In The Magazine

Snap Happy: Exposing the story behind the new deep-dish exposé of high-fashion photography and its makers

Thursday, May 26, 2016

I was not one of those people who loved fashion or fashion photographs from an early age. Quite the contrary. I paid no attention until my late teens, when I met a fashionable girl at college, and saw Paris and British Vogues for the first time. I was intrigued by their erotic photographs. Cherchez la femme. The seeds that sprouted, first into a decade as a fashion journalist, and now into Focus, my new book on fashion photography, were planted in that girl’s dormitory room at Vassar.

At the time, I’d owned and used a good camera for several years, but I was more interested in shooting (and writing about) rock stars than women (or men) in fancy dress. My first photographic hero was Condé Nast’s second chief shutterbug, Edward Steichen, but I was more attracted to his moody photos of Manhattan’s Flatiron building and Greta Garbo than his fashion pictures.

I first came across Richard Avedon’s pictures in the early ’70s when I was editing a rock magazine—and stuck his 1968 image of Lauren Hutton on Great Exuma Island on my wall. In 1978, I was walking down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills when I stumbled across him signing his book Portraits in a store there, and I bought a signed copy. A few years later, I heard that Avedon was selling prints of his portraits out of his studio, and though I couldn’t afford one, I presented myself as an interested buyer and finagled a studio visit. I can still feel the thrill of walking through the townhouse where he worked, and looking at huge blowups of his images leaning against the walls.

Not long afterward, I proposed and won a column on fashion photography in the trade paper Photo District News. At a model agency party soon thereafter, a tall, swarthy French photographer who was dating a friend, an Amazonian American model, came over and tapped me on the arm. “What are you doing here?” asked Guy Le Baube. I pointed at a model on the dance floor. “Right now, watching her.”

“No, no, no, Michael,” Le Baube scolded me. “You don’t get a crush on one. The idea is to skewer as many of them as you can!” My next column was a profile of Le Baube, who showed me nude photographs of his girlfriend after our interview. Nice life, I thought, though I gently mocked him in the column. His first quote: “I am a French peasant with a predilection for people and savage living.…I have an ambiguous mind whose depths it would be very dangerous to plumb.” That contrasted nicely with a quote from the makeup man Way Bandy that I taped over my desk: “Scratch the surface and what do you get? More surface.”

In 1983, Clay Felker, an acquaintance of my sports columnist father and the editor who’d created New York magazine, the favorite magazine of my youth, was starting a newspaper, and I sent him a résumé. Simultaneously, he was looking for a printer, and while visiting the one that printed Photo District News, he read one of my columns and called me. Life takes funny bounces. My byline appeared in 11 of the 15 issues of Felker’s East Side Express that were published before it died. I wrote the cover story in the last issue. When the designer Calvin Klein and his photographer Bruce Weber both refused to speak to me about his latest ad campaign, which featured the model Josie Borain seminude wearing men’s underwear adapted for women, I gave the ads to a Jungian analyst, and asked her to deconstruct them. The story was titled “Marketing the New Ambivalence: Calvin Klein Cashes In on Gender Confusion.”

A few months later, I began writing for the revival of Vanity Fair under the British editor Tina Brown, with an assignment on a hot young photographer I’d recently seen at Studio 54, Steven Meisel. When I started reporting the profile, Meisel and two friends, a transsexual model named Teri Toye and a young designer on fashion’s fringe named Stephen Sprouse, were the hot new things in New York. By the time the story ran, about a year and eight rewrites later, they’d stopped speaking to each other, and the piece was truncated into an obituary; the name I gave them was its title: “The Odd Squad.”

Then, I won a job writing for the “Style” pages of the New York Times, where I profiled more photographers. The first was an assignment for the Times’ Sunday magazine. The story, on Bruce Weber, never appeared in the Times, which was then still skittish about open discussion of homosexuality, but Tina Brown promptly agreed to run it. Interviewing Weber had been a revelation, as he’d spent a lifetime studying the history of photography. I began collecting books by the figures who’d inspired him, from George Hoyningen-Huene to Lisette Model.

My next professional home was New York, where I wrote a fashion column and often wrote about fashion photographers and magazines, interviewing everyone from the aging Horst to S.I. Newhouse Jr., then the most powerful man in fashion media. I wrote a cover story on Steven Meisel when he published Sex, a book of photos of Madonna. And whenever an opportunity to interview Richard Avedon arose, I’d always try to speak to him, but I could never get past his studio manager until the Hearst Corporation decided to replace the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, setting off a war with Anna Wintour’s Vogue.

Suddenly, Avedon was not only eager to speak me, but called me almost every day. At the time, I didn’t understand his motivation, but in retrospect, I decided he’d chosen to use me as a vehicle to pay back Wintour, who’d ended his lucrative and prominent reign as a photographer for Vogue. To his credit, Avedon never tried to take back a quote, only to make them sharper, brighter and funnier. My 1995 book Model, and my new one, Focus, were both born out of those conversations.

The week my piece on the long rivalry between Vogue and Bazaar ran, D.D. Ryan, a former fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar, called to suggest I expand it into a book. Then, coincidentally, Avedon’s office called to say he was inviting me to lunch. On the appointed day, I arrived at his studio on East 75th Street in Manhattan, assuming he’d appear and we’d head to a restaurant. Instead, I was sent up a narrow flight of stairs to a bachelor’s apartment where I found him cooking swordfish. It turned out Avedon wanted to pick my brain about a multibook contract he’d just signed. After several hours, I decided turnabout was fair play, and asked him what he thought of D.D. Ryan’s book idea. “Ahh,” Avedon scoffed, “no one cares that [the legendary Bazaar editor] Carmel Snow drank at lunch. Write a book about models. No one’s ever done that.”

I went straight to the nearest library to see if Avedon was right. Aside from some slight memoirs and how-to career guides, the story of modeling had never been told. It wasn’t long before I was writing Model, which the daughter of model agent Wilhelmina Cooper suggested be subtitled The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. Ironically, though most major figures in the modeling industry granted me interviews, Avedon returned to form and refused, saying, “You have your career and I have mine. I have never spoken about the people I photographed. It’s not the kind of man I am. I can’t help you. I’m sorry.” He was happy to let me use his photographs, though, and several appeared in the book, including a contact sheet of the model sisters Suzy Parker and Dorian Leigh. Avedon explained he’d lost the negatives of the only sitting he knew of in which they appeared together.

Model was a best seller here and abroad and helped me build a collection of fashion photos. My acquisitive instincts were constrained by the fact that I couldn’t afford my own taste. So, inspired by Avedon again, I collected contact sheets, which were then considered valueless, sometimes traded fashion memorabilia for fashion pictures, and was not too proud to beg for more, as when I aided a David Bailey project on modeling in exchange for an

image. Bert Stern made me pay him for a print of the photograph of Bailey and the model Veruschka that appears on the jacket of Model, but gave me a discount. That photo inspired the moment in the movie Blow-Up that graces the cover of Focus.

In between the two books, my attention turned to subjects other than fashion, but I still kept an oar in its waters. Then, in 2000, I was working for Tina Brown at Talk magazine when she asked me to profile Gilles Bensimon, one of the central figures in the French mob of photographers that dominated the wild-and-crazy fashion scene in the ’70s and ’80s. Bensimon was then the international creative director of Elle. Its French parent was—and remains—an exemplar of everything great about magazine publishing; the American offshoot that Bensimon ran was visceral and exciting but also a skin-deep symbol of a sea change in fashion photography. That change was not for the better, but couldn’t be ignored because fashion photography—even now, in the digital age, when it is everywhere and nowhere, all at once—retains its power to capture the feel of the times

That story died, as did Talk, but I found a way to use it when my wife suggested for the umpteenth time that I write a sequel to Model, and I saw a way to write not a sequel, but a wholly different follow-up, by turning my camera around and focusing on photographers. My enthusiasm for the subject was undiminished. In fact, it had grown, along with my collection of pictures by fashion photographers. I now own multiple Avedons, Baileys, Sokolskys, Derujinskys, Peter Beards, a Schatzberg and a William Claxton. One, a 1939 Norman Parkinson, is 75 years old this year, but its power is undiminished

Fashion photography itself is now twice that age, and for most of that time, the art-critic class considered it questionable. But its place in the cultural firmament now seems secure. Fashion, by definition, is fleeting, but these documents of its evanescent delights are forever. It turns out that if you scratch the surface, you get a lot more than just more surface.

Photos Courtesy Michael Gross


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