Melvin Sokolsky

Conversation: Seeing Fashion

Melvin Sokolsky's Affinities

By Martin Harrison

The period between 1955 and 1970 has become widely recognized as a kind of golden age in American magazine culture. In these years the commercial imperative had failed to over-ride the arguably irrational urge to utilize mass-circulation periodicals as a platform for personal expression. Following a time of neglect or indifference, the legacy of many photographers, artists, and designers is again investigated and celebrated. One of the more unusual figures in this pantheon was Melvin Sokolsky. His relatively brief but intense career as a photographer was simultaneously paradigmatic and evidence of how an individual signature could prevail in a commercial environment.

"Astonishingly inventive" and "technically consummate" are typical of the encomiums that Sokolsky's photographs elicit. The constant stream of frequently audacious ideas that he brought, month after month, to the pages of Harper's Bazaar certainly bears witness to the claims of fecundity. And the effects he achieved, apparently effortlessly, were the result of tireless experimentation and skillful craftsmanship. He stretched beyond the nominal brief of illustrating clothes, urged on by his tenacious imagination, fired up by an almost child-like thrill with the power of the image, with articulating the body-in-space, and the search to find new ways to make an impact on the magazine page.

With no formal training, Sokolsky had to rely on instinct and careful observation for his professional photographic education. He had begun to photograph at the age of ten, using his father’s box camera. His father kept a family album that included old photographs of himself at the ages of five, ten, and fifteen; for Melvin it was disturbing, because each print had a different palette: "I could never make my photographs of Butch the dog look like the pearly finish of my father’s prints, and it was then that I realized the importance of the emulsion of the day." To be a photographer he knew he would have to grasp not only camera techniques but also the refinements of texture and finish, as well as spatial concepts.

About 1954, at an East Side barbell club, he met Bob Denning, who was assistant to an established advertising photographer, Edgar de Evia: "I discovered that Edgar was paid $4000 for a Jell-O ad, and the idea of escaping from my tenement dwelling became an incredible dream and inspiration." Technical information avidly gleaned from the Condé Nast book, The Art and Technique of Color Photography, was augmented by de Evia’s answers to the "thousands of questions" Sokolsky posed. Eventually "Edgar either got bored, or I asked too many questions," and these visits constituted the sum of Sokolsky’s technical teaching. Unsurprisingly, his first attempts at photography used a lot of diffusion, in imitation of the Tissot-like effects favored by de Evia. The photographer Ira Mazer passed on a small assignment, and Sokolsky began in this way, gradually building up a portfolio by making the best out of routine advertising assignments. It was about this time, while visiting William Helburn’s studio, that he met a model named Button, his future wife and a central figure in his life and career. Thereafter, his progress was swift.

If Sokolsky’s drive and energy supplied the chutzpah to launch his assault across the Bazaar’s Madison Avenue threshold, he needed something more tangible if he was to hold down the job. The core of what he had to offer was innate. It was, apparently, already evident in his behaviour as a child, when he disturbed adults with his habit of holding both hands up to his face, thumbs at right angles, framing the scenes he witnessed like a budding film director: "They became so alarmed as I lined up people at the table, that they eventually took me to an optician, figuring there was a problem with my eyesight." The desire to come to terms with reality by transforming it into images, and the fascination with placing people in spatial relationships, were to pay off later. The precocious sensitivity to lighting and environmental ambience has stayed with him to the extent that (almost, one senses, with embarrassment) he recognizes that he is profoundly distracted in a meeting if the people in a room are arranged and lit in a disconcerting manner.

When Sokolsky began to contribute to Harper’s Bazaar in 1959, the magazine had recently dispensed with the services of Alexey Brodovitch, the Russian art director who had been its guiding visual force since 1934 and guru to many of America’s leading photographers. As the Fifties wore on, Brodovitch–formerly the insatiable promoter of the new–was riding on his reputation; though never less than elegant in its presentation, the magazine appeared to run out of fresh ideas. The Hearst organization looked enviously at Esquire, where a young art director, Henry Wolf, was a key member of a team that was producing a lively magazine that offered a more contemporary insight and Wolf’s innovative layout and typography to match.

A high fashion glossy was evidently not the same as a men’s general interest title, but Wolf was soon poached by the Bazaar. He was new and determined to make changes. Of the established photographers, some, like Richard Avedon and Lillian Bassman, were unassailable, but Wolf was aiming to introduce more variety. He began to sign up photographers with distinctive new visions, from the oblique lyricism of Saul Leiter to the eye-catching devilment of Melvin Sokolsky.

Sokolsky’s interests devolved, like most great fashion photographers, on the woman in front of the camera, rather than the illustration of garments. From childhood, the contact with great paintings in the museums and galleries of New York was a seminal influence: besides his abiding love of Surrealism, there were less usual inspirations, such as the interior spatial effects of Velasquez, and of the Flemish masters Van Eyck and Van der Weyden, and the disturbing subject matter of Bosch and Brueghel. Velasquez’s device of including his self-portrait in the open doorway in the background of "Las Meninas" would eventually recur in a series of Sokolsky’s fashion photographs: by photographing into a mirror, the photographer substituted himself for the painter, the enigmatic presence and hint at voyeurism intensified by the pared-down compositional elements (pages 148-149, 192).

For all Sokolsky’s ingenuity, the fundamentals that drove his work and inspired its endless variety were his fascination with female form and gesture, and he cites specifically the paintings of Balthus as having led him to understand that this was his métier (page 151). He says that in every fashion photograph "I tried to show the gesture of the unclothed body beneath the garment: I wanted it to be as if the clothes did not exist. For me, if the merchandise is more important than the woman, then it’s not a good photograph. The only times that the clothes ever interested me were when they suited the woman wearing them: ideally, nothing should look store-bought."

In the delicately-poised tussle for supremacy encountered in the business of producing a fashion magazine, Sokolsky generally found it difficult to convey his somewhat alternative agenda to the fashion editors. They in their turn had ambitions to teach this young Vulgarian (an epithet photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe attached to him early on) all about fashion: "But what they didn’t realize was that Chanel, for example, ultimately loved women, and that in her designs she tried to make new clothes appear worn-in." In analysing and experimenting with gesture, Sokolsky instructed models to turn the palms of their hands towards the lens–a deliberate flouting of the prevailing Renaissance norms of elegance. It is clear from his early magazine work that he was rebelling against what he saw as fashion’s over-riding tendency to follow a trend: "I was instinctual in my approach, and all I had to offer at first was irreverence."

Like many of the talented individuals who operate in a high-powered, creative, but competitive environment, Sokolsky’s relationships with his colleagues at Harper’s Bazaar, were not always smooth. Of the art directors with whom he collaborated, he evidently found it much easier working with Henry Wolf ("He dared you to produce your best, he made you responsible.") than with his successor Marvin Israel ("Henry was the great catalyst, Marvin thought antagonism was a catalyst–he panicked you."). Among the fashion editors with whom he worked, he was personally ambivalent about the great Diana Vreeland, but admired both her sense of humor and the way she fought with the Editor-in-Chief, Nancy White, against compromise and censorship of the photographs: "Vreeland had this annoying posture of superiority, but she was fanatically committed to her work, whereas the best Nancy White could say about a picture was ‘It’s pretty’." He had to fight, too, for the models of his preference. When he discovered Donna Mitchell, for example, it took all of his persuasion to be allowed to take her to Paris, though once the resistance was overcome and the photographs were successful she was in demand from all quarters.

Inevitably, and frustratingly for the photographer, some of his more unconventional ideas failed to reach publication. In retrospect, some of the killed sittings for Bazaar seem like mouth-watering gestures of defiance. Notable among these is the series of leatherwear he photographed on model Simone d’Aillencourt, her elegant hauteur in stark contrast to Sokolsky’s brutally realist location–the Coney Island D-train. He had tried to invoke the atmosphere of a Reginald Marsh painting, but on this occasion Diana Vreeland’s dismissive comment was merely "They are interesting pictures, but I can’t identify with where you have taken them." Even his gently satirical "Fourth of July" cover, in 1960 (page 65) was deemed too risqué for publication, though it was rescued from oblivion six years later to appear on the cover of the prestigious Swiss magazine, Camera.

Of all Sokolsky’s work, the editorial fashion photographs received the broadest public recognition, since they were invariably published together with his by-line. Their extra visibility gives a misleading view of his entire output, for in fact more than three-quarters of his work was in the field of advertising: this is generally published without credits, and consequently the photographer remains anonymous. Though statistically a difficult claim to substantiate, it is likely that Sokolsky was the most successful advertising photographer of the 1960s. Certainly the huge amount of Art Directors Club Awards he received testifies to his high reputation. A major factor in his renown surely stemmed from his philosophy that it was dishonest for a photographer to deliberately turn down a notch, operating on a lower level for advertising assignments: "I resented the attitude that ‘This is editorial and this is advertising’. I always felt, why dilute it? Why not always go for the full shot?"

Before the breakthrough onto Harper’s Bazaar, Sokolsky had spent about eighteen months working mainly on advertising campaigns. His first appearance in the Annual of Advertising and Editorial Art and Design, in 1958, was with a still-life of silverware, a refined and elegantly balanced composition, somewhat in the manner of his distinguished predecessor Leslie Gill; although Sokolsky’s tableau was placed in a Cornell-like box, both his and Gill’s still-lifes entered the lengthier tradition of the nineteenth-century American trompe l’oeil artists such as William Harnett. Reflecting on his career some years ago, Sokolsky told me that the most conducive sittings he undertook were photographing a still-life, a nude, or an untried new face. He was essentially a directorial photographer, and these tabulae rasa, which allowed him the optimum level of responsibility for all of the elements within the picture frame, presented a challenge he relished.

Editorially, Sokolsky was a frequent contributor to many other magazines in addition to Harper’s Bazaar, including McCall’s (for which he photographed a complete one-man issue in October 1962), Ladies Home Journal, Esquire, Show, Newsweek, and the New York Times Magazine. Apart from fashion and still-lifes, he made many distinguished portraits for these magazines, and was frequently commissioned to photograph Hollywood celebrities. He once said that in a fashion image he wanted to photograph the human psyche, an ambition that enabled the transition to photographing an actor or actress to proceed quite smoothly. Some of his most enduring fashion photographs could equally be described as portraits (pages 72, 174) for example, stand comparison with the psychological perception of the portraits of Julie Christie or Mia Farrow (pages 55, 75 ).

From the outset, Sokolsky’s fashion photography was distinguished by the rapid progression of its themes. Indeed he later believed that the obligation he felt to invent new ideas each month (a pressure that was partly of his own motivation) might have been excessive, and that to have explored certain concepts for longer periods would have been more productive for his own development. For some of the earliest Harper’s Bazaar sittings he eschewed any props beyond an unusually textured backdrop: "I was not interested in a clothes-horse–I was celebrating the beauty of the woman." Shortly afterward he began to explore his atavistic fascination with spatial dislocation in series in which he arranged the model’s limbs to accommodate claustrophobic box-frames (page 137), or peered from an elevated viewpoint into a maze-like structure constructed in the studio (page 23).

The ideas flowed incessantly. From the genre’s most extreme experiments with scale (pages 24-25), through fashion photography’s most overtly surrealist examples (pages 48-51), to highly unconventional multi-figure compositions (pages 160-161). Perhaps the most celebrated of all was the acclaimed "Bubble" series for the Spring 1963 Paris Collections (opening pages). These remarkable photographs constitute a kind of finale to the fantasy era of Paris fashion, a warm-humored tribute to inexplicable excess. Salvador Dalí, whom he met at this time, became convinced that Sokolsky could actually make him fly. The logical outcome of the epic "Bubble" pictures for Sokolsky was to investigate further the simulation of flight, of weightlessness, which he did in some compelling sequences that continue to influence fashion photographers today (pages 21, 40-41, 115-116, 188).

Following these magical performances, Sokolsky felt the only route open to him was a return to simplicity. Photographed on a plain seamless studio backdrop, movement and lighting were the key factors in the appeal of images such as (pages 141,145). Sokolsky believed that lighting was an excessive obsession at that time, but, inspired by Josef von Sternberg’s cinema lighting, he achieved some subtle and innovative lighting schemes of his own. In the later 1960s he began to photograph fashion outside the studio environment, a direction that might have been developed further, had his career not taken a different turn. For the New York Times Magazine in 1969, he photographed (on a Polaroid camera) an extended story with three models in which he demonstrated an increasing concern with narrative that presaged his transition from stills to movies. It was a timely story–in one photograph the model smokes a joint–but it would be one of his last important contributions to fashion photography.

After about ten years at the top of his profession, Sokolsky found that art directors began to ask if he was able to translate the look of his stills into film. An experiment with a model in a tub full of bubbles was a great success, and soon he was in great demand: commercials, almost imperceptibly at first, began to dominate his output. He admits to being seduced by the movie camera and the challenge of exploring the grammar of film, and, with his reputation in this field escalating, in 1975 moved his studio to Los Angeles. The change did not signify the end of his involvement in stills, but commissions thinned as he was not only increasingly associated with film, but also removed from the main East Coast locus of assignments. The decade of his most intense involvement with stills was perhaps only a prelude to film, but it can also be viewed as a period of passionate involvement, the cumulative document of a creative spirit in a fascinating period of photographic history.