Focus: Press Release

The Sexy, Secret, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers

Contact:  Paul Olsewski
Vice President, Director of Publicity
Tory Lowy

The Sexy, Secret,
Sometimes Sordid World of
Fashion Photographers

By Michael Gross 


     “If a picture is truly worth a thousand words…then FOCUS hopes to fix a fifty-year moment, frame it, and display it, so others may recall when light, lenses, emulsion, lissome women, and the latest looks combined with envy and ego, ambition and avarice, lucre and lust, to make magic.

      “It isn’t gone.  It’s just different.  These were its glory days.”  

– Michael Gross

Before Instagram was an art form, fashion photographers were pop culture royalty.  From the post-war covers of Vogue until the triumph of the digital image, the fashion photographer sold not only clothes but ideals of beauty and fantasies of perfect lives.  Even when they succumbed to temptation and excess, the very few photographers who rose to the top were artists above all.  To New York Times bestselling author Michael Gross, who has spent more than three decades covering fashion and fashion photography, and collecting images by the masters, these Svengalis—who shoot editorial and advertising images of clothing, and mold and elevate the stunners who star in them—“are figures in the shadows who make those in front of their cameras glow like members of some special enlightened tribe.  But the world they inhabit,” says Gross, “is one of striking contrasts: it appears beautiful, but just underneath the pretty surface, like the images they create, the reality can be murkier, often decadent, and sometimes downright ugly.”

In FOCUS (Atria Books; $28.00; July 5, 2016), a gripping, lovingly reported account of fashion photography’s golden age, Gross brings to life as never before the wild genius—the ego, passion, and wild antics—of the men (and a few women) behind the camera.  In his follow-up to The New York Times bestselling Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, Gross draws on files he compiled over the course of the last thirty-plus years and prodigious new reporting to probe the lives, hang-ups, and artistic triumphs of more than a dozen of fashion photography’s greatest visionaries: Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Melvin Sokolsky, Bert Stern, David Bailey, Bill King, Gilles Bensimon, Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, Corinne Day, Bob and Terry Richardson, and more.

Tracing the highs and lows of fashion photography from the late 1940s to today, and weaving together previously unpublished material from candid interviews with photographers living and dead, never-before-told insider anecdotes and insights born of three decades of front-row and backstage reporting on modern fashion, this exposé is an unprecedented look at an eccentric and seductive profession and the men and women who practice it on the treacherous, shifting sands of pop and fashion culture.  Perhaps most importantly, it explores the rewards and cost, both terribly high, of translating an artist’s vision of beauty for an often cold and cruel commercial reality.

From Avedon’s haute couture fantasies and telling portraits to Weber’s sensual, intimate and heroic slices of life, and from Bob Richardson’s provocations to his son Terry’s transgressions, Gross takes readers behind the scenes and reveals the revolutionary creative processes and fraught private passions of these transformational imagicians.  Though FOCUS is structured as a group biography, it effectively contains a number of mini-books interwoven into the larger narrative.  They include:

• The first ever biography of Richard Avedon, revealing not just his extraordinary talent and achievement but his many secrets: his bisexuality, psychological problems, obsessive image-management, toxic vanity and egocentricity, ruthless careerism, and, at the end of his life, his rejection of all that and turn toward an obsessive focus on creating what he called a “group portrait of America.”  The book includes a wealth of previously unknown detail on his tempestuous life, including his brief first marriage, which inspired the Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face, his bizarre, but lengthy second one to the unbalanced ex-wife of Life magazine photographer Milton Greene, his intense rivalry with his contemporary, Irving Penn, and his complex relationship with his high school friend James Baldwin, whom he later blasted as “a fucking nigger,”  It also contains never-published, revelatory interviews by the author with Avedon, including his uncensored opinions of competitors and magazine publishing giants like Anna Wintour, S.I. Newhouse Jr., and Alexander Liberman.

• The first book-length look at the 95-year-long conflict between Condé Nast and Hearst fought by their magazine proxies Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and their legendary (and legendarily ruthless) editors from Carmel Snow (a drunk) and Diana Vreeland to Wintour and Liz Tilberis.  Gross reveals the never-before-told story of the gentlemanly rivalry between the art directors who’ve served as the Medici of fashion photography: beginning with Hearst’s Alexey Brodovitch and Condé Nast’s Liberman, and leading to the rise of journeymen art directors who simultaneously work for magazines and the fashion houses they supposedly cover.  He also surveys the ever-hazier borderline between editorial and advertising in fashion publications.

• An unprecedented look at Alexander Liberman, arguably the most influential magazine executive of the second half of the 20th Century.  Through he’s been the subject of both a biography (by Condé Nast writers Calvin Tomkins and Dodie Kazanijan) and a memoir (Them, by his step-daughter Francine du Plessix Gray), FOCUS is the first truly independent and comprehensive portrait of him.

• The first-ever biography of Bert Stern, the advertising photography genius who, with Avedon and Penn, became the third leg of fashion’s tripod until he started acting more like a rock star, self-destructed on ego, amphetamines and sexual misadventures, and ended up addicted, impotent, delusional, bankrupt, committed to a series of mental hospitals, jailed in the Tombs, and finally in exile in Spain.  This section also includes the real and sordid story of the paperback publishing phenomenon, The Pill Book, and never-published interview material, including Stern on his most famous shoot, the renowned “Last Sitting” with Marilyn Monroe.

• An in-depth look at the short life and tragic death of Bill King, a secretive, obsessive, manipulative introvert addicted to Quaaludes, cocaine and the most extreme expressions of gay sexuality (“where, quite literally, anything imaginable went, sexually and pharmaceutically, from bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism to fist-fucking, and regular trips to what was called ‘the trucks,’ an outdoor parking strip in the city’s ironically named meat-packing district, where gay men disappeared into unlocked, empty delivery trucks for anonymous sex”).  King’s dark life stood in direct contract to his joyously happy photographs.  This section of the book greatly advances a thirty-year old Vanity Fair profile published shortly after King’s death from AIDS.

• The first dual biography of fashion’s most scandalous photographers, the father-son team of Bob and Terry Richardson, whose celebrity friends and creative successes couldn’t help either one from damaging his career with astonishingly outrageous, and often illegal, behavior.

Other revelations:

• The stories of monkish Irving Penn’s love affairs with models Jean Patchett and Dorian Leigh, and of how, despite his standing as one of the field’s greats, he quickly fell out of love with fashion photography and spent his career avoiding it.

• How—and why—though fashion magazine editors are almost always women, men have dominated the field of fashion photography.  FOCUS also looks at how graphic power has swung back and forth between gay and straight male photographers, why straight photographers seem queer in the context of fashion, and how the crosscurrents of culture are reflected in the lens of fashion photography.

• How the heterosexual Melvin Sokolsky got his start shooting photos of body-builders for a homsexual clientele (signing them Toggaf, or “faggot” spelled backwards), and how a prudish magazine editor once rejected a Sokolsky photo of a pregnant China Machado because, “A pregnant woman shouldn’t be touched by a bicycle seat.”

• The real story of the fictional film Blow-Up, and the photographers—Bert Stern, William Helburn, David Bailey, Jerry Schatzberg—who not only inspired its lead character but overturned the rule of gay photographers in fashion for the next twenty years.  The scene in which another inspiration, Brian Duffy, and a model emerge from a dressing room, her hair a mess, him stuffing an erection into his pants, is a particular high (or perhaps low) point.  Another is the story of the sexual sport several photographers played with the Sixties supermodel, Jean Shrimpton.

• The real story of Lauren Hutton’s groundbreaking Revlon contract, how it caused the end of her close relationship with Richard Avedon, and how that breakup set fire to the career of Francesco Scavullo.

• The first close look at the motivation of seventies photographers like Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton and Chris von Wangenheim, how they turned their personal psycho-sexual inclinations into boundary-breaking photographs (“We were not hurting each other,” says a von Wangenheim girlfriend.  “The violence was a representation of something he found beautiful”), and how magazines encouraged them to embrace taboo subjects.  The author explores how a heart attack set Newton’s creativity free, and how Playboy’s Hugh Hefner gave Newton the platform to stretch the limits of the acceptable in fashion.  ““I’ll never forget [Jerry Hall] licking [a male model’s cowboy] boot,” his stylist says.  “That was Helmut’s idea of heaven.””

• How the Hearst Corporation’s hands-off management almost killed Harper’s Bazaar, until then, the most influential fashion magazine in the world, and arguably one as important to visual culture as Henry Luce’s Life—and how a new competitor, Elle, inspired the revival of both Bazaar and Vogue.

• How a handsome, controlling, but barely known photographer named Pierre Houlés manipulated, denigrated and had sex with countless top fashion models, and inspired a generation of far more successful talents to become as well known for their swordsmanship as for their photographs.  Ironically, his endowment, according to a supermodel lover, was “so small that to this day I’ve never again encountered anything like it.  My pinky, when erect.”

• How the husband of an Italian textile heiress turned the sleepy Italian fashion scene into a bacchanalia, and why shoot teams from Vogue Patterns magazine were banned from Pan Am. 

• How a second-rate French photographer, Gilles Bensimon, became not just the lover of a sequence of supermodels (including Elle Macpherson and Real Housewife Kelly Bensimon) but also the first photographer ever to run a fashion magazine, making him an epochal thorn in the side of Hearst and Condé Nast, and the proximate cause of the fall of Richard Avedon and the rise of Anna Wintour. And why he was known as the biggest dick in fashion—both figuratively and literally.

• The bizarre end to many photographic careers and why many photographers’ work can no longer be found: Brian Duffy burned his negatives; Bill King’s are kept from view by his heir, his sister; Chris von Wangenheim’s disappeared for years after he died in a car crash, accompanied by his girlfriend, just before his divorce papers were signed; Guy Bourdin’s likely because he drove many of those who loved him to suicide.  In contrast, FOCUS also shows how Arthur Elgort’s career proves that sometimes, nice guys finish first.

• How Bruce Weber, a troubled male model from a Pennsylvania farm town, turned his gay connections and inclinations into a whole new vocabulary for fashion, overthrew the fashion photography establishment by proving that independent stylists and brands like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Barneys New York could be more creative and inspiring than the magazine editors and art directors who’d created the genre, and helped turn the world from homophobia to acceptance of the LGBT community.

• How Steven Meisel, a fashion groupie from Fresh Meadows, Queens, went from haunting gay bars as a teenager, to referencing (and some would say, plagiarizing) the greatest photographers who preceded him, to celebrating his engagement to a transsexual model, to living on Park Avenue and assuming the throne once held by Richard Avedon as the world’s greatest (and most manipulative) fashion photographer.

• How photographer Deborah Turbeville made anorexia fashionable, how “Heroin Chic” reinvigorated and then became an existential threat to fashion—and why its creators now run the fashion world, and how Calvin Klein reinvented advertising, and put louche life into the cultural mainstream.

• How fashion’s pretty lies were created on photography sets and in darkrooms, and how the Internet and the fashion conglomerate killed fashion photography as we know it.

FOCUS offers an extraordinary bird’s eye view of the roiling cauldron of vanity, voyeurism, obsession, cupidity, and craziness in which fashion photography is born.  Though they each had their own careers, the interconnections among the photographers profiled will alternately shock and delight.

Gross writes, “It’s a shame that some disdain today’s fashion lensmen and woman as anonymous and fungible, but it may be true; only time will tell if some will emerge as the Avedon and Meisel of this century.  Regardless, they won’t, can’t be the same as those who came before them.  The business they’re in has changed—and demands change—as photography has evolved from a difficult and technical art mastered by a precious few to a digital and democratic medium accessible to anyone.  Something’s been lost in the process, for sure, but something new is surely developing in the age of Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat.  We’ll have to wait and see.  This is the story of what was.”

About the Author:

Michael Gross is the author of 740 Park, Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, Rogues’ Gallery, House of Outrageous Fortune and Unreal Estate, books that offer an unprecedented blend of broadsheet gravitas and tabloid entertainment. A contributing editor of Departures, he created the blog Gripepad and has written for The New York Times, New York, Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Cosmopolitan, Travel & Leisure, The Daily Beast/Newsweek, and many other publications.

For further information about FOCUS or to arrange an interview with Michael Gross, please contact Paul Olsewski at 212-698-7089 or

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The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photography
By Michael Gross
Atria Books
Pub. Date: July 5, 2016
ISBN: 9781476763460