Seated in a director’s chair in the Staley-Wise gallery Thursday night surrounded by photos from his countless shoots, Arthur Elgort surmised his body of work.
“It’s a lot of jobs. And I could do a million jobs again,” he said. “I’m only good at photography. That’s because I don’t do anything else. You wouldn’t want to be my wife — it’s boring.”
His career, of course, is anything but that, having traversed the globe capturing striking images of fashion models and the famous. On view through Jan. 28, “Arthur Elgort: On the Move” is a wink at his salad days as a dance photographer. “I realized there was no money [in it] so then they said, ‘What about fashion?’ I gave it a try and have done it ever since,” Elgort said.
Wearing an orange flak jacket, plaid pants and silk neck scarf, he traced some of the standouts from his career. Starting out at Mademoiselle magazine, Elgort said that Conde Nast’s former long-standing editorial director Alexander Liberman had suggested working for Vogue in the early ’70s. “I said, ‘Fine. Give me a contract and give me a lot of money.’ And I worked for Vogue for 45 years.”
After a bout with cancer in the Aughts, Elgort said it was decided that he was no longer fit enough for magazine shoots. During his Vogue years, he often traveled with Grace Coddington overseas to China and other ports of call. Kate Moss, whom Elgort pictured perched on the roof of a Mini Cooper (“a real car — now they copy it”) in one image and atop an elephant in another, is another favorite collaborator. “She does what you want. You will say, ‘Go and shop.’ And she will shop.”
There are portraits of designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Manolo Blahnik and Rei Kawakubo, whose 1983 likeness is coyly positioned near a close-up of a lion. “Despite having nothing in common with” Irving Penn, the esteemed photographer was an influence, Elgort said. “He always used to laugh at me, saying, ‘You’re so fast. And I’m very slow.’ So we got along really well.”
Elgort also is a fan of the late musical composer Leonard Bernstein, whom he shot many times. Elgort’s wife, Grethe Barrett Holby, befriended him while working at the Houston Opera. “He needed a passport picture but I took every camera I had. And he was terrific. He never made a mistake [while taking his portrait],” Elgort said.
Having once been an usher at Carnegie Hall, Elgort could reference specific works by Shostakovich and other symphonies from Bernstein’s previous performances there. His knowledge of the Rolling Stones also served him well during shoots with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of the band. “That was very easy, because I knew the music well,” Elgort said of the 1981 image of the band walking in different directions on a Massachusetts farm.
After gesturing towards a colorful image of the late model Stella Tennant diving headfirst in a wool coat and Wellingtons into a swimming pool, Elgort motioned toward a black-and-white image of a louche-looking Lisa Taylor relaxed on a white Modernist chaise. “That was in the TWA terminal before we went on the plane. I also like the one of Gia Carnangi [topless] with her hair in rollers talking on a landline.” he said.
Known for a snapshot style, Elgort often delivered unrehearsed and unexpected images of models at work and at ease. A 1976 close-up of a windblown Taylor staring pensively with an arm out an open car window as she drives across the George Washington Bridge reflects that. As one guest admired the photo that she had recently purchased of a handful of Christian Lacroix-clad models in various stages of preparedness, surrounded by yet-to-be placed vibrant floral displays, his wife explained it had been taken before the shoot has begun.
Asked about the resurgence in interest and demand for ’90s-era models like Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington — several are featured in the show — Elgort said, “Christy is good. She is still the same.” As for the current crop of models, Elgort described Kaia Gerber as “very good,” and ditto for Gigi Hadid, who “is on the ball.” Hadid and her sister Bella “are just as good as the [models]” Elgort worked with during his steadier magazine assignments, he said.
More abstract is a geometric looking self-portrait taken in the Central Park West apartment that once doubled as Elgort’s studio decades ago. Elgort singled out Steven Meisel for his talents, describing him as “very good at copying. He is a new [Richard] Avedon.”
As for his own preferred subjects, Elgort, the father of three, favors his family. His “Baby Driver” actor son Ansel was named for the renowned lensman Ansel Adams. Staley-Wise founders Etheleen Staley and Takouhy Wise are also practically next of kin, having represented Elgort for most of his 50-year career.
The pair, who unveiled their first gallery in SoHo in 1981, edged into fashion photography before it was considered an art. Having worked in fashion earlier in their careers, Staley and Wise first met as fellow stylists at Grey Advertising. Wise reminded Elgort Thursday night how they had met even further back at a World Trade Center shoot in the early ’70s, when she was the photo sittings editor at Seventeen magazine. “Arthur was the new genre of photography. Until then, they had used very stilted, posey, studio [images.] Even outdoors, the movement of the girls was always very styled. Arthur was always walking around with a handheld camera.”
Wise said, “I cannot believe that he remembered that. He is just the nicest photographer.”
A steady stream of well-wishers flowed through the Crosby Street space Thursday night including Christiaan Houtenbos and his wife Marianne, Ivan Shaw, Alva Chinn, Phyllis Posnick, Pamela Hanson, Coddington, Sandy Linter and more. When Elgort was asked about what future plans await, Christiaan Houtenbos interjected, “No, we don’t want him to work so much.” Shaking his head with a smile, Elgort replied assuredly, “No, I want to work.”