Melvin Sokolsky

Conversation: Wraparound Magazine

By Paul Gachot

Melvin Sokolsky is in the kitchen making pasta. And he's also downstairs touching up the images on his latest magazine shoot, a rethinking of Antonion's L'Avventura. And he's outdoors working on an experiment he's rigged on his porch testing various archival photo papers’ sensitivity to sunlight. And he's on the couch watching the news, worried about the state of the world. And he's being interviewed by me. Attention Deficit Disorder you say? Absolutely not. Sokolsky is doing what he loves, in a way that keeps him fully engaged and ignited. He thinks in questions that propel him forward. (“What destroys me? Routine. I brush my theeth differently every time.”) He says he's a horrible multitasker, but clearly, he is a man of ideas in motion. From his infamous bubble shots in the ‘60s, to his parallel career as a TV commercial director in the ‘70s, to his more recent embracing of all things digital, Sokolsky has accrued several lifetimes of creative experimentation (and success). Admired awarded and relentlessly copied, he remains steadfastly ahead of he curve. We spoke at his Beverly Hills home.

QUESTIONS & IMAGES

Paul Gachot: So how does a kid from the Lower East Side become a top fashion photographer?

Melvin Sokolsky: It was in the late’50s. After being turned down all over New York because I was “too artsy”, one art director finally said, “There's something in your pictures I like.” He threw a fur coat at me and said, “Surprise me.” At the time I had rented a studio just around the corner of the FORD MODELING AGENCY. I called Ford and asked them to send over Anne Saint Marie who was a very big model. Amazingly, she showed up. So, I photographed her in the coat which got into Harper's Bazaar as an ad with a name credit. About a week after the magazine was published, I got a call from a man named Henry Wolf who was the art director at Bazaar. He says to me in his thick Austrian accent. “I saw your picture and thought it was neat. I'd like for you to make some pages for the Bazaar.” Thinking it was my brother kidding around, I hung up. The phone rings again and he says, “I think we were disconnected.” Then I realized it was real. So I said. I'll bring you my portfolio tomorrow.” And he said I don't have to see your book, just keep up what you’re doing.” And suddenly I was a Harper's Bazaar photographer.

PG: You must have really stood out. What was it about your work?

MS: Difficult to say what they saw. I was a nice kid, hard working, and I had unique ideas. Certain things from my childhood- trips to museums, bookstores, paintings, these were circulating in my imagination and led to an original point of view. I was always fascinated by Hieronymus Bosch, for example. I would credit him as the source of inspiration for my bubble images

PG: Really?

MS: Yes. In Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delight there’s a bubble with two nude people inside. That always stayed with me. When Harper's Bazaar gave me a big assignment shooting a major collection, I told them, “I want to do this bubble thing.” They resisted and yet they also let drop that they needed a cover. So, I shot the first bubble image in Weehawken, New Jersey and it became the cover and initiated the rest of the shots. Besides liking the image, I think they were impressed that it was such a smooth shoot. The reason was that the model Simone was basically locked inside the bubble where the wind didn't blow her hair. It protected her and prevented the usual interruptions.

PG: Where does one get a see-through bubble like that?

MS: One makes it from scratch. The bubble was fashioned from a sheet of half-inch plexiglass that was vacu-formed by blowing hot air on it’s surface and letting the heated and softened sheet droop, to become one half of the bubble. All of these aeronautic engineers told me it was dangerous, telling me I would end up killing someone, but I did my tests and I knew it would work. I'm not someone who is superstitious or a new age kind of person. But it was almost as if I had lived in a time and had made these things before. I can't explain it-that was the feeling I had. I knew with certainty that this idea would not fail. This is definite. I was right.

PG: That’s a good quality for a photographer to have. What's another?

MS: Know when you’'re bullshitting yourself. I'm my best editor. If I make crap, I know it. The truth of the matter is—if you get one picture every couple of months that means anything, you’re lucky

PG: Wait, a picture that means something to you, or in a cultural sense?

MS: That means something to you. If you’re going to create to have cultural impact, you will fail. That's complete nonsense. When you experiment, with-in that experiment there’s a place that I call discovery. This is not surgery where you stitch like-tissue to like-tissue and the Creator knits it all together. This is not that.This is about trying things and discovering things you never noticed before and letting yourself go there, something will happen. If you don’t do that, then you’re not an artist and you’re not going to do anything.

PG: How do you know when an experiment is working?

MS: Simple. You get that invisible cold icicle that goes through your brain without penetrating your skin. Do you know that feeling?

GP: Not exactly, but it sounds like one to strive for.

MS: Striving is the key. Do it. Get yourself on the map. Ridley Scott had a very good sense of the protocol and politics of movie making, he understood what one had to do. It wasn't this unique purity that I thought was important as an artist. “Who cares whether you hate the idea or love the idea, Melvin” he would say. “Do it! Otherwise you’re just a wanker. He would say, “Was Alien the greatest script I ever saw? No. But I knew if I did it, it would put me on the map.” He was right. Once you hit a certain level you’re not going to let yourself drop below it. That level becomes very important. If you have no ideal level, you’ll be shuffling your shoes for the rest of your life. You need a win. Everybody must have a win. That win is the kickoff place.

PG: The bubbles and flying shots definitely put you on the map. So how do you feel when clients ask you to repeat your “greatest hits”?

MS: I try to talk them out of it. If it offers enough money that supports me, then I do the best I can. I try to push it into the next stage. But generally people want what they see. They want you to copy it. And it usually doesn't work because the spirit that created it in the first place is just hard to recreate.

PG: Hard to recapture the excitement of the first time.

MS: And it was exciting. I had Ali (MacGraw) working with me then. I bring that up only because she was also instrumental in putting me on the map.

PG: How so?

She was Diana Vreeland's assistant at Bazaar. Ali would pull me aside and say, “There's a great hat in the back room, why don’t you find it ‘by mistake’ and tell Diana how great it is and she'll let you shoot it. So we were kind of in league because I did not understand any of the politics or protocol of being a photographer shooting for Bazaar. I just had a sense of being able to Zelig a situation by watching what other people did.

PG: How did she come to work for you?

MS: One day I said to her, “How much money are making here? She said, “You won't believe it, &56.50 a week!” “Why don't you come work for me as a stylist and I'll double your salary? And she said “What will Diana think?” When she told Diana, her reply was. “I was going to kick you out anyway, dear. You’re ready for more.” So Ali started working with me and, of course, she is a very likable person and she had all of Bazaar’s clients at her beck and call, which really helped. Also, she could draw beautifully. I would describe an image and she would sketch these pretty drawings and people felt secure that we really had it together. As a team we worked incredibly well.

PG: Were you feeling a lot of competition at that time from other photographers who were around?

MS: The truth of the matter is, the only person you’re in competition with is yourself. I was oblivious to them until Avedon made a remark that I would never get the bubble off the ground. That pissed me off because to me he was ‘God’. “Why is God doing this to me?” I thought. And I began to realize, in many ways, the world is petty. There are no gods.

PG: What lessons, or bad habits, did the ‘60s teach you as a photographer?

MS: My whole thing was to make people look good. That’s not my style today. To take a picture of the President of the United States as if he were stoned or stupid was not done. “You don't pull somebody’s covers in a picture,” we used to say, because the shot lasts forever. Our job is to make people look good. There was a certain morality about that. I think that's still with me, except if the idea in terms of relevance begs for a metaphor of the sitter. After all I can only photograph a surface. If you think you are photographing the sitters spirit you’re mistaken. ‘The moment of truth’ is only the photographers truth.

PG: Certainly as the ‘60s rolled into the ‘70s that morality was being challenged by lots of artists.

MS: It appears that way. It was less defined than that. Personally I had more Ideas than I could ever execute. I was focused. My feeling is this: just do what you do an let the character of the era be determined by your actions. It’s not about forcing yourself to rebel or becoming part of a movement. I tell students, “Be in love with what you do and I promise you something will come of it.”

PG: What about talent?

MS: Something you cannot be given, But what is “talent”? Talent might be sort of a high that gives one the confidence to fully explore ideas worth executing. Of course, being able to execute is another thing completely.

PG: That definition implies a certain originality of thinking. Looking through your images, you notice how many of them have been copied over and over. Hoe do you feel about that?

MS: “Appropriation” is something all creators use. I had a show about five years ago and somebody said. “Peter Lindberg copied your flying pictures.” I said to his person, If you took away the pictures Peter Lindberg supposedly copied, would that render him a non-photographer?” Of course not. Human beings have come up with just so many ideas, and the best ones keep resonating and everyone does their own versions. Has anyone really done something uniquely their own and in their own palette? I don’t see much of it.

PG: You’ve gone digital haven’t you?

MS: Yes, I'm shooting digital these days. The main reason is that it gives me the immediate ability to see, discover, and change things – hair-dos, clothes, make-up, composition, whatever. With film, you see the snip test three hours later. You're already way into the shoot, you’re not changing anything. Digital lets you get rid of the polaroids, the endless discussions, and puts the decision-making back in real time. And if you are doing stuff for yourself and you don’t have to answer to anybody, hey, you’re flying.

PG: So what do you say to people who resist digital technology?

MS: That devotion is half nostalgic, and the rest is misinformation. Look, once you give your chrome to any magazine or any advertises it becomes a digital file the second they scan it. So digital has been the standard for as long as there have been scanners. Photographers love to complain about the poor quality of magazine printing. “It didn't look like that on my light table.” they say. The digital element used to be out of the photographers hands. But hey, the tools are all right here for you to control your images. Learn how to use them and stop complaining. Of course, there are people who are losing money by allowing photographers to control this prepress aspect of printing. When people lose business, there will be resistance.

PG: What will be lost if film becomes obsolete?

MS: Not if, when. I don’t think anything will be lost. I’m sure there were doomsayers when daguerreotypes went out. That said. I do think too many people are submitting to the technology rather than employing the technology. Pixels, sharpness – all that stuff is irrelevant. A great image has little to do with the refinements of new technology. Look, any kid can buy a computer program today that will show him a histogram of am image exposure. He now has a diagnostic tool that is just dead on. But does he have any ideas that he can couple with that diagnostic tool so that something magical can happen? A better exposure of nothing, is still nothing.

PG: The disparity between technology and creative content is a real issue today. With analog mediums there is typically a period of learning and waiting during which you are able to build-up your skills and creative ideas, and hopefully, weed out the bad ones. Now, so-called “perfect pictures” are available to all, right out of the box. How do we elevate content to match the spike in technology?

MS: That's a big question. You’re asking how do we change a populations ideas about what is important. That comes down to our icons I think. In other words, who are our role models? Our role models tend to be basketball players, billionairs, people that are extremely beautiful. The people we see on television. We never see a great brain surgeon on Jay Leno. I mean how many people can be Shaq?

MS: The problem is that the new tools are much greater than the abilities of the people who use the tools. Let's say a new camera comes out that has 14 megapixels and every possible setting. This is quite a camera and everyone wants one. But would you give a twelve year-old child a Ferrari to race? He’s going to crash it.

PG: That doesn't stop them from buying it.

MS: No it doesn't. It confirms putting the best equipment in the wrong hands is not the solution to getting better content.

PG: People begin fitting the world into the parameters of technology, rather than the other way around.

MS: Absolutely! That reminds me… I was at a benefit recently where I donated a bubble image. This couple was scrutinizing the picture looking for signs of the of the bubble being stripped in. I overheard one of them saying: “This guy is really good at Photoshop! Look at how the grain matches.” He didn't know who I was and so, I leaned over and read the title, Bubble on Seine 1963.” And I said, “Did they have Photoshop in 1963?” And his girlfriend looked at him like you foolish thing because he was busted. Again this points out that content is being overlooked. They related more to the technology and suspicion of the image being a technical fix with a powerful software program.

PG: Many people have trouble appreciating images. They fixate on the aspect they can most understand.

MS: What if the image was retouched in Photoshop? Does the fact that I’m good at Photoshop mean that it’s a lesser image in the end? It’s the idea. Does the final image grab you? If you know how a magician does a trick, does that take away the illusion? No. Once you know how it's done, you can no longer enjoy the illusion. That’s a major shift in perspective.

PG: We’re a tech-obsessed nation. It’s more tangible that wrestling with aesthetics and ideas.

MS: Technology acts as a salve on our communal doubt. “Will they like me?” “Are my teeth white enough?” “Buy this and you’re ok!” Can you imagine Picasso asking. “Will they like this painting?” Or Van Gough saying, “Will they understand what I’m doing?” Those guys were like, “Fuck you, I got something to do. I have an Idea. I don’t care what you think. Thick paint, you don’t like it? Then get the fuck out of here!”