Michael Gross, author of “Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women,” is turning his gaze on photographers in his new book, “Focus: The Sexy, Secret, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers.”
The book, which goes on sale on July 5, is already getting praise as a “gossipy exposé” on the fashion magazine world’s most extravagant times from 1947 to 1997. Gross gives an insider’s look at the lives of Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, Terry Richardson and others, as they leave their mark on Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Glamour and Elle.
Gross, who will fete the launch of his second book in New York on Wednesday, spoke with WWD about the big personalities behind both the lens and the magazine pages, as well as how celebrity has diminished creativity in fashion glossies today.
Who is the most directional fashion photographer today?
Michael Gross: I think the most directional fashion photographer today is some kid with a cell phone. We haven’t seen how that’s going to play out yet. When I was starting the book two and a half years ago, I was looking at the question of “Who among the people shooting at that moment was the most important,” and I went to a lot of people whose taste I trust and who I felt was either aesthetically or commercially wise, and I said, “Who matters? Is it Inez [van Lamsweerde] and Vinoodh [Matadin]? Is it Mert [Alas] and Marcus [Piggott]? Mario Sorrenti? Is it David Sims? Is it somebody I’ve never heard of?”
The consensus was that the only person who was doing anything original and remarkable and who fit the criteria that I had created for inclusion in the book — which was [they] created the conversation, changed the conversation or lived the life — the consensus was the only one who rose to that level of the current crop of stars was Terry Richardson. Over the course of the year that I was writing the book, Terry Richardson’s career hit a rough patch. Also what I came to realize is that fashion photography has changed remarkably in the last five to 10 years, and the change hasn’t resolved itself yet. You have all of these people doing effectively what is computer illustration through a camera.
How does that play out on a shoot?
M.G.: I went on one very big Italian brand’s advertising shoot and there must have been 30 people on the set. When you think back to [the movie poster from] “Blow-up,” which was on the cover of my book, who was on the set? The photographer, the model and one editor. Nowadays you have the video team, the pre-retouching team, the computer team, the styling team, the this team, the that team and three people from the brand or the magazine who are saying “Could she move her elbow slightly to the left?” Watching this I realized this was no longer an individual art form.
How has the business of photography changed?
M.G.: Without doing a study, it’s hard to know, but I spoke to one expert, who is Jean-Jacques Naudet, he said that even the stars only make a fraction of what they made 15 years ago now. A single photograph could have been worth $80,000 20 years ago and now it’s worth $7,000. It’s been that diminished. It’s diminished by a thousand factors. The genre has been diminished. There are fewer fashion magazines, there are fewer clients, there are these larger groups that are dominating things. There’s less work to go around. There are just as many people trying to be fashion photographers, but the fashion business is in a crisis, the magazine business is in decline. Nobody is paying what they used to pay. You have this diminished universe basically. Compare it to a writer where once upon a time a magazine writer — a normal magazine writer was getting paid $2 a word and stars could be paid $5 a word, $10 a word. Nowadays those exact same writers are working for 20 cents a word, 50 cents a word. It’s the same thing for photographers, the only difference is photographers can work for advertisers who pay more than the magazines do, but they pay less than they used to.
Talk about the tension between editorial and advertising. Seems like advertisers are winning today.
M.G.: The consciousness of the power of the advertiser has grown geometrically, and that contributes to the actual power. Magazines nowadays are so dependent upon those advertisers. That’s something I talk about in the book, the ebb and flow of the power of advertising — the end of the Nancy White era at Harper’s Bazaar…when Carmel Snow was no longer there to hold off the ravening dog — then advertisers began to have a lot more power. Then you get into the [Diana] Vreeland era at Vogue and suddenly creativity is on the rise again. Vreeland loses her job because she won’t play nice with the advertisers in large part. It’s too much money. It’s actually weirdly a period just like now only it was even more extreme. And in comes Mirabella, who will make nice with the advertisers. And then Anna Wintour, her whole thing was she was trained by Alexander Liberman. She’s quoted in the book as saying, as far as she’s concerned, “Alex Lieberman can do no wrong.” Alex Liberman is quoted as saying, “These magazines exist to sell dresses, that’s what they’re there for.” Liberman was powerful enough that he felt free to admit that to me. Now there are fewer [magazines], all going after the same advertising dollars. They have to be that much more subservient to the desires of the advertisers.
Does it swing back the other way?
M.G.: I don’t know. We’re at an epical change. This isn’t just a recession in 1969. It’s a moment when everything is changing. The digital revolution is changing everything. Think about how the digital revolution has changed fashion. Not only has it put a lot of fashion media out of business, it has put a lot of brick-and-mortar stores out of business. All of these economics are in flux now. Whatever the next thing is hasn’t emerged yet. You can definitely say this is the end of something. Bruce Weber is the only one left out there shooting with film….What a lot of photographers rail against is the democratization of the medium. The democratization of the fashion photography medium probably has something to do with the rise of fast fashion. At some point fashion will realign, but it hasn’t happened yet.
There are stories of models being taken advantage of by photographers and clients. Has it improved?
M.G.: Young women are a lot smarter than they used to be, they are a lot less sheltered…they have more role models…that being said, some horny photographer is going to jump on a young model, I think that is inevitable. Whether they will get away with it to the extent they used to, I think society, at least American society, has changed. That kind of behavior is just less tolerable than it used to be. I don’t think that we’re yet in a world where modeling agents will stop saying to young models. “See that guy, he’s important, go be nice to him.” I think that’s one of the dark sides of human nature. It’s probably going to be increasingly less prevalent.
What makes a controversial photographer or shoot?
M.G.: Some number of years ago, Steven Meisel gave one of his rare talks in public, and he talked about how fashion images have become so ubiquitous that you have to go out of your way to shock. He did a series of portfolios for Franca Sozzani at Italian Vogue that continued to be into the last few years ostensibly antiwar, racially tinged shooting, [and] an environmental shooting with Kristen McMenamy where they posed her on a seashore covered with oil. Those kind of things are calculated to shock. The current Calvin Klein campaign with the upskirt is calculated to shock. What’s interesting is, they barely shock anymore. Ronnie Cooke Newhouse is quoted in the book saying, “How can fashion shock anymore when we see images of decapitated bodies?” The world is such a shocking place. Fashion requires a reinvention. I think it’s in the process of happening, but no Steven Meisel shoot is going to shock anyone when ISIS is beheading people.
What about the models today?
M.G.: I went on a go-see with [photographer] Hadley Hudson for Vice, and she saw maybe 20 kids that day, boys and girls. She wasn’t happy until this boy walked into the room at the modeling agency, pulls out his book, takes off his jacket, and he turns out to be a girl. He’s a girl who’s on the men’s board at the modeling agency. Her name is Rain Dove, she models as a girl, she models as a boy — her attitude is, basically whatever they’ll pay me for. What that’s about is communicating new standards of beauty. At the moment we’re in this fascinating moment where the most controversial thing that’s happening in the fashion industry is not the style of photography, but who is being photographed.
How do you view fashion magazines today? Do they lack the creativity of their predecessors?
M.G.: I think there’s something creative, but there’s some kind of existential dread. In so many creative industries, not just fashion, in the writing business, in the music business — everyone is wondering whether they’re going to have a job tomorrow, if they are going to be downsized, laid off. Everybody is looking over their shoulder worrying. It crosses all these lines. It’s paralyzing. It’s diminishing to creativity. Creativity doesn’t thrive in fear, and fear is the dominating impulse now. Will I have my job tomorrow? It’s the same for designers. I had an editor write me a note a few months ago, in which he didn’t describe his magazine as a magazine, but a “brand.” He didn’t describe himself as an editor, but as a “brand manager.” I thought to myself, “Jesus Christ, if I’ve ever seen the sign of the apocalypse, this is it.” It’s depressing unless you think that it’s the dread before something new. I persist in being an optimist.
You had mentioned Anna Wintour before. When we look back at her career, how will her editorship be characterized?
M.G.: When you talked about Carmel Snow, you talked about the amazing imagery that was published in Harper’s Bazaar in its glory years. When you talk about Diana Vreeland, you talk about the amazing imagery. You talk about Veruschka [von Lehndorff] and Richard Avedon in Japan. You talk about David Bailey shooting white tigers. When you talk about Anna Wintour, you talk about 7th on Sale and the Costume Institute Ball, and she got that cover with Taylor Swift. Anna Wintour is a gigantic figure. She looms large above everything, but what you think about when you think about Anna Wintour is creativity in business and brand management, not creativity in the content of her magazine. With all due respect, when is the last time anybody mentioned a shoot in Vogue and said it was world-class fashion photography? Name one. It’s been a long time. Franca Sozzani on the other hand, people talk about her in relationship to creativity. But she gets away with it because her magazine sells an infinitesimal amount of copies compared to [U.S.] Vogue.
Here’s another one, Carine Roitfeld. Where did she get her start? With Mario Testino, the ultimate “yes man.” And yes, I recognize that Mario Testino has a museum show, but that’s more about the worship of celebrity than the worship of genius in fashion photography. Carine puts out a good magazine. It’s a niche magazine. The Thanksgiving Day parade-sized personalities, they are engaged in brand management, not great photography.
How has the rise of celebrity impacted photography?
M.G.: Celebrity has diminished fashion photography. Celebrity has diminished so much in this world. Nowadays when they shoot a celebrity instead of a model, she has five handlers. They want to approve the clothes in advance. “No, she can’t pose like this, no she can’t pose like that. I want to approve the images.” That emasculates the photographer. It turns the photographer into a puppet and, again, what you’re talking about here is brand management. That’s what the Kardashians do. They are managing their brands and sometimes these brands can find common ground and they synergize; the Kardashian brand helps the Wintour brand, helps the Vogue brand, helps The Metropolitan Museum brand.
Is Anna Wintour a steward of celebrity in fashion journalism or is she a victim of it?
M.G.: I think that Anna is absolutely a master manipulator. She’s a puppeteer, a steward, as you put it. Think back to when Anna Wintour went to British Vogue in the late Eighties. It was full of whimsy and creativity, and Anna told me that she brought “an American point of view to the magazine.” Anna turned that into a commercial machine. She has fine-tuned and reinvented and oiled and tended to and advanced that machine, it is her raison d’être.
I’ve always said this, but fashion journalism is an oxymoron. Fashion magazines exist to sell frocks. It’s only an accident when they do something greater than the commercial mandate. Anna is the ultimate fashion journalist. She is the ultimate salesperson. Look at her, she decides who designs things. She is an absolute genius. “Zoolander 2″ would have been a much better movie if Will Ferrell’s character had been a fashion magazine editor. Think of all the possibilities for satire?
What about Glenda Bailey’s Harper’s Bazaar? Bailey has published some innovative covers recently.
M.G.: Well, she’s Avis to Vogue’s Hertz, so she has to try harder. It is an incrementally more creative magazine, but at the same time, it doesn’t stop the world. Harper’s Bazaar used to stop the world. All of these strands of brilliance happened at the same time at Bazaar and it happened twice with Brodovitch and Carmel Snow…then you had that brief moment of Liz Tilberis and Fabien Baron. Then tragically Liz got sick. I so admire the Hearst Corporation for sticking with her and not abandoning her when she was sick…but they’ve been flailing since. Glenda has civilized it. Stephen Gan is OK, he’s a creative great guy. Carine is wonderful. She’s a great talent, but Glenda’s Bazaar is not Carmel Snow’s Bazaar.