Michael Gross Puts the Secret Lives of Fashion Photographers in “Focus”
Michael Gross has had his finger on the pulse of high society, documenting their luxurious lifestyles for more than three decades. With a chair in the front row of the fashion shows for a decade, Gross delved into the corners of the world that few had known with his seminal book, Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women (William Morrow, 1995), exposing the underbelly of the industry at the height of the supermodel craze.
The book had been Richard Avedon’s idea. Gross had a column in The New York Times and was writing long form pieces for New York magazine, including a cover story detailing the historic rivalry between Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Gross had been thinking of expanding the story into a book but Avedon, who had been a major source, thought no one cared about ancient beef between Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland. Instead, he suggested a book on the modeling industry, which no one had ever done before.
Speaking with Crave, Gross observes, “I overreport—always. A lot of what I reported didn’t make it into the book; it went into storage for 20 years. I wouldn’t say Model was calculated to be a bridge burning book, but I didn’t want to be in fashion any longer.”
For the next two decades, Gross covered the upper class, writing 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building and Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles, and Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals That Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.
But it was over lunch with his agent when fashion called him back, and the idea to look at life on the other side of the camera came into focus. Gross got his boxes out of storage, and began to go through them, discovering a wealth of information that had not yet previously been published. Using the rivalry between magazines as the narrative spine, Gross has deftly woven an intricate web of fashion, photography, and magazine publishing that is simply unrivaled. Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers (Simon & Schuster) spans the course of fifty years—the Golden Age, if you will—and brings us back to a time when fashion photography could spark a revolution in culture and style.
Focus is a sensation, one the brilliantly blends the wild histories of seemingly disparate lives that were bumping up against each other inside the magazines. Taking us back to the early days immediately following World War II, Focus provides the first very biographies of Richard Avedon and Bert Stern, along with unprecedented looks at Alexander Liberman, Bill King, and the notorious father-son team of Bob and Terry Richardson.
Organized chronologically, Focus charts the course of fashion from an elite activity to mainstream phenomenon. At the very heart of this lay the photographers, the bright, vibrant minds that could orchestrate visions of glamour and beauty with the express purpose of selling a product to the viewer. To continuously cross the chasm between creativity and commerce is a high wire few can walk time and again, and still keep it fresh. This is where Gross’s expertise comes into play.
“My three primary criterion for choosing photographers for the book were: 1. They created the conversation. 2. They changed the conversation. 3. They lived the life to the fullest,” Gross reveals.
From David Bailey, Helmut Newton, and Gilles Bensimon to Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, and Corinne Day, the photographers selected here did not operate on the sidelines. They were possessed by a need to be a part of an industry that fed off genius, passion, ego, and excess. Gross notes, “how marvelous fucked up some of these people were. They were not just ghosts but flesh and blood, with conflicts, angst, competitiveness, and ambition. This is the undiscussed foundation on which their work sits.”
By bringing it to light, Gross is a modern day Vasari, giving us The Lives of the Artists in no small measure. But Focus is more than the stories contained within: it is an epitaph for an era whose time has come and gone. The world of fashion magazines and photography is not what it once was. Digital has flooded the gates, creating an epochal shift. And what will come in its place remains to be seen. But Gross is nothing if not an optimist who with faith in the creative spirit, and Focus reminds us of this. For every triumph and tragedy that unfolds, something greater still exists for us to behold.
All photos: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.