Tuesday, March 22, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Beneath the Satin and Silk

Dovima in hat by Balenciaga, Paris. Photo by Richard Avedon, 1955.
by Liz Smith

Beneath the Satin and Silk, The Photographers Who Made Fashion Iconic — Michael Gross' Fabulous New Book, "Focus."

"I GRABBED him, and he grabbed me, the wheels of the train gliding smoothly on the rails beneath us. I let go of the big bag of pistachios that I'd fallen asleep gripping, and within seconds we were naked. From that point on my hormones were in charge. Every so often, as we lusted away, a small part of my brain would step back and ask, is this acceptable behavior?"

Click to order "Walking with the Muses."
So writes supermodel Pat Cleveland, in her coming memoir "Walking with the Muses." (Pat goes on to say that this one-night-stand experience was her first in "my new recreational sport — men!")

I just happened to open Cleveland's book to this page, and while it seemed her memoir was interesting, I'd literally just put down the amazing tome by Michael Gross, titled "Focus: The Sexy, Secret, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers." I'd had enough unacceptable behavior for one night! I'll dive into Ms. Cleveland's life this week.

As for "Focus" — which arrives from Atria Books in July — it is a phantasmagoria of gossip, history, fabulous times, terrible times; the men (and a couple of women) who turned their creative lenses onto runways, clothes, models and (as in the case of Richard Avedon) onto America itself.

This book takes the reader from the relatively tame, if traditionally glamorous era of the late 1940s, though the stylistic upheavals of the '60s and '70s the increasing raunch and roll of the '80s and '90s, up to our present, perhaps unimaginative, digital era. (Gross writes in his preface that he has chosen "a small cast of characters to tell the large story of this mass art form.") If you love fashion and/or the art of photography, this book is for you. But even if you couldn't care less about the skirts swirled or the fabric bunched, or how Bert Stern or Irving Penn or David Bailey or Bruce Weber or Corinne Day or Bob and Terry Richardson or Helmut Newton or Bill King achieved their effects, "Focus" gives us page after page of down and delicious dish. All the infighting and intrigue, the promises made and broken, the fashion editors who ruled the magazines with an iron hand — a hand usually not sheathed in a velvet glove, either. And of course there are those artists holding the cameras — insecure, ambitious, abusive to themselves and others, jealous, bitter, and even a few who were uncomplicatedly nice and talented.
We also hear from the models who often suffered under the strictures of the job itself, which requires an unnatural discipline and obedience, to stay in the mix — yes, sometimes they "had" to sleep with photographers, yes, they were often put in absurd/dangerous situations, but most seem to accept the madness as part of the job. (One model remarks: "It's surprising I'm still alive. You'd go to work and there'd be a dish of cocaine there with most of the photographers I worked with." Another says: "It was almost a given that if you worked with a photographer, you slept with him that night.")

Click to order "Focus: The Sexy, Secret, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers."
Michael Gross captures the bizarre hot-house intensity of an industry that is both ever-changing but eternally the same. (Fashion itself, certainly in the past 100 years, tends to be derivative anyway. Almost every style is re-invented, discarded, brought back — and brought back with great confidence, even though a decade earlier we'd been told this "look" was over, and never to be seen again.)

Michael also conveys the genius (sometimes tortured) of the photographers whose job it was to bring the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and Elle, etc to life. How they rose and fell, cruelly competed, and delivered unforgettable images.

This is a big, intelligent, exhaustively researched, lovingly written book — even when reporting the downfall of this or that person — Bert Stern, let's say — Michael Gross doesn't wallow happily in the mire Stern created for himself. (I met and interviewed Stern a few years before his death. Nasty! Still obsessed with his most famous subject Marilyn Monroe, but quite furious, it seemed, that her image, that infamous "Last Sitting," had more or less taken over his life and reputation.)
And of course, Michael's book led me to thinking about the movie version of "The Devil Wears Prada" which is kind of a kindergarten version of the real fashion industry. But it does contain one of the greatest three minutes in Meryl Streep's career — her viciously languid put-down of Anne Hathaway's smirking disregard for "fashion." The monologue is too long to repeat here. (I recall the premiere audience back in 2006 was shrieking and brava-ing by the time Streep had quietly taken Hathaway apart. Meryl should have won the Oscar for Miranda Priestly rather than her Margaret Thatcher.)
But that deceptive "Prada" coolness resonates, because fashion seems cool, not just in the sense of being "hip" or whatever the word is now. (I think "cool" has sort of re-entered the lexicon, actually.) But cool in the sense of a certain serenity, when it's all packaged and put together, you see the finished, usually elegant, product. (Exempting the works of the notorious Terry Richardson.)
"Focus" finds the fire beneath the ice of glossy magazine pages, and does it without burning down the house.

Michael Gross writes, with more than a bit of melancholy: "This is the story of what was."

Oh, Michael, don't be sad. Spike heels and hot pants and denim on denim came back. So will fashion photography.
SPEAKING OF fashion, there is Jennifer Aniston, dramatically photographed on the cover of Harper's Bazaar for April. She is shot by Camilla Akrans, dressed by Versace and Alexander McQueen, accessorized by Tiffany and Cartier, and manicured by Miwa Kobayashi. (There are no close-up shots of Jen's hands, but what the hell, a good manicure is always beneficial.)

The interview with Laura Brown is all happy talk — marriage to Justin Theroux, keeping up her famous looks at 47, etc. She says she very much wants to work with Julia Roberts and Emma Stone. Oh, you want deeper? Read Psychology Today.

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.