book reviews

A too-gossipy book about fashion photographers

Michael Gross's new book on fashion photographers misses an opportunity



By Michael Gross

When it comes to writing about fashion, access is everything. However, a tight circle of designers and image-makers—along with those non-disclosure agreements for models—don’t make it easy for anyone to expose what goes on behind the seams. The problem comes across loud and clear in Focus: The Sexy, Secret, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers. Hard-core fashion fans know the greatest illusionists have lived lives as sharp and extreme as their works. Gross makes hay of that. He begins with Terry Richardson—who created iconic images for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar but was accused by several models of being a sexual predator—and goes on to trace the careers and peccadilloes of iconic shooters like the egomaniacal Richard Avedon and Bert Stern, famous for his Last Sitting shoot of a nude Marilyn Monroe.

Gross’s subtitle has a hint of the tabloid, and the dirt-fuelled mini biographies of lens masters deliver some of that. But the book gets going when Gross, author of the best-selling 740 Park, gets to the rise of models Jean Shrimpton and Veruschka in the 1960s (whose fame went hand-in-hand with their relationships with cameramen) and to Calvin Klein’s heroin-chic ads of the 1990s. He tells us the famous film Blow-Up—which supplied the book’s cover image—was based on the work and behaviour of Stern and David Bailey.

Unfortunately, he’s grumpier about fashion editors. Harper’s Bazaar’s Carmel Snow, an editor who helped shape fashion photography as we know it, comes off as a cross between Downton Abbey’s dowager countess and The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly. Vogue’s former editor, Diana Vreeland, who championed and nurtured hundreds of photographers, is a silly Auntie Mame-type. In reality, Vreeland had the creative chutzpah to encourage a great deal of off-the-wall, experimental photography that got into Bazaar and Vogue.

Designers were rarely consulted here, though designers like Marc Jacobs and Valentino often talked through their collections with their photography team, an artful discourse that could help a label’s rise. But the biggest misstep is that Gross is so focused on gossip he misses an opportunity to say something really meaningful about the changing aesthetics of fashion photography then and now.