Released July 5, Focus covers the lives of fashion photography’s masters, from Richard Avedon and Irving Penn to Corinne Day and Bert Stern and countless others, detailing their creative spirit and technical skill alongside their egos and vices. It shares the stories of the men and women behind the legends, what made them, what broke them, and why we must remember them today.
I spoke to Gross about his new book, the golden age of fashion photography, and what he thinks lies in the future of the field.
How did you decide to include and who to exclude from Focus?
I knew I didn’t want to write an encyclopedia. I knew I wanted to tell a story and the first decision was where to start and stop. That was about whether or not to include all the first people who took fashion pictures in the early 20th century and whether to go back to Baron de Meyer and Edward Steichen, all of those people, Cecil Beaton. And so the first decision I made was that I was going to write about modern fashion photography which I felt started after World War II. In order to set up modern photography I had to explain a few people briefly like Martin Munkácsi and Toni Frissell to explain who immediately preceded [Richard] Avedon and [Irving] Penn. I thought of three criterias: either they invented the conversation, changed the conversation, or lived the life to the fullest and I thought those were the most interesting people when you look at it that way. People who did something original that really mattered, who became dominant in the field.
There were some people who existed outside of the story. I actually wrote 200 more pages than are already in the book. Most of that material is now on my website—like Denis Piel, Francesco Scavullo, all the pioneers, Hoyningen-Huene, Horst, Baron de Meyer.
How do you think fashion photography has changed since the time of the masters you wrote about in Focus?
The entire genre of fashion photography has been forced to change with the world. Number one is the internet, the digital revolution, the fact that image-making used to be a fairly elite preoccupation. Now we have instant access to imagery. Digital also has changed the world of fashion magazines because digital culture has basically reduced if not eliminated print culture. Then there’s what happened to fashion itself. Fashion used to be a small, elite preoccupation that had a lot of cottage purveyors that have now been subsumed to these giants like LVMH and Kering and H&M and Zara. Then there’s celebrity culture which has completely infected fashion and in my mind, this is just an opinion, not to the better. You don’t see models anymore on the cover of magazines, you see celebrities. Now imagine being a photographer. You used to shoot a model and there were one or two people, maybe you had an assistant and a fashion editor, and that was it. Now you’re shooting some Kardashian and you’ve got four handlers, three agents, the digital team, the digital retouching team, the social media team, the branding team, and they’re all saying ‘Do this, do that! No, you can’t do this, No, you can’t do that!’ and the photographer’s power has waned as a result. So you have this gigantic net of things that have all diluted the power of the artistic individual to make a creative statement. Every one of those things has had a negative impact on fashion photography. And even so, the book is optimistic about this because the book says there is still fashion photography but whatever’s next hasn’t emerged yet.
How do we get back what has been lost?
It’s not going to [come back] any more than the stilted, mannerist sets of de Meyer and Beaton came back. Everything that’s happened until now forms the background of what’s going to happen next. What I hope and what I think will happen is that the blandness and the sameness of what’s out there now will inevitably inspire a reaction and that reaction will inevitably be a new kind of individual creativity because that’s where creativity comes from. It’s not the ninth Star Wars movie that’s creative, it’s the little tiny movie that nobody sees coming, that’s the one that’s creative. That’s the one that changes the conversation. All the ninth Star Wars movie does is continue the conversation. It doesn’t mean it’s not good, it doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to make a lot of money, but it’s not new. What fashion is about and what fashion photography is about is not what’s been but what’s next.
What does the next monumental creative vision look like?
That photographer who is going to stop us dead in our tracks and make us go ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen THAT before.’ That’s the thing about new visions, you don’t know them until you see them and I’m an optimist, I’m a believer in creativity, in ingenuity, in initiative, and I think that there’s an aching desire [for these things]. There are lots of people who are doing interesting things in a small way—I think about Juergen Teller, Sante D’Orazio, I briefly write about someone named Cedric Buchet in the book. What we haven’t seen is someone with a vision that is epochal. Epochal change does not come slowly tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Get ready, here I am!’ It slams you in the face and I think that the history of human creativity indicates that will come again out of left field when the pent up desire and hunger and creativity [cause something] to burst into being that is going to be as new as the first time Toni Frissell shot a girl running outdoors. If I knew what it was I would go take that picture.
Why is it important for aspiring fashion photographers to study those who came before them?
I think the reason why everything that’s come before matters and is relevant is because whatever comes next is going to have to relate to what came before. Whether it contradicts, compliments, or blows it up, it still matters that the past is prologue. In exactly the same way Thomas Jefferson went to Italy and looked at Palladian villas before he built Monticello and the University of Virginia, he looked at what had happened 200 years before and he made it new. A painter needs to know what the rules are in order to break them; a writer needs to know what literature was in order to discover what literature will be. That the history of fashion photography is an integral part of the mysterious process that will produce whatever is next.
How did writing this book change the way you look at photography and photographers?
It made me realize that the lives and the photographs, though they’re related, are also separate from each other. There’s that line when Bill King is dying of AIDS and he looks at one of his friends—and he lived a very, very wild, decadent, dissolute life—he said to one of his friends, ‘Maybe if I hadn’t been so fucked up I wouldn’t be dying.’ And she looked at him and she said, ‘Bill, if you hadn’t been so fucked up you wouldn’t have been Bill King.’ I think it made me appreciate these pictures all the more to know that these beautiful, perfect objects were created by people with lives just as fucked up and messy as everybody else’s!
What, in your opinion, makes the work of these photographers so legendary?
Alchemy. They take a girl or a boy and a frock and a place and a thought and a crazy, messed up fashion editor and some weird hairstylist and a makeup person who was out all night at a disco taking molly and they throw it into their magic vats and they stir it up and if they’re really great, out comes gold. That’s alchemy. Everything about the creative process is magical when it works. You can’t predict it, plot it, script it, or guarantee it, but that’s what these great practitioners of fashion photography were able to do. What they’re about is capturing their times, but a great fashion photograph transcends its times. That’s magic.