Book Review: “Focus: The Sexy, Secret, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers”

Eleven years, seven books, three-decades of research, and the advent of a little game changing app called Instagram come between Author Michael Gross’s “Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women,” and its sequel, Gross’s latest epistle “Focus: The Sexy, Secret, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers” which represents the flip side of the business. Even the current book’s cover art is reversed from its predecessor. On the cover of “Model” is a Bert Stern photo of Veruschka posing over photographer David Bailey; this photo produced the image seen in the movie “Blow-up” of David Bailey standing over Veruschka — and is the cover of “Focus.”

As I was previously unfamiliar with Gross’s bombastic writing style, I looked forward to reading an advance copy of the book, thinking it would be light mindless reading ie. beach fare. I could not have been more wrong in that there are millions of names, connections and facts to remember — a Venn diagram and possibly a Flow chart would have been helpful. Likewise, I kept wishing that photographs which are referred to would have been included (the book has no photos at all). Gross mentions that he avoided doing so as it is a legal gray area, in many cases, due to copyright laws on reproducing the original photos. Often, Gross supplies enough detail that I was actually able to summon the photo via a Google search.

In this group biography (past books bio not only people but also buildings) Gross chronicles the journey of the golden age of advertising and editorial fashion photography from 1947 to 1997 with stops at most major ports from 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. He also expounds at length on the 95-year-long conflict between Conde Nast and Hearst and their legendary editors from Carmel Snow to Diana Vreeland to Anna Wintour and Liz Tilberis, as well as on the rivalry between art directors Alexey Brodovitch at Hearst and Alexander Liberman at Conde Nast.

For me the highlights of the book included little snippets of gleaned information. For instance, reading that Richard Avedon got the idea to photograph Natassja Kinski with a snake by seeing Salvador Dali’s wife answer the door wrapped in one as her husband was in the process of painting her; remembering Guy Bourdin’s surreal and disembodied legs and feet in the Charles Jourdan ads and learning that one particular such ad was said to be a recreation of his wife Sybille Danner’s suicide death scene.

One of the most fascinating “mini-books” included here involves the chapters on Bill King, whose models were often photographed smiling and jumping.  King  lived a particularly disturbing drug-and-sex-fueled double life in which white lab coats were worn in his studio by day, while photographic and video-graphic proof of coked-out orgies prevailed at night.. (I’m dying to know who the unnamed “one of the era’s top faces, a blond poster girl for wholesome California pulchritude” caught in “rude” and compromising positions while stoned out of her mind, could be). Unfortunately, after King died of AIDS in November, 1987, much of his work became unavailable due to the aforementioned copyright issues.

The book’s lowlights: I could have done without knowing which photographer is exceedingly well-endowed (Gilles Bensimon) versus who had received short-shrift, so to speak (Pierre Houles).  At one point the book devolves into a circumlocutory essay on “swordsmanship” and “modelizing” reminding me of the 1975 movie “Shampoo” starring Warren Beatty, in this case centered around fashion photographers rather than hairdressers. Likewise, the chapter on Terry Richardson and his “tampon tea” was particularly unpleasant.

Towards the end of the book, Gross chronicles how the digital world intrudes and changes everything. No matter — Bruce Weber still shoots film while Steven Meisel has mastered the digital breakdown between advertising and editorial by shooting them at the same time. Carine Roitfeld summed it up “It’s all about money, results, and big business…Today’s fashions don’t let people dream as much as they used to…If you look at advertisements these days all you see are handbags.”And forget the fashion shows which have become “celebrity petting zoos,” according to Gross, in one of the book’s truest moments.

For those “of a certain age” in the fashion industry who remember some of the players detailed here, this book may well find a place in your permanent library. IMO, this is one of those books that may well become more comprehensible upon a second read.

( Correction: In the final bound copies of the book, there was a 16 page photo insert, with pix by Schatzberg, Sokolsky, Blumenfeld, and Penn, among others.)

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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