SCENE SOCIAL STUDIES
Best-selling author Michael Gross gives Hamptons an exclusive first look at his new book about fashion photographers.
Before Instagram was king, fashion photographers ruled. Michael Gross’s new book, Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers, strips their universe down to its underpinnings. Through relentless reporting, Gross lays bare the lives of Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, Terry Richardson, Irving Penn, Bert Stern, David Bailey, Bill King, Gilles Bensimon, and other visionaries who shaped what we have seen in magazines and advertising from the 1940s to today. “There was a half-century in which this particular art form flowered in a way that will have permanent impact,” says Gross. “This is a moment in time that will never be repeated and will always be looked at with awe.”
At its core a series of scandalous mini-biographies of the masters and Svengalis who worked during the golden age of fashion photography, including such notables as Anna Wintour and Liz Tilberis, Focus is a sizzling, gossipy read, the result of hundreds of interviews and “36 years of paying attention to this subject,” Gross says.
“These photographers are figures in the shadows who make those in front of their cameras glow like members of some special enlightened tribe,” he adds. “But the world they inhabit is one of striking contrasts: It appears beautiful, but just underneath the pretty surface, like the images they create, the reality can be murkier, often decadent, and sometimes downright ugly.”
Focus is the 14th book from Gross, whose New York Times best sellers include 740 Park, House of Outrageous Fortune, and Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. “Model was looking at the people in front of the camera; Focus looks at the people behind the camera,” he explains. The book features several wicked scenes set in the Hamptons, including one involving Bill King and some buried quaaludes. “Creative people are attracted to the extremes of human behavior, and they have license and the funds to indulge. Is it an occupational perk, hazard, or both?”
The timing of the book is particularly apt, especially in light of the ever-expanding influence of Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat. “Something new is developing, but something has also been lost,” says Gross about the surging popularity of social media. “I write about the heyday of the photographer as an individual star, as a single point of view. What fashion photography has become now is art by committee, and it is far more like commercial illustration than it is like art. Fashion photography isn’t gone. It’s just different. These were its glory days. This is the story of what was.”
Adds Gross, who will be signing copies of his book at the East Hampton Library’s Authors Night on August 13, “[Focus] is a celebration of people and all of their infinite beauty and weirdness. It’s a tribute to 50 years of people creating amazing images, and sometimes the lives behind those images are messy, but life is messy.”