“This thoroughly absorbing narrative dazzles with the most profound investigation and research. Focus is an enthralling and riveting read.” —Tim Gunn
“Smart, well-researched…engaging…canny” (New York Times Book Review), Focus is a “fast-paced—and clearly insider—look at the rarefied, sexy world of fashion photography” (Lauren Weisberger, author of The Devil Wears Prada). New York Times bestselling author Michael Gross brings to life the wild genius, egos, passions, and antics of the men (and a few women) behind the camera, probing the lives, hang-ups, and artistic triumphs of more than a dozen of fashion photography’s greatest visionaries, including Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Bill King, Helmut Newton, Gilles Bensimon, Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, and Bob and Terry Richardson.
Tracing the highs and lows of fashion photography from the late 1940s to today, Focus takes you behind the scenes to reveal the revolutionary creative processes and fraught private passions of these visionary magicians, “delving deep into the fascinating rivalries” (The Daily News) between photographers, fashion editors, and publishers like Condé Nast and Hearst. Weaving together candid interviews, never-before-told insider anecdotes and insights born of his three decades of front-row and backstage reporting on modern fashion, Focus is “simply unrivaled…a sensation….Gross is a modern-day Vasari, giving us The Lives of the Artists in no small measure” (CraveOnline).
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About the Author
Kirby Heyborne is an accomplished actor, musician, and comedian who has received a number of AudioFile Earphones Awards for his audiobook narrations. He has had starring roles in over a dozen features and many short films. Kirby is also a cofounder and director of the Los Angeles-based improv comedy group The Society.
Read an Excerpt
A chilly rain was falling on November 6, 1989, when several generations of New York’s fashion and social elite gathered in the medieval-sculpture hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a memorial celebrating Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor, curator, and quintessence of self-creation.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, for whom Vreeland was a fashion godmother, and Lauren Bacall, who’d been discovered by her, both arrived alone. Dorinda Dixon Ryan, known as D.D., who’d worked under Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar, was seated next to Carolyne Roehm, one among many fashion designers in attendance. Mica Ertegun and Chessy Rayner, the society decorators, sat with Reinaldo Herrera, holder of the Spanish title Marqués of Torre Casa, whose family estate in Venezuela, built in 1590, is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited home in the Western Hemisphere.
One of Vreeland’s sons delivered a eulogy, as did socialite C. Z. Guest; Pierre Bergé, the business partner of Yves Saint Laurent; Oscar de la Renta, the society dressmaker; Philippe de Montebello, then the museum’s director and Vreeland’s final boss when she ran its Costume Institute; and George Plimpton, who cowrote her memoir, D.V. But the afternoon’s most telling fashion moment came in between Montebello and Plimpton, when photographer Richard Avedon, who’d worked with Vreeland from the start of his career, took the stage.
Avedon was a giant in fashion and society, an insider and an iconoclast, a trenchant critic of the very worlds that had made him a star, arguably the most celebrated photographer of the twentieth century. Never one to mince words or spare the feelings of others (“Oh, Dick, Dick, Dick is such a dick,” a junior fashion editor once said), he used his eulogy as a gun aimed at Vreeland’s latest successor at Vogue, Anna Wintour.
Though he never once mentioned her name, he sought to wound Wintour, who’d arrived at the memorial with her bosses, the heads of Condé Nast Publications, S. I. “Si” Newhouse Jr., the company’s chairman, and Alexander Liberman, its editorial director. Just a year earlier, they’d let Wintour replace Avedon as the photographer of Vogue’s covers. Only a few in the audience knew that Avedon had actually shot a cover for the November 1988 issue, Wintour’s first as editor in chief of Vogue, and that no one had bothered to alert him that Wintour had replaced it with a picture by the much-younger Peter Lindbergh. Avedon only found out when the printed issue arrived at his studio.
He never shot for Vogue again.
A year later, Avedon served up his revenge dressed in a tribute to the woman he’d sometimes refer to as his “crazy aunt” Diana. Avedon recalled their first meeting in 1945 when he was twenty-two and fresh out of the merchant marine. Carmel Snow was about to make true his short lifetime’s dream of taking photographs for Harper’s Bazaar, the magazine she edited that he’d first encountered as the son of a Fifth Avenue fashion retailer. Newspaper and magazine stories about the Vreeland memorial would linger on in Avedon’s recollections of their first meeting, how he watched her stick a pin into both a dress and the model wearing it, “who let out a little scream,” he remembered. Vreeland turned to him for the very first time and said, “Aberdeen, Aberdeen, doesn’t it make you want to cry?”
It did, he went on, but not because he loved the dress or appreciated the mangling of his name. He went back to Carmel Snow and said, “I can’t work with that woman.” Snow replied that he would, “and I did,” Avedon continued, “to my enormous benefit, for almost forty years.”
But that charming opening anecdote was nothing compared to what followed. Avedon extolled Vreeland’s virtues, “the amazing gallop of her imagination,” her preternatural understanding of what women would want to wear, her “sense of humor so large, so generous, she was ever ready to make a joke of herself,” and the diligence that made her “the hardest-working person I’ve ever known. . . .
“I am here as a witness,” Avedon concluded. “Diana lived for imagination ruled by discipline, and created a totally new profession. Vreeland invented the fashion editor. Before her, it was society ladies who put hats on other society ladies. Now, it’s promotion ladies who compete with other promotion ladies. No one has equaled her—not nearly. And the form has died with her. It’s just staggering how lost her standards are to the fashion world.”
Sitting at the front of the audience between her two bosses, wearing a Chanel suit that mixed Vreeland’s signature color, red, with the black of mourning, the haughty Wintour, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, gave no hint that she knew Avedon was speaking to her. But even though he saw her ascendance as a sign of the fashion Apocalypse, it’s unlikely that even the prescient Avedon could have foreseen all the other, related forces then taking shape that would, in little more than a decade, fundamentally alter the role—fashion photographer—that he’d not only mastered but embodied.
Table of Contents
In which we learn how this book came to be and some of what went into it.
Introduction: Welcome to Terrytown 5
Part 1 Innocence 19
Part 2 Experience 79
Part 3 Indulgence 167
Part 4 Decadence 221
Part 5 Domination 261
Part 6 Disruption 311
Epilogue: Return to Terrytown 352
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Michael Gross
Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers marks Michael Gross's return to the arena that he explored two decades ago in Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, his big-selling authorial debut, for which he drew on a fifteen-year run covering the fashion beat for outlets like the New York Times and New York magazine. Then Gross decided to shift gears. "As appealing as it was to spend three months a year sitting next to runways, getting paid to watch the most beautiful girls in the world walk back and forth," he says, "I wanted to stop, and to write about, in an uninterrupted way, what I thought of as the world of the American aristocracy."
Over the ensuing two decades, Gross generated four lengthy books on the One Percent through the prisms of real estate (740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building; House of Outrageous Fortune: Fifteen Central Park West, the World's Most Powerful Address; and Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles) and art (Rogues' Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals that Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art). For good measure, he found time to write a synoptic cultural history of the Baby Boom by interweaving the stories of such varied signifiers as Mark Rudd, Marianne Williamson, and Nina Harley (My Generation: Fifty Years of Sex, Drugs, Rock, Revolution, Glamour, Greed Valor Faith and Silicon Chips) and an unauthorized biography of Ralph Lauren (Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren).
In 2014, Gross, again looking to pivot, mentioned to his agent over lunch a friend's decision to abandon an authorized biography of Richard Avedon who had suggested to Gross that he write Model in the face of pressure from Avedon's heirs.
"I had the lightbulb-over-the-head moment to take Model, turn the camera around, and point it at the guys behind the camera rather than the girls in front of the camera," Gross said in his East Side apartment. "I immediately knew that I wanted to write about the fascinating culture of fashion photography, which has been dominated by gay and straight men who are fascinated with women in some way or another. And I had my next book."
Gross rediscovered numerous interviews with fashion photographers, taken during the process of "over-reporting" Model. Piggybacking on this "gift from God," he wrote a 600-page draft, then pruned to a publisher-mandated 400, following the imperative that "anyone who wasn't part of the forward motion of the core narrative spine had to go, even though it meant that women and photographers whom I admire are under- represented."
The final product is a tightly written, exhaustively researched, chronological account of the ways in which such high-profile photographers as Avedon and Irving Penn, Bert Stern and David Bailey, Bruce Weber and Stephen Meisel to name a short list intersected with the gatekeepers of the fashion business and magazine publishing, from the days after the Second World War until the digital revolution irrevocably altered the playing field at the end of the twentieth century. As is his custom, Gross skillfully juxtaposes the idiosyncracies, peccadillos, and debaucheries of his protagonists sometimes teetering on the precipice of Too Much Information with the shifting cultural and economic milieu in which they functioned. Ted Panken
The Barnes & Noble Review: Fashion became your beat around 1980.
Michael Gross: I started when I was a history major at Vassar by co-writing a series of mystery novels with a fashion model detective character who fought back against icky men. Thus, I entered the world of models. That led me to start writing about fashion in the early '80s, which led me to Photo District News, where I got a column on fashion photography, which led to Manhattan Inc., where I got a column on fashion, which led to the New York Times and boom, suddenly I was important, with access to the inner sanctums.
BNR: What drew you to fashion?
MG: I wrote about rock 'n' roll for ten years, and rock stars dated models. So models were peripheral parts of my world. Rock stars wore fancy clothes. I became aware of fashion that way. And I got to know girls who knew about fashion. One pretty girl showed me my first copy of British Vogue back in the days of Bea Miller, and I became aware of these pictures that were amusing, shocking, stimulating. It was simultaneously the visual thing of liking fashion pictures and the hormonal thing of liking the girls who appeared in them. Instead of becoming a model fucker, I married a fashion designer, and I segued into writing about fashion. Model was the period at the end of the sentence. It wasn't consciously a bridge-burning book, but it got a lot of people angry at me.
BNR: Because there was so much "dish," as people say?
MG: "Dish" is stuff that's unsourced, that's "we hear." Model was obsessively sourced. I would say it was reporting without concerns that constrain a beat reporter. A beat reporter needs to go back to the same people, over and over again. If you burn all your sources, then they will not talk to you, and you will cease to function as a beat reporter. I saw what fashion did to the people I sat with in the front row. I used to draw pictures in my notebook of frowning women. Ten or twenty years of that turned them into something less than enthusiastic participants in the circus. Bitter and unhappy, getting older while the girls on the runway stay young, unable to wear those clothes because they're cut for twelve-year-olds for a thousand reasons. I loved the subject matter and the people, but I didn't want to be beholden to those people. I am not constitutionally fit to be a beat reporter on a single beat for my entire life.
BNR: Your father, Milton Gross, did that.
MG: My father was a sports reporter his whole life, yes. And died young.
BNR: You embarked on this project after a twenty-year hiatus from fashion, although I assume you remained cognizant about developments.
MG: Had I stuck to it and played the game, I could have been powerful. Instead of being merely the person in the front row, I could have been the person on the aisle at the end of the runway. Any normal human being would look back and ask, "Do I regret leaving?" I paid enough attention to know that I didn't. Every season, I go to at least one fashion show, never more than two or three, just to remind myself how glad I am not to be doing it all the time. I was in the front row at the moment that the fashion world began to change from what it had been, which was a cottage industry, to what it became, which was a form of entertainment. During the twenty years since, I missed the complete and total end of that era, and the conquest of the world of fashion by what I saw enter the tent.
BNR: Describe the dynamics that engendered that change.
MG: Big brands. Big money. Lots of attention. The end of fashion as an elitist preoccupation, and its evolution into a form of mass market entertainment. It's really that simple.
BNR: What connects Focus with your prior books?
MG: I am interested in deconstructing carefully constructed images, whether I am writing about the model business, in which what we see is the finished product of the perfect picture; or Ralph Lauren, in which what we see is the perfectly manicured world of Polo; or the lives of the rich; or the Metropolitan Museum, which is a seething cauldron of all of the worst aspects of mankind, but what you see is the best of mankind. How did this get to be? What's going on beneath the pretty surface? That's what connects them all.
BNR: There are a lot of pairings. Avedon and Penn. Brodovitch and Liberman. Meisel and Weber. Anna Wintour and Diana Vreeland or Liz Tilberis.
MG: Conflict always drives narrative. I didn't impose those narrative conflicts. Those narrative conflicts were there. All I did was clear away the sand to look at them a bit more carefully. Anna Wintour . . . besides her professional conflicts, the magazine business changed since the days of Vreeland, and Anna has been as commanding a presence to fashion magazines since the '80s as Avedon was to fashion photography in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. A certain amount of creativity, but more than anything, I think, the will to be number one. When you are number one, people will try to scale the mountain and knock you off, which inevitably means conflict.
BNR: "Sordid" is in the title, and you document louche behavior throughout the timeline in considerable detail.
MG: I wake up in the morning, and before I have my cup of coffee I read the New York Post, and then, once I've had my cup of coffee, I read the New York Times. I like both ends of the spectrum tabloid and broadsheet. I have worked in both environments. What I do well that perhaps confuses a lot of people is: I do both. I am just as interested in the loftiest, most intellectual ways of looking at my subjects as I am in getting down at ground level and seeing how people who are very influential fashion designers who create ads that promote certain ways of living or wealthy people who pull the strings of the economy or of government really behave. What drives them? What is their motivation? What creates these people who express their power and influence in the world? There is a mistaken notion that if you're writing about the nitty-gritty of human behavior when it gets a little funky, you're engaged in writing gossip. You're not. I don't do anything but accurately reflect the behavior of the people I'm writing about, without being afraid of talking about the stuff that's a little louche. The reality of human behavior is captivating. Tacitus wrote about people's behavior.
BNR: How did you decide on proportion within the strictures of 400 pages?
MG: I left a lot out. When I was writing about rich people, I'd always say that I spared the children and I tried not to go into the bathroom. But then again, there were all the people who went to the bathroom not to go to the bathroom but to snort coke and then you had to go to the bathroom with them! You try to use your judgment, and when, in the case of someone like Bill King or Bert Stern, the misbehavior actually takes over the individual narrative, then, to be responsible, you include the misbehavior and you accurately describe it.
In the book, Bill King represents the '70s and the '80s, when the fashion business was devastated, decimated by AIDS. Bill King was an extreme case of decadent behavior of the sort that was quite popular in the '70s and '80s, and yet, as extreme as he was, many people indulged in the same sort of behavior, and many paid the same sort of price for their indulgence.
BNR: It's a disparate cast of characters. Do you see common characterological traits?
MG: A fascination with the moment. A fascination with gesture and mannerism. A fascination, whether it's negative or positive, with women. And over all of those (because it kept coming up; it wasn't something that I imposed; people kept talking about it), a kind of erotic voyeurism. The act of photography is, at its best, an act of voyeurism. No, you're not looking through a peephole in the ceiling of the voyeur's motel. You're looking through a camera and a lens. But a separating, a distancing happens when you look through a lens, and it becomes a form of voyeurism. And voyeurism, for good or ill, is a form of worship, and worship sometimes is uplifting and sometimes is derogation.
BNR: Presumably, each photographer that you examine signifies broader cultural currents in the period in question.
MG: I felt that each of them, in their unique and individual ways, best represented their moment.
BNR: How was Richard Avedon the best representative of his moment?
MG: Avedon represented the moment when fashion cut the cord to formalism. He was still more of a couture sensibility than a street sensibility. But for the first time, pictures breathed. Avedon was ceaselessly curious, broadly knowledgeable, so open to stimulus. His photographs become a vessel, and culture pours into the vessel in one end and is moderated, mediated, and comes out as an image that is incredibly representative of the times. Avedon so dominates this book because Avedon was driven to dominate his field for longer than anyone else. The guy died with his boots on, more than fifty years after his first pictures were published. That is a remarkable career in which to cite Alexei Brodovitch the average lifespan is that of a butterfly.
BNR: Bert Stern?
MG: The image on the cover of Model is a Bert Stern photograph of David Bailey and Veruschka: model dominant, photographer lying on the ground. It inspired the famous still from Antonioni's movie Blow-Up, in which it's photographer dominant, model (also Veruschka) lying on the ground. Originally, Bailey was going to be the photographer for the '60s, not Bert Stern. I didn't know that Bert Stern had been one of the three most important fashion photographers in the world in the early '60s. There's a reason why. Bert Stern became a speed freak and destroyed his career, and all he was known for any more were his photos of Marilyn Monroe. But I was told by a friend who knows much more about fashion photography than I that I had to do Bert Stern. I discovered was that this was a fascinating life, a case study in self-destruction. He was an important photographer who took a lot of great fashion pictures more journeyman than genius, but a journeyman who ascended to the top of the heap. But what made him so fabulous was his extraordinary embrace of the lifestyle that brought him down. And his story had never been told.
Bert Stern represented the apoee of the fashion photographer during the mid-'60s, when the fashion photographer became, as Bert Stern himself put it to me, "a thing." Bert Stern became "the thing." He became THIS guy about whom Antonioni based a movie, Blow-Up, along with Bailey, the two other members of the English trinity Bill Duffy and Terence Donovan and Bill Helburn.
BNR: I was intrigued by your account of the impact of European fashion magazines and photographers during the '70s, and of Bensimon's reign at Elle.
MG: There were two main strains in the '70s. There were the quirky, weird, erotic, dark pictures of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, and a little bit of Chris von Wangenheim, who was kind of Newton Light; and these long lens, outdoor, quick-and-easy, snapshot-style photographers who were French and scored with a lot of models. I covered the Frenchies in great depth in Model but hadn't done Bensimon. However, I had written a profile on Bensimon fifteen years ago for Talk magazine. The story never ran. Talk's publisher was Ron Gullotti, who was formerly the publisher of Vogue. The editor was Tina Brown, formerly the publisher of Vanity Fair. Both came out of Condé Nast. It was told to me that Gullotti did not want to run a story that affirmed the fact that this little French magazine called Elle had put the fear of God into Vogue in the '80s and the '90s, had caused the ascension of Anna Wintour, caused the ascension of Liz Tilberis, caused the entire fashion magazine industry and fashion photography to change. That was happened at the moment when Condé Nast fired Diana Vreeland, and Vogue went from selling 400,000 copies a month to 1.2 million copies a month under Grace Mirabella, who put out a magazine full of happy snaps that extolled the new, sexually liberated, empowered woman. The huge irony was that the representatives of this new, empowered woman were the very girls who were being used as dartboards by these horny swordsmen who were dominating fashion photography, even though they weren't particularly great photographers.
I defy you to find a Gilles Bensimon photograph that could stand on a museum wall next to an Avedon or a Penn or a Newton or a Turbeville. But Gilles Bensimon ran Elle. I quote an executive at the company that published Elle: "Gilles is Elle and Elle is Gilles." He is the only fashion photographer who ever stood astride that world in that way the primary photographer on a magazine that he ran. Having said all that, Bensimon was incredibly important to the story of modern fashion photography.
BNR: Bruce Weber receives a very sympathetic treatment. You emphasize his centrality to the shift in creative impetus from the fashion editorial side to such clients as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.
MG: Weber entered the industry at the moment when the epicenter of creativity ceased to be the magazines, and, for a brief period of time, became all about the brands. This was also the literal moment when I began writing about fashion photography, and some of the first things I ever wrote were about Weber. He created the image of Ralph Lauren and of Calvin Klein. He embodied the moment when the advertiser became so important.
But apart from Weber's pivotal role in the development of the business of fashion photography, the underlying messages of his photographs represented a huge change. Very few fashion photographers can be said to have changed the world. Bruce Weber changed the world. Bruce Weber showed men as sex objects. Bruce Weber allowed women to wear men's underwear. Sounds stupid, but Bruce Weber was on the cutting edge of a cultural change that is still playing out. I write that if you start with Bruce/Caitlin Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair and work your way backward to where that started in terms of visual imagery, it starts with Bruce Weber photographing Jeff Aquilon with his hands down his tighty-whities for Details, a renegade, out-of-the-mainstream little fashion magazine at that point (it wasn't yet a Condé Nast magazine). Those pictures changed everything.
It was Bruce Weber who shot a campaign of transgender people for Barneys New York. It was fashion photography not only engaging with its moment, but being right out front and saying a moment is coming and it's important pay attention. Bruce Weber dragged society into a world in which gender was recognized as fluid, not binary. Bruce Weber is the first person to put that conversation in the mass market. He was also the first photographer to do those conceptual portfolios that all told a story and added up to something. He was perhaps not the first photographer to create a troupe around himself. Avedon did that. But Bruce Weber certainly perfected that, and made it a leitmotif of his career. You don't get to keep doing that kind of work for 40 years if you're not doing great and important work.
BNR: And why Stephen Meisel?
MG: The ultimate postmodernist fashion photographer. He's a magpie. He picked up this, picked up that, stole from Avedon, stole from Stern, stole from everybody, threw it in his fertile little mind, mixed it all up and came up with something quintessentially new and Stephen Meisel. I wrote a critical piece about Meisel when Sex, the Madonna book, came out. But over time, I saw how strong he was. Meisel's photographs grab your eyeballs. His name is unquestionably first on a list of the photographers who mattered most in the '90s.
BNR: Then, at the cusp of the millennium, digital technology supersedes film, and a seismic shift occurs.
MG: Digital changed the tools. Digital changed the science. Digital changed the product. Digital changed the medium the medium was magazines and advertisements, and suddenly magazines were facing existential threats. Digital changed retailing. Digital changed communication. Digital changed brand marketing. Digital changed the fashion business. Economically, fashion was ceasing to be a cottage industry and was becoming an international phenomenon, which is also driven by the Internet, driven by digital, driven by the fact that an image is transmitted to the entire world instantly. Digital changed the process. You snap the shutter, the image appears on a screen. It's instantaneous.
The switch from film to digital changed all of these things at once. Let's not say "digital." Let's say technology caused a break. An era ended and a new era began. Some photographers were able to adapt. Other photographers didn't. Fashion photography continues. It's different. Magazines continue. They are different. The fashion industry continues. It's different. Even though there are a thousand bridges over that divide, there's a divide. There are people who hate it. There are people who celebrate it. There are people who look at it and think, "Mmm, this is interesting." I'm probably in the third group.
You mourn the end of something that you loved. I love black-and- white photography and fashion photographers of that half century - - their expertise, their wonkiness, their craft. It spoke to me. The cold computer-assisted graphic illustration that is masquerading as photography today doesn't. It's a different craft. The primacy of individual creativity has been lost. Now it's imagery by committee.
It comes back to the question of what's next. I'm optimistic. I persist in believing there's someone out on the street right now with a cell phone taking the next great fashion photograph. We just haven't seen it yet or it hasn't jumped out of the flood of 7 trillion digital images that we now all see all day long.
August 31, 2016