The reality of fashion photography “can be murky, often decadent, and sometimes downright ugly.”
In a gossipy exposé focused less on aesthetic vision than biographical dirt, journalist Gross (House of Outrageous Fortune: Fifteen Central Park West, the World’s Most Powerful Address, 2014, etc.) follows the careers of the talented, arrogant, philandering, combative, self-aggrandizing photographers whose work appeared in, and defined, such iconic fashion magazines as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Glamour, and Elle from 1947 to 1997. Richard Avedon (1923-2004) gets major attention, since he was the darling of Harper’s Bazaar before Diana Vreeland lured him to Vogue in 1962. Avedon, writes Gross, created “a hybrid of street photography that sought to capture reality and the elegant remove of past fashion photography.” As successful as he was, the overbearing, egotistical Avedon saw all other photographers—most notably Irving Penn (“the abiding genius of Vogue”)—as rivals. When he chose a model, no one else could use her. “He was one of the great contributors to fashion,” said photographer Melvin Sokolsky, “but he had no space for anybody but himself. If anybody else took a picture, he couldn’t give it credit.” Gross portrays Penn and Avedon as divas, but they were not alone. Gilles Bensimon, “chief shutterbug” of French Elle, was another: he liked to twirl his penis in public. “The biggest dick in the business,” commented a fellow photographer. Sex, consensual or not, permeated the business. Bert Stern, who took a notorious series of photos of Marilyn Monroe, nude, shortly before she died, used “those images of Monroe at the end of her rope” to sustain himself for the rest of life, as his career tanked, his marriage to long-suffering ballerina Allegra Kent ended, and drug addiction landed him in hospitals. Interviews, some conducted for Model, Gross’ previous foray into the fashion industry, reveal piles of sometimes-tangy, often scurrilous gossip.
Not a pretty picture of sex, drugs, beautiful women, and raw ambition.