though; Terry Richardson remains to this day one of the industry’s most high-profile – and highly-demanded – photographers.

David LaChapelle

David LaChapelle’s career in fashion photography was first launched at the tender age of 17 by NYC art scenester Andy Warhol, who gave the budding visual maverick his big break by helping him secure a job working for Interview magazine during the ’80s. Since then, LaChapelle has achieved unprecedented success, continuing to blur the lines between what is considered advertising, fashion and fine art with a hyper-saturated, Alice in Wonderland-like aesthetic. A provocateur at heart, LaChapelle’s work is inspired by everything from art history and religion, to surrealism and street culture, all while transcending the material world with brazen and sometimes perverted social commentary.

Steven Meisel

Ever fascinated by models and molding the female form to fit his idiosyncratic standards of beauty, Steven Meisel gained substantial notoriety after his provocative works for Vogue Italia and Madonna’s notorious 1992 book Sex. No stranger to ruffling the feathers of fashion’s pantheon, Meisel’s images glaze couture over charged social and political commentary.

His September 2007 Vogue Italia editorial “Make Love Not War” caught fire in the press for sexualizing and glamorizing the Iraq War, while his 2012 spread “Haute Mess” was condemned for its humorously exploitative depictions of “ghetto fabulous” culture of African-American women. But despite the controversy, Meisel’s talent for scripting story lines that reference and reflect societal issues make him one of the industry’s most prolific and culturally relevant image-makers.

Steven Klein

A prolific visionary whose sadistic vision oozes pitch-black sexuality, Steven Klein conjures up images that offer punishing takes on pop culture as well as the artists that inhabit it; including everyone from Madonna and Rihanna to Brad Pitt and Lady GaGa. His subjects are often set in a place that offer a sinister, seductive and foreboding aura which isolate emotion and warmth, delving instead into the most frigid corners of human sentiment. Klein often injects themes of submission, homoeroticism and gender role reversal in his work as a means to put the stereotypes of celebrity and fashion down on its knees.

Nobuyoshi Araki

After rising to prominence as a fine art photographer during the ’70s, Japan’s Nobuyoshi Araki has made a significant imprint in the realm of controversial image makers. Fusing Japanese cultural heritage and history with distorted, BDSM-influenced representations of female eroticism, Araki’s work starkly challenges conservative social norms; especially those of his native country.

Araki’s perceived objectification and dehumanization of women have lead to countless accounts of attempted censorship and media outcry, though Araki claims that his fascination with kinbaku, or the Japanese art of erotic rope-tying, lies in his mission to “free [the women’s] souls by tying up their bodies.” His fetishistic vision has also staked itself in the fashion sphere, having lensed Bottega Veneta’s Spring/Summer 2015 campaign and serving inspiration to designers such as Alexander McQueen, Simone Rocha and Christopher Kane.

Helmut Newton 

German-Australian photographer Helmut Newton (née Neustädter) is one of fashion’s most revered and iconic photographers. Born in Berlin to Jewish parents, Newton fled Nazi persecution in the 1940s, settling in Australia and gaining British citizenship and changing his surname to Newton in 1946. A photographer since the age of 16, Newton quickly established a name for himself as a fashion and portrait photographer in Melbourne, winning a commission with Australian Vogue in 1956 before establishing a relationship with the magazine’s British, French and German counterparts.

Newton’s black-and-white work is marked by stylized themes of eroticism, typically with fetishistic subtexts; his shoots were regularly littered with corsets, gloves, thigh-high boots and ropes, with subjects often tied to beds. More brazenly, the photographer’s “Big Nudes” series simply featured wholly naked subjects, shot to his expertly high standards.

Oliviero Toscani
Oliviero Toscani’s sobering campaigns for Benetton throughout the ’80s and ’90s catapulted the little-known Italian brand to global status, melding social commentary and commerce in a way that transfigured the role and power of advertising in modern times. The notorious ads, which featured subjects ranging from dying AIDS patients to clergy members engaging in carnal acts, faced countless governmental bans and public protests, all while increasing awareness on prominent issues such as racism, capital punishment, gay rights and war.

In 2005, Toscani shook up conservatives with a homosexual-themed campaign for men’s clothing brand Ra-Re; as well as in 2007, when he snapped a campaign for clothing brand Nolita that provided a shocking look at fashion’s ever-plaguing issue of anorexia. “There isn’t such a thing as a shocking picture,” he once told CNN, “there is shocking reality that is being reproduced through photography to the people who aren’t there.”

Juergen Teller

With an ethos that is wholeheartedly anti-fashion, Juergen Teller’s no-holds-barred approach to photography smudges the lines between art and advertising. His reinvention of fashion photography began to develop in 1996, when he famously photographed a naked Kristen McMenamy for the front cover of Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine with the word “Versace” scrawled across her chest in red lipstick.

Noted for his refusal to keep even his most lucrative fashion campaigns – which includes longtime collaborations with top-tier houses such as Marc Jacobs, Celine, Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood – distinct from his most intimate, non-commissioned images, Teller strikes a rare balance between creativity and commercialism through strongly unglamorous shots which coax model and celebrity subjects out of their comfort zones. Emphasizing rawness and imperfection over artificiality and glossiness, Teller, who works almost exclusively in color and often employs a high-speed flash and a Contax G2 camera, doesn’t try to flatter but to be “true,” as he puts it himself.

Larry Clark 

Larry Clark’s work has drawn criticism for years; before delving into the world of filmmaking, Clark was routinely called out for sleazy themes running through his photography; some even calling his work child-pornographic. Turning raw shots into his first iconic book Tulsa in 1971, Clark was one of the first to lay his subjects bare; bringing true meaning to the word raw.

Clark’s work has seen him collaborate with some major labels, including J.W. Anderson and (most notably) Supreme, who celebrated the 20th Anniversary of his 1996 cult classic Kids with a capsule collection featuring printed stills from the film. His graphic and incessant depiction of disenfranchised youth has famed him as one of the most compelling photographers of his time and continues to cement his reputation as one of the industry’s most unapologetic visionaries.

Maurizio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari

Contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan and photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari first joined forces in 2009, mustering up some eyebrow-raising photographs of supermodel Linda Evangelista for W’s November 2009 Art Issue. Hitting it off, the duo thereafter launched Toilet Paper, an innovative agency and bi-annual magazine known for its biting humor and surrealist style.

Integrating the vernacular of commercial fashion photography with witty tableaux and overtly sexual innuendo, the duo have produced their trademark photos for influential titles like Purple, Dazed, Vogue and Elle, and shot to fame when they were commissioned by Kenzo to produce a series of ad campaigns in 2013. Perhaps fashion’s most celebrated jesters, the pair’s success comes from their ability to poke fun at various systems of order by breaking down the industry’s prevailing codes and photographic motifs.

For more from our Most Controversial series, check out the following:

10 of the Most Controversial Film Directors (NSFW)
15 of the Most Controversial Movie Posters of All Time (NSFW)
8 of the Most Controversial Hip-Hop Album Covers of All Time (NSFW)
10 of the Most Controversial Fashion Ads of All Time (NSFW)

Words by Nico Amarca
Fashion Editor, North America