Mitchel Gray’s “Bodies in Action” Packs A Visual Punch

“Fashion is all about sexy and sexy is all about bodies. This is Bodies in Action,” said Art Photographer Mitchel Gray, regarding the title of his recent work in the active lifestyle/health and fitness field. For someone who popularized shots of models in lingerie before Victoria’s Secret even existed (he’s authored two best-selling books on the subject The Lingerie Book (1980, which sold an unheard of for a picture book thousands of copies in four languages), and Lingerie Fantasies (1990), the transition to “bodies in various degrees of clothing” on actual athletes was more of an evolution than a revolution. A recent work entitled “The Pitcher” is currently on view at the renowned Staley-Wise Gallery. A solo exhibition of Gray’s “Bodies in Action” is being planned for September at a gallery to be announced.

Mitchel Gray in his studio
Photo: Laurel Marcus

With the current trend toward sport fashion so prevalent in activewear, Gray is interested in showing what the bodies of great athletes are actually doing under all the equipment, padding, and uniforms while they perform their sport. He does so in a uniquely artful, dramatic and informative style. I was fortunate enough to meet him in his Upper West Side studio where he shoots all of his subjects against black seamless — it is amazing to me that in a very still environment he is somehow able to make each portrait so full of movement and alive. He captures the athletes in action — throwing buckets of water in mid-air to accompany a swimmer’s stroke, freezing the exact moment as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, or the arrow leaves the archer’s bow.

Another facet or technique that is Gray’s alone is his ability to illustrate more than one side of a person’s body in one photo making it appear that there are two people in the shot. “I shoot them offensively and defensively in the same light but not necessarily in the same spot in the same light,” he explains. He also points out that skin tones are kept consistent throughout.

A collage of his work
Photo: Laurel Marcus

It’s quite interesting to hear what brought him to this juncture. A University of Virginia English major who claims he was completely “over writing” by the time he graduated, he turned to photography — either a career focusing on underwater or fashion photography. After his underwater camera broke and he didn’t have the money to replace it, the decision was made. In the ’70s he began working with the top fashion and beauty magazines gaining editorial placement as well as shooting advertising pages for various clients around the globe. He has photographed more than a hundred magazine covers and over a hundred thousand magazine pages for both the fashion and beauty industry and the sports and fitness world.

As a lifetime athlete who played college baseball, he was always interested in doing “athletic stuff such as kayaking or mountain climbing” which became part of his job in the mid ’90s as he shot for magazines such as Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Runners World, Bicycling, Fitness and The Sporting News. About two years ago while planning some shots for a male model’s portfolio he asked if the model had any hobbies that could be incorporated into a photograph. “He mentioned that he was a bow hunter, and of course, I pictured Robin Hood,” said Gray. “I asked him to bring along his bow and he said it might not be possible to get it on the train. I suggested he stick it in a garbage bag not realizing what type of bow it was. When he got it here I saw that it was huge and armored like an AK-47.”

Gray also received an assist from Cedric Jones, wide receiver for the New England Patriots who now directs the New York Athletic Club program along with several Olympians or Olympic hopefuls including Adeline Gray (3 time and current World Champion wrestler/Olympian), KK Clarke (Olympic Water Polo), and Soren Thompson (2 time Olympic fencer).  Others, such as Sports Agent Sean Stellato brought Mitchel’s latest session star: NFL New England Patriot Nate Ebner who recently received a one-year sabbatical to play on the US Olympic Rugby Team. Several well-known sports figures including Derek Jeter and Tom Brady have also been photographed by Gray resulting in some good stories. “One night my son at Brown (University) called while Derek Jeter was here. Derek got on the phone with him to say “good night.” I bet he had a hard time getting to sleep after that!

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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