What makes a great read? More specifically, what makes a good fashion book? Even though many feel that fashion journalism is mostly about images, there is also great content that can illuminate, educate, and charm the reader.
Michael Gross, in his new book “Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers” has done both. The Golden Age of Fashion Photography is an era that wistful fashion pundits pine, reminisce, celebrate, and mourn for. In “Focus” Michael Gross does all that—well maybe, not mourn—and so much more. “Focus” artfully details how it all came to be, with images and content that stimulates the imagination, facilitating that rare synthesis of craft meets passion meets creativity, the true birthplace of all great art.
In his own words, “If a picture is work a thousand words, and Dovima with Elephants more than a million dollars, then “Focus” hopes to fix fashion photography’s moment, frame it, and display it, so others may recall the years when light, lenses, emulsion, lissome women, and the latest looks combined with envy and ego, ambition and avarice, lucre and lust, to make magic.”
And magic he does make!! Shortly after the release of “Focus,” Fashion Reverie was honored to interview Michael Gross about his seminal work about the Golden Age of Fashion Photography.
Fashion Reverie: Why this book about fashion photographers?
Michael Gross: The reason to write this book at this time only became clearer as I was writing the book. For thirty years I had been not just someone covering fashion photographers but a fan and a collector of fashion photography. What became clearer as I was writing the book was that an era of fashion photography had ended. And a new era was beginning. There was clearly a beginning, middle, and an end and that was a good reason to write this book.You also want to write a book while there are people still alive who can talk about that era.
Fortunately, I had interviewed many fashion photographers over the past 20 years, so I had that under my belt, so to speak. Still, by the time I got around to writing this book many had died like Bert Stern and Bob Richardson. I found some of the interviews with those photographers in my archives. There are a lot of photographers from the 1940s and 1950s who are now in their late 70s and 80s. Not only is an era passing, or has passed, many of the witnesses to that era are no longer here. So, if you want to write a book like this, you have to get on with it!!
FR: You believe that the golden age of fashion photography has passed. That said; do you feel there is a large audience for this book and was your approach different to attract a younger audience?
Michael Gross: First of all what I write is expose/history. We live in a time that has devalued history and truth to its detriment. Look what is going on in the streets now. It looks like 1968 all over again and some of the same forces are at work.
As far as an audience goes, one hopes that a younger reader will come to understand that the superficial moments of the present are all well and good, but it’s nice to know how we got here. The publishing world is in crisis, the fashion industry is in crisis, the retail business is in crisis, the media is in crisis, and the only thing that seems to be thriving is instant gratification and the here today, gone tomorrow of social media. But, I think social media is such a young thing that it has yet to fully understand itself. And people who are engaged in it don’t understand themselves any more than any one who got on a boat in the 17th century Europe on route to America really understood where they were going and the implications around that or people who crossed the Great Plains in a Conestoga Wagon. You do things and only later do you figure out what things mean. I do believe that everything is a continuum. And in “Focus,” I document what got us to the place we are right now!!
FR: By understanding how we got here, can you predict the next great fashion photographers?
Michael Gross: The most interesting fashion photography of the moment is someone who is shooting a picture with an I-Phone or Galaxy Smart phone and posting it to Instagram. Now, possibly, one of those people will emerge as the next Richard Avedon, Steven Meisel or Bruce Weber. I do think the person with the camera phone is part of a line that goes all the way back to the invention of photography.
Richard Avedon working with a Rolleiflex was a very far cry from Alfred Stiglitz taking some of the first great photographs, and yet they were engaged in the same medium. People in the book like Melvin Sokolsky who wails against Photoshop and digital photography while also acknowledging that it is the most important thing going on today. The tools change, but what hasn’t changed is the fact that individual vision is the necessary component of greatness.
Committee does not make great fashion photography; it is not made my marketers; it is not made by focus groups, and it is not even made by 30 people standing on a digital photography set. One person wielding a camera makes great fashion photography. And part of the problem with what has been going on in the last five to ten years is how little individual vision is actually breaking through the digital clutter.
That said; the traditional gatekeepers are losing their power and have lost their nerve, so to speak. If magazines are simply dancing to the tunes of advertisers, they are not really going to give us fashion photography, because great fashion photography challenges the eye. Advertisers are not interested in challenging the eye; they are interested in reaching into your pocket. And to a great extent that is currently what is wrong with fashion.
Fashion has been bifurcated into the attention-getting runway piece that nobody wears and the mass-market commodity that everyone is wearing. So, that hurts designers, hurts brands, and that ultimately hurts the industry. Yet, because LVMH and the Kerings of the world care only about advertising dollars, you would think this stuff actually matters. But it doesn’t because it has no relationship to people’s lives. Only a tiny fraction of people give a s**t what is coming down a runway in Paris, Milan or New York.
Fashion advertising is incredibly important to newspapers and magazines. Without it, most publications would shutter. Publications need the advertising dollars from fashion advertising … and they are acutely aware of what is keeping them in business. However, this huge push toward advertising dollars keeps publications, especially fashion publications, from doing their job.
FR: Your book “Model” was a huge success because you exposed the inside workings and the salacious side of the fashion industry. Was your approach in “Focus” different?
Michael Gross: In “Model” I tried to be encyclopedic which was probably a mistake. Instead of telling a good story, “Model” tried to be too many things. The difference with “Focus” is I tried to be more focused and tell a good story. The way I decided who would be a part of the story and who would not be a part of the story was who created the genre, who changed the genre, and who lived the life of the genre. There are those who lived quiet lives in “Focus,” and there are lives garishly lived in “Focus.” And I wasn’t going to lie or withhold what I learned.
There are some great moments in this book, like when Bill King is on his death bed dying from AIDS and says to one of his friend, “maybe if I hadn’t been so crazy, I wouldn’t be dying,” and his friend responded, “if you hadn’t been so crazy, you wouldn’t be Bill King.” And I think that sums up the question of salaciousness better than anything … we are looking at the lives of artists and sometimes artists’ lives are uneven and complicated.
FR: That said; with your process and your different approach in “Focus,” how did you narrow your choice of photographers because as I understand it, not everyone was available or open to being in the book?
Michael Gross: There was the accessibility of the photographers. Could I report around the people that couldn’t or wouldn’t speak to me? What were their access points? And finally it came down to which photographers interested me personally.
I use the example of Richard Avedon versus Irving Penn. They both created the modern fashion photographic conversation. Penn got out of the industry much earlier, he disdained it and was vocal about disdaining it, and he didn’t live the life of the modern fashion photographer. His son was not interested in his father being in the book and didn’t return phone calls. I also had a personal preference for Avedon’s photography. There was a whole list of criteria that sealed the deal of what was included in the book.
I had planned to vaguely organize the book by each decade and a small coterie of photographers that defined that decade. In the 70s I wanted the chapter to be about the French grab shot photographers. And in the 80s I knew it had to be about Bruce Weber because Weber was the most important photographer of that decade. And yet there was Bill King straddling the 70s and the 80s. He had a career of remarkable importance and the fact that he has been forgotten is tragic. He has been forgotten in large part because his family has kept his archives out of public domain because they could not accept who he was—a man who had drug problems and died of AIDS. Bill King’s legacy kind of demanded to be a part of the book.
I originally thought I would organize the 60s around British photographer David Bailey who changed the conversation and lived the life and whose work I have an affinity for. However, at the beginning of this process some friends told me I had to include Bert Stern … I knew of Bert Stern’s celebrity photography. I later learned that Stern was a very important fashion photographer in the 60s and the reason most people don’t remember him that way is because of Stern’s later excesses. Stern destroyed his career and most people only remember his photos of Marilyn Monroe. The Marilyn Monroe photos overwhelm the fact that Stern was one of the great fashion photographers of the 1960s. So, I had to include Stern as a main character in this book.
FR: Fashion photographers became pop culture royalty in their own right, what cultural influences helped promote that?
Michael Gross: As important as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn were to the fashion industry, they plied their trade in a world where fashion was an elite preoccupation and not a mass-market phenomenon. Fashion starts to become a mass-market preoccupation in the 1960s. Fashion photographers like Terrence Donovan, Brian Duffy, and David Bailey became a part of swinging London, and became glamorous characters of which David Bailey was a huge part and helped push that cultural shift.
Bailey was Jean Shrimpton’s and Penelope Tree’s boyfriend, and later married Catherine Deneuve. Bailey is living the life of a pop star and rubbing shoulders with pop stars … with his rise to fame, he had access to celebrities and pop music stars. Remember, the celebrity portraits are perks that come as a result of being a great fashion photographer.
The British film “Blowup” also influenced this rise to pop star status. This 1966 film by Michelangelo Antonioni is about the glamorization of the heterosexual photographer. “Blowup” glorified the photographers getting the girls. The movie was a sensation and influenced a whole generation of photographers, particularly the group of photographers I call “the French Mob.”
As a counterpoint to the happy, snap photos of some photographers influenced by “Blowup,” Alexander Lieberman at Vogue started publishing photos that were twisted, eerie, evocative, obsessive, and even kinky. That was the photography of Helmut Newton and Deborah Turbeville. These kinds of photographs were the first photographs to go into museums. And at that point of museum inclusion, the dream of Avedon and Penn to be accepted as artists came into reality.
FR: How does the iconic Diana Vreeland fit into the mélange of influential forces that helped elevate the fashion photographer?
Michael Gross: Diana Vreeland was an elitist; she came from an elite world, and she was a Park Avenue jetsetter. She brought things to an elite preoccupation that had never been brought before. She brought wit, humor, grotesque vision, imagination, elegance, and extravagance on a level that no one had ever seen. She was a unique personality with a unique point of view. She took something that was already extravagant, but dull, and made it vivid.
Diana Vreeland appalled some of the fashion elites. She seemed to be an exaggerated version of what elites were, and in a way that was her charm. The problem is Vreeland became obsolete. There was a recession in the early 70s, the economy had tanked, the fashion business was in the toilet and by the early 70s; something had to change.
You asked me whether Vreeland was a seminal personality? I would say Alexander Lieberman was that seminal personality at Vogue. You had the rivalry between Lieberman at Vogue and Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. When Lieberman poached Vreeland from Brodovitch and took her to Vogue, it was Lieberman who had to eventually fire Vreeland when she was no longer connecting to what women wanted. Suddenly, you no longer had women solely as objects of desire and consumers of expensive clothes. It was the very beginning of self-empowerment and women wanting it all. All of the sexual liberation of the 60s met the empowerment of the 70s and the feminism of that time changed what magazines needed to be for this newly empowered woman. Vreeland was no longer the person to helm Vogue. Vogue went from a circulation of 400,00 to 1.5 million under Grace Mirabella, proving that Lieberman was right by replacing Vreeland.
The era that we are in now is an era of fashion as a democratic medium. That is not what Vreeland was about. What is fascinating is the kind of entertainment that Vreeland championed now has been embraced by the world. That shows the evolution of concept and that Vreeland was perhaps ahead of her time.
FR: After “Model,” you started writing about real estate, why that departure and what brought you back to fashion?
Michael Gross: Writing about real estate was an accident. I wrote a book call “My Generation: The History of the Baby Boom” that was a failure. Luckily, Ralph Lauren contacted me and wanted me to write his autobiography. We ended up parting ways and I wrote and unauthorized biography of Ralph Lauren; however, that got me back in fashion. But it also got me thinking about the American aristocracy because Ralph Lauren was trying to translate the clothes of the modern European aristocracy for a contemporary American aristocratic palette. So, I started thinking about the real American elite. And I was looking for the right vehicle that facilitated me telling the evolution of the American elite.
In looking for that vehicle, I stumbled upon the building 740 Park. (740 Park Avenue is the address of a luxury cooperative built in 1929. Some of the world’s wealthiest people have lived at 740 Park Avenue. “740 Park” is also a book by Michael Gross.) In the course of writing “740 Park,” I became fascinated with luxury real estate. I had stumbled into a great subject area. And for the next 10 years I wrote books about luxury real estate.
The pivot back to fashion relates to the Ralph Lauren book. Because a friend of mine had been asked to write an authorized book about Richard Avedon, just when I was thinking about my next book. I later learned that this friend had abandoned the project because the Avedon Foundation was trying to control everything—I always thought Avedon was a great character and it was actually Avedon who inspired me to write “Model.” As I was talking with my literary agent, we came up with the idea that because “Model” was such a successful book, I should just turn the camera around. In that lunch conversation, “Focus” was borne.
FR: New York Fashion Week: Men’s spring 2017 just ended. Could you explain how Bruce Weber put American men’s fashion on the map?
Michael Gross: Bruce Weber caused the fashion industry to look at men traditionally the way fashion looked at women. It was epochal; it was a perception-changing event. Weber channeled something that was ready to burst out.
Men’s fashion had never been a subject of much interest. Romeo Gigli said to me be back in the early 1980s that men’s fashion was “wide lapels, thin labels or two or three buttons on your suit.” Weber threw all the gender rules out the window and he it did in a way that was appealing. He put men on a pedestal; he put women in men’s underwear; he had a sense of humor, and he saw that gender was fluid.
If you examine photos from his early career, he made men sexy and an object of yearning the way women had always been. Bruce Weber is the fashion photographer leading the culture in seeing gender as non-binary and fluid and that is evidenced in the Barney’s campaign where he used transgender models. By creating images that caused people to have an emotional understanding that a man interested in fashion didn’t have to be homosexual, Bruce Weber gave us the metrosexual. I think there is a direct line that leads from Bruce Weber to Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair.
He also made a new category for the fashion industry with his celebration of men and men without gender-assigned roles and sexual constraints. After 40 years in the industry, Bruce is still making images that matter and only a handful of photographers can say that.
FR: With the rise of social media, what is the current state of fashion photography?
Michael Gross: Professional fashion photography is in a very weird place right now because the digital tools overwhelm the genre. Fashion photography has almost ceased to be photography; it seems to be mostly digital-assisted illustration. That is not the same medium as the one invented in the 19th century.
Social media puts the power of photography in the hands of everyone. We are at the first page of a new book about photography in the 21st century and no one knows how things are going to evolve because we are really very much in the beginning. Unlike “Focus,” the book has not been written yet.
“Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid Lives of Fashion Photographers” is published by Atria Books, a division of Simon and Schuster. For more information, go to simonandschuster.com and mgross.com.
—William S. Gooch