Interview: Michael Gross
By: Andrea Blanch
Andrea Blanch: We are speaking with Michael Gross, author of Focus. I would like to know if you ever considered being a fashion photographer yourself?
Michael Gross: You know, I never did except when I was already covering fashion, and I was looking at these guys thinking, “Ooo they have a nice life,” but I was already writing for the New York Times at that point. So I used to take lots of pictures when I was a college student and somehow it just never presented itself to me as a career choice, probably a grave mistake on my part.
Andrea Blanch: Why are you so attracted to the business?
Michael Gross: Well, I think I was first attracted to the imagery itself, which I just found really compelling. It’s hard to say why you’re attracted to any piece of art, but there was something about the combination of a little bit of culture, a little bit of scenery, a pretty girl, a pretty frock and an active imagination that just caught mine. I think I started enjoying fashion photography at about age 19, and I never stopped.
And what attracted me to fashion pictures first, as is the case with many of the photographers that I write about, was pretty girls. And if you can, you do, and if you can’t, you collect [laughs].
Andrea Blanch: So do you have a major collection?
Michael Gross: I’ve got a minor collection. My problem is I can’t afford my taste. So I beg, I borrow, I trade, I buy at auction when I can, and I’ve managed to put together a quirky collection. I certainly wouldn’t call it a major one, but I’ve got some really neat stuff.
Andrea Blanch: What do you think is missing from the fashion business today?
Michael Gross: Individuality, freedom, self-expression. I mean fashion photography today is an art form created by committee, monitored by big money, motivated by the need to sell scarves and perfume for big brands at the top; it is very much influenced by the digital evolution to the extent that fashion photography has become computer illustration. And then at the bottom, you have the selfie phenomenon, which is people taking command of their own image-making. The problem with that is it’s missing the editor, because of course magazines are experiencing existential threats at the moment. There is precious little editing and most editors think of themselves as brand managers. Managing their little brands which are now more important than their magazines, because sales of their magazines are falling off a cliff and the only way they can stay afloat and make sure they get to ride around town in black town cars is by sucking up to big advertisers and the big advertisers crack the whip and they do exactly what the big advertisers want and all of that has leeched the creativity out of fashion photography.
But there is still a creativity, it’s just down at the bottom where nothing is edited, so it’s on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter. At my book party a couple of weeks ago, I launched an Instagram and social media campaign called “Focus Your Selfie,” and the idea is that nowadays anyone can be a fashion photographer, which is what digital has done. It’s made photography accessible to everyone, it’s made it a much more democratic medium, but the people have to focus on self-expression and self-empowerment and try and use their selfies to send a social message, which is what fashion photography used to do. Fashion photography used to reflect and lead the culture, which of course is part of what makes it so attractive, and part of what makes current fashion photography so unattractive is that it exists in this bubble where there is no relation to anything except commerce.
Andrea Blanch: I just interviewed somebody who has 700 thousand followers, a photographer on Instagram—he’s a very good photographer, and he also is the Creative Director of Havas in Chicago. I asked him, “Does it bother you that you’re taking money away from photographers that don’t use the iPhone and go the more traditional route,” and he said not at all. He said he knows he’s doing it, and he says that he gets people to shoot for him right off his Instagram. Instead of hiring someone to do an advertising job, let’s say Steven Klein, he would look at Instagram and he’d find somebody who could do the job or an image-maker that he likes for much less money and he’d hire them.
Michael Gross: But you know the point is that it’s all become so fungible, so you have this thin layer of top photographers who are names, but very few of them are doing innovative and interesting work. Even Meisel himself has said that; he has to take more and more extreme pictures just to be noticed. He’s quoted in the book to that extent saying that the world has become much more difficult. Fashion photographers now make less money because they have fewer markets. They’ve been raped by digital culture in the same way that music has been raped by digital culture, that the written word has been raped by digital culture. It’s a gigantic revolution and the thing is that music will persist, books will persist, and photography will persist. They’re just going to be different.
My book is a look back at everything that led up to now, but it also sets up the challenge of, “Ok, what’s next?” The point that I’m trying to make is that the people I’ve written about here were great original talents. They either invented the conversation or changed the conversation or lived the life of fashion photography to the fullest, and those are all things that can still be done; it’s just a completely different environment and it hasn’t even resolved itself yet. It’s in the process of being resolved, so in a way it’s like we went from New York to California and we said, “Oh, there’s no more frontier,” but there is. The next frontier is jump in the water and see where you go.
Andrea Blanch: Let me ask you this then, how do you think your book adds to the culture of photography today?
Michael Gross: Well I think it tells the story of the greatest period in a young art form, and it tells a very discreet story. It goes from the invention of modern fashion photography to the digital era, effectively killing the era of girls on film. I tell a story that’s never been fully told from the vantage point of the moment where I think you can fairly say an era has ended.
It is a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. This is a history of the genre and quite fortunately for me, so many of the books that I’ve written have no end. I had to kind of impose an end on them. I wrote a book about the modeling industry, the modeling industry went on. I wrote a book about Ralph Lauren, Ralph Lauren went on. I wrote a book about the Metropolitan Museum, it hasn’t closed. In this case you can really say that an era has ended. Fashion photography will go on, but I’ve written a book about the era that has ended.
Andrea Blanch: In your opinion, what makes a good fashion photographer?
Michael Gross: What makes a great fashion photograph is taking visual cues that relate to a moment in time and freezing them in an image that evokes more than the sum of its parts. For example, you know Avedon’s photograph of Dior in the 40s? You had that dress shape, which was not new, but it was new for the moment. You had the background of the destruction of WWII. You had the beautiful girl with a particular attitude that was caught on the brink of the transition from haute couture into the world of ready-to-wear. You had attitude mannerism, visual signifiers of various sorts and the ability to combine those into a riveting and pleasing image, or a shocking image, but an image that grabs your eyes is what it takes.
Andrea Blanch: Ok, so what happened to sexuality in fashion photography? Because I know AIDS had a lot to do with it for a period of time, but when I was doing photography for Vogue, I was doing very sexy pictures, and I don’t see a lot of sexy pictures. I haven’t for a long time.
Michael Gross: Well, you know, with fashion photography it’s like once something becomes fashion you have to find a different fashion. By definition it’s constantly changing, and I think that at the moment, when it comes to sexuality, it’s all been done before and no one’s figured out a way to knock down the seventh wall and see something that hasn’t been seen yet. But I would submit to you that there is interesting work being done at the fringes of sexuality. The book opens with Terry Richardson’s career imploding because he was basically taking pictures that were considered to be pornography, and he behaved in ways that people felt were transgressive on the acceptable norms of human behavior.
Now Terry would submit that his pictures were a transgressive period, but you know there came a moment when Terry went too far, and I segue from that to a young woman photographer named Hadley Hudson who started shooting for a little German magazine and now shoots for Vice, which happens to be one of the publications that started Terry Richardson. Hadley is sometimes referred to as the female Terry Richardson, and she does the same kind of stark, documentary style, flash lit photography as Terry, but it doesn’t have, as someone in the book puts it, “the ick factor.”
It just so happened that the day I went to cover a Hadley Hudson shoot she was shooting a biologically female model who models on the men’s board at her modeling agency. She does not self-identify as lesbian or straight. She is omnigender, a fascinating model named Rain. Rain seemed to me to sum up the moment at the end. I guess it was the end of 2014 or the beginning of 2015 when I went to this shoot, and we were in this moment when LGBT became a watch word. Suddenly you were dealing with Kaitlyn Jenner and transgender bathrooms, and I happened to be at a shoot that just slightly prefigured the cultural importance of all of that. Here was a female fashion photographer, already an anomaly, shooting a female model who models as a man.
Andrea Blanch: I love that. I love all this stuff.
Michael Gross: It was fashion photography at its best. It’s capturing the moment.
Andrea Blanch: Let me ask you something, how much influence do you think Anna Wintour has had over the way fashion photography looks today and the way images are being published?
Michael Gross: I think her influence is huge, but her influence far transcends fashion photography. I don’t think that she is as important to fashion photography as, for instance, Carmel Snow was or as Vreeland was before her because they were people who were engaged in reinventing fashion photography. They were on the front lines.
You know you hear about Anna as more of a Machiavellian puppet master of fashion, and in fashion these days it’s not the photographer who’s king. Realize that Anna takes over Vogue and the very first thing she does is gets rid of Richard Avedon, the greatest fashion photographer of the age.
Andrea Blanch: And by the way she thought that that was a mistake, but she said she couldn’t go back.
Michael Gross: Well you know, being unable to fix mistakes is an aspect of character. Some people can do that, some people can’t. Tina Brown managed to hire Dick Avedon to shoot for the New Yorker, and my feeling, as expressed in the book, is that was a gigantic “fuck you,” both by Avedon and Tina to Anna who had fired Dick and who was Tina’s primary competitor in the hot house of Conde Nast. What Anna has done is she upped the game, upped the stakes. She is no longer about manipulating photographers and models. She is about manipulating and running the entire fashion industry, and she’s done a remarkable job of it. She’s an epochal character on her own, but her influence is not so much in fashion photography. If you want to look at an editor today who is as influential in fashion photography as Carmel Snow was, it’s Franco Sozzani. Franco Sozzani has championed photographers in a way at Italian Vogue that no American editor has done in decades.
Andrea Blanch: You’re right.
Michael Gross: We don’t talk about photography anymore because the photography at the high end is about chasing money now instead of dreams. It’s a shame, because as recently as 25 years ago, brands were on the cutting edge, and brands were making photography that could stop the world. You can’t say that now. When I first signed the contract to write this book, the first thing I did was get on the phone and ask everyone I knew, “Who matters now?” I think I asked you; I think we had that conversation, and you know, aside from Terry, no one jumped out of the pack. David Sims, Craig McDean, these are all extremely talented photographers, but none of them jumped out of the pack. The only other one who jumped out of the pack was Mario Testino, and that’s because he’s the court photographer of the new corporate fashion aristocracy. It’s not because he takes pictures that are mind-blowing.
Andrea Blanch: Well I don’t know. When I worked for Vogue and Anna came in, she wanted to bring in Mario Testino and Liberman didn’t want him, so that was that. And as soon as Anna came in, she started using him and she really championed him. You know when Anna gets behind somebody that means a lot.
Michael Gross: But it represents that same change. Simultaneously, over the matter of a couple years, you no longer see models on the cover of Vogue. For God’s sake, it’s reality TV stars. This is what Avedon said in the late 60s, that there was a moment when fashion photography changed, and it was no longer about an elitist point of view, it was for stewardesses and waitresses, and Avedon saw that happening 25 years before it got fashion magazines in its death grip. But now it’s in the death grip. Now they’re competing on the newsstand with every other celebrity magazine. I mean, how many pictures of Kim Kardashian do we see on the cover of US and Star, fine. But Vogue was supposed to be vogue; it was always about something a little bit more out of reach, and now the lowest common denominator has taken over to such a great extent. Again, there’s a long chapter in the book and it opens and closes with this thought: a series, a collection of related but independent forces, have all conspired to put a period at the end of a sentence when it comes to fashion photography—tab, new paragraph. That’s where we are.
Andrea Blanch: Oh my God, that sounded so final and sad.
Michael Gross: No, but it ends with the words "new paragraph." What is it going to invent and can it learn anything from the brilliance, the absolute world stopping brilliance, which preceded it. I mean Helmut Newton, Deborah Tuberville, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Richard Avedon, Norman Parkinson, Irving Penn, even Patrick Demarchelier, Gilles Bensimon and Mike Rhinehart. You know these were people who were inventing things as they went along. They were reflecting their world and our world today is a very different, very confused place. It will resolve eventually, and I bet you one that of the first places where we’ll see that is in fashion photography because that’s their job: to be a step ahead and to show us what’s about to happen.
Andrea Blanch: Do you think the relationship between model and photographer has changed along with the business? Do you think it’s changed at all because the business has changed? If you think it’s part of the Pygmalion complex or whatever between the both of them?
Michael Gross: Well I think that again, there are multiple factors here. It changed in 1995 when the supermodels got too big for their britches and the industry reasserted itself and said to the models, “Get back on the leash where you belong.” And they did that by no longer using models with personalities, by using long, lean blondes and waifs and then by segueing to celebrities. And now, as the culture has moved, you have these influencers who are all just about money. That’s all it’s about, it’s about bucks, and now the influencers are the ones cracking the whip to such an extent that the costume institute ball has turned into a reality TV show. It’s that we have reached the point where the epitome of fashion is some second rate celebrity showing her ass on the red carpet. It is a really depressing development, but the great thing about fashion is that once something becomes fashion, it looks for the next fashion. So hopefully that’s about to end, but you know what’s happened to the relationship between model and photographer is that they’re not models anymore. They are these people with demands: I will only be shot this way, I get to decide which picture of me, I’m in charge. I’m in charge. You know the photographer used to be the king. Now he’s no longer the king. The photographer is now one person on a set that has 40 people, and he is the instrument of the committee that is creating the fashion photograph. Creativity is generally not a committee driven process, creativity is an individual driven process, at least when it approaches the line and crosses the line and goes into the realm of art. Fashion photography for a long time was art. It remains to be seen how fashion photography will be art going forward.
Check out Michael Gross' new book: Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers, out now.