Melvin Sokolsky

Conversation: Imagined Spaces

Double Exposure

Cover Story/Oct. 1, 2009

The Imagined Spaces of Melvin Sokolsky

Melvin Sokolsky is one of the most creative advertising and commercial photographers of our time. He was born and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and as a youth living in this neighborhood during the prewar era, he enjoyed reading books and visiting museums. This inspired him and he began imagining elaborate sets and images even before he had a camera to capture them.

A Separate Reality

“Every summer, my father used to take a picture of us,” he says. “We would go out to a place called Spring Valley. He had a box camera, and took pictures of me, my brother and my mother.” Those pictures went into an album every year, and Sokolsky remembers, “At age 14, something occurred to me. The pictures from year to year somehow looked different.” He realized that something was happening between the manufacturing of the film and the processing at the drugstore that was making the images look different. “There was a marked difference between those taken when I was six until the time I was 12.” He concluded that the manufacturer was constantly changing the film, which he called “The emulsion of the day,” which opened up many ideas for him. Most important on the agenda was to develop a personal palette and vision. Sokolsky had no formal training in photography, but was spurred on by his creative eye and the passion he developed for the medium. He began experimenting with photography in a determined and personal manner.

“The invention of the camera created a passionate love affair between man and machine,” he asserts. “The camera gave birth to a muse that has no equal.” In contrast to those who believe the camera only records the truth, Sokolsky remarks, “I think the camera only lies. The camera records the truth of the person who aims it and decides what to photograph.” He points out that a picture taken with a wide-angle lens is very different than one taken with a telephoto lens. “Which lens is telling the truth?” Sokolsky recalls that as a teenager looking at the family photo albums, “It was obvious that black-and-white and color photographs didn’t look like the truth in any way. And it was the fact that photographs looked quite different to me than reality is what attracted me to want to become a photographer. Taking photographs gave me the opportunity to share my personal vision.”

He acknowledges that photography is a very subjective medium. “Photographs and paintings are opinions,” he notes. “Music, in an odd way, has an opinion factor, but has certain standards that are not opinions.” Someone singing off key is recognized by everyone that is listening. He says that photography and art are opinions “based on the sophistication of the person who is looking at them.”

Images of His Own Creation

When Sokolsky was only 21, Henry Wolf, Harper’s Bazaar’s Art Director, invited him to join the magazine’s photographic staff. He was also given a great deal of artistic freedom. “This was the most important time in my life,” he says. “When I got to Bazaar, Wolf told me I could do whatever I want. He said, ‘I didn’t hire you for my ideas, I hired you for your ideas.’” Because he was so young, Sokolsky says that he didn’t understand what was being handed to him at the time. However, he challenged the more traditional images that were popular in the advertising and editorial worlds of the day. Sokolsky was friendly with his contemporaries, Art Kane and Richard Avedon, although he remained very competitive with them.

Perhaps the most notable of Sokolsky’s innovative fashion editorials was his 1963 “Bubble Series” campaign, in which he depicted fashion models floating above urban scenes and landscapes. He credits artist Hieronymus Bosch for these images, having been inspired by his painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which features a nude couple in a bubble. He says that throughout the years, art directors didn’t tell him what to do—

(“Do you think that the Bubble pictures idea could come from an art director giving an assignment to a photographer in 1963?”) This editorial and other very inspired fashion campaigns caught the eye of advertising creatives, and Sokolsky soon became known for his adventurous editorial work and celebrity portraits. He has never confined himself to just one style, and has been deemed by The Digital Journalist as being the most successful advertising photographer of the ‘60s.

Revealing the Inner Being

In the sixties and seventies, Creative directors would say, ‘go see Melvin, he’s the nicest guy you’ll meet, and he’s very easy to work with “When we moved on to the ‘80s, the creative community viewed me as difficult, because they translated my resistance to compromise as being difficult.” Art directors came to him with drawings and asked him to execute them photographically. “During my commercial life, I have actually enjoyed doing this,” he states. “I’ve done so many of my own pictures, that I’m always curious to know what motivates other people. I live inside my own mind and don’t usually share my ideas with people.” Executing other peoples ideas gave me insight into their thinking.”

Sokolsky likens a photography session to a “dance” between the subject and photographer. “What you can get in that dance is an affinity or a lack of affinity that will express itself in terms of the body language and expression of that person.” The photographer he respects most at this level is Irving Penn. “When you look at the gesture of the people in an Irving Penn portrait—to me—they transcend most other photographer’s. In essence, when you experience his portraits, they capture via gesture the sum of the person being photographed.” Nonetheless, “What I’m really interested in is discovering what I don’t know.”

Can’t Stop Progress

During the 1970s, Sokolsky also became interested in film, which brought him to Los Angeles. He shot television commercials from the early ‘70s through the ‘90s, and has won 25 Clio awards as Director/Camera Man. “You name the product, I’ve done it. I thought of doing commercials as a training ground for doing a major film, but the problem was that I ran into a different kind of timeframe and resistance from the people who give you money to do films.” He says that people used to come to him for his ideas. “Now, they want you to do the script from a commercial perstective. It didn’t take much time to realize that unless I had the money to do the film, it wasn’t going to be the film that I had envisioned.” He says, however, that if he hadn’t been such a perfectionist, he would have enjoyed having the experience of making a film. “Experience is what makes you grow,” Sokolsky observes.

“When digital photography first came out,” Sokolsky says, “many people hated it because it threatened their base of knowledge and their nostalgic attachment to things.” It also required a steep learning curve. “People are afraid of change,” he asserts, “but change cannot be stopped.” Back at the turn of the century, daguerreotypes were the standard, he points out. “They were called ‘keepers.’ They were emulsions coated on glass that had a very refined unique look.” But after a while, when people started dying because of the mercury content, changes were imminent. “The new films were resisted because the had to be printed on paper instead of a singular picture on glass. Critics called photography ‘pictorialism’ because images were now on a paper substrate which showed the texture of the paper,” he says. “This goes back to my thought that everything visual is just an opinion.”

As one who was always inventive, Sokolsky says that he was very open-minded when digital imaging came along. “My ideas and content are more important than the tools,” he says. “Cameras can’t come up with ideas or make imaging decisions. The tools have become better, there’s no question about it. But at this point in my life, I use tools that best suit the reason I’m taking the picture.” He says that one day, he may use an 8x10 camera because of the lens perspective. The next day, he may go back to the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, depending on what he’s trying to do.

Transcending the Medium

“What I’m lured by is the idea of creating imagined spaces,” he says. “This is what occurs between my mind’s eye and the lens of the camera. Photographing and exploring this imagined space is how I communicate and what interests me in photography.” Sokolsky doesn’t consider himself a fashion photographer. “Don’t get me wrong,” he explains. “I love fashion because of the way it reveals a time-line of our history. But I’m most interested in the meaning and ideas that define my photographs.” He also proposes the idea that “whether an image is taken by Henri Cartier Bresson, Richard Avedon or myself, would it not be true that all people wearing clothes in pictures can be defined as fashion photographs?” He says that fashion is not just an image in a fashion magazine that someone has written about. As an illustration of this, he points out an image taken by Henri Cartier Bresson in which a man wears a Humberg hat, and there’s a sign in the background about Humberg hats. “What people are really trying to say is that there’s a formality to the way we perceive fashion pictures,” Sokolsky says. “Basically we’ve all been trained like Pavlovian dogs to categorize, and this gives you the ability and power to be a judge.” He also says that nudes are fashion photographs in that, proportion, hair style, makeup and gesture, reveal the time and place in which the photo was taken.

“If a picture transcends fashion; transcends the dress they’re wearing or how the person is posing,” Sokolsky comments, “It becomes iconic in some way. It makes you think about the world around you.” He says that in many images taken today, he sees a lot of tools and retouching, rather than some substantial photography. “If you go back and look at the history of any art, say Van Gogh,” he points out, “you see a texture of painting that does not look like Van de Wyden, Renoir or Hieronymus Bosch. Each one of these painters has a unique palette.” On the other hand, he says that photographers often copy photographs and proudly call it homage; inferring the copy is better than the original.” The Internet unfortunately makes it easy for people to steal images.

The School of Life

Sokolsky has conducted a number of workshops and seminars over the years. “In my classes I show students why I chose a light, what the reason was, how I put a sitting together, and how I build a set.” Sokolsky builds all of his own sets to portray his own unique vision. “Look at a Leonardo di Vinci portrait,” he says. “You may see vertical and horizontal divisions behind the subject to divide the space to make for a more interesting composition. I design images that not only please my aesthetic but also enhance the idea.” He says that a real workshop should be one where a student becomes a photographer’s apprentice. “If all the people in the workshop were apprentices for six months, they could learn more than they would in four years of school.”

Now in his seventies, Sokolsky continues to shoot fashion photography and other editorial assignments, and is every bit as inventive and creative as ever. He has also just put together a new 450-page book entitled Archive, which will be available in January 2009. “It will have a written archive of my life,” he says. “And it will be beautifully printed at a level that’s quite unique.” The photographs in this book will document his career from the beginning to the present. “One of the last images in the book is of Slash in the group, Guns & Roses that I shot about a week ago,” he points out. “This book will be the history of Melvin.”

When asked about advice for beginning photographers, he replies, “You have to take pictures the way you fall in love. With love, somehow you can’t get that person out of your mind. It’s how human nature works. We’re wired to look at things we like and that move us.”

To learn more about Melvin Sokolsky, visit www.sokolsky.com.