Newspaper article International New York Times

The (Sordid) Golden Days of Fashion Photography

Newspaper article International New York Times

The (Sordid) Golden Days of Fashion Photography

Article excerpt

The glamour and grit of fashion photography's golden age.

Focus. The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers. By Michael Gross. Illustrated. 400 pages. Atria Books. $28.

If there is one group of the creative class that deftly inhabits the cliches built around them, it is fashion photographers. They are drama queens, they are ultracompetitive, they are serial womanizers; they constantly redefine the term "debauched." Michael Gross's "Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers" does not skimp on the gossipy goods. There are descents into madness, prolific drug use, orgies, blackmail photos and suicide attempts, successful and otherwise. There is so much womanizing that the theme of infidelity is basically a subplot, and pretty much boils down to the following: A stunning model walks into a photographer's studio; a marriage dies.

But this book, which concerns itself with the years 1947-97 -- what the author views as fashion photography's golden age -- is also smart, well researched and written with an insider's eye. This is not a comprehensive history, and Mr. Gross -- whose books include "Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women" -- states from the outset that it isn't meant to be. It focuses, he writes, on those photographers "who were unavoidable, who changed the conversation, who lived the life of fashion photography to its fullest."

Of all the characters here from the decades the book covers -- Irving Penn, Bert Stern, Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber -- Richard Avedon looms largest. Both as a talent and as a personality: Before Avedon, models were simply faces, hangers for beautiful clothing. He encouraged them to inhabit their personalities. After researching and planning his shoots, Avedon "would work just as hard with his models, demonstrating how he wanted them to pose, leaping about if that was called for, chattering at them, joking with them, ... encouraging them to express themselves."

He also felt threatened by any photographer he perceived as even approaching him in stature. His rivalry with Irving Penn spanned decades and existed on planes both artistic and petty. …

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