We don’t know if The Rolling Stones and Christian Lacroix had many conversations, but one would enjoy the one they’re having tonight, even if it’s only in spirit.
At the opening of Arthur Elgort’s new show “On the Move” at the Staley-Wise Gallery in Manhattan, the Stones are on the wall, blown up, strolling across a roof in Massachusetts.
Next to them is an image of models in repose behind the scenes. They are a crayon box of color in 1980s Lacroix haute couture, dresses making them look like glamorous cupcakes.The ease of the Stones’ stroll is mirrored in the Lacroix gals’ stance. For a few moments, all of them, these figures who are usually considered otherworldly cultural icons, are just people. They walk and stand and talk just like we do. They’re real.
This is the magic of Arthur Elgort’s work, and has been since he began in photography over 50 years ago. There’s a reality and grounding in his fashion images, despite being part of an industry that’s often known for its lack of them. His reasoning behind it is simple. “It looked better. That’s all,” the legendary photographer, now 83, says on the phone.
“In his pictures, he’s not particularly interested in fantasy,” says gallery director George Kocis. “I think his fashion pictures are rooted in real life, women with a life that’s beyond posing purely for a camera.” He doesn’t need more than Christy Turlington (who he discovered as a teenager) and Naomi Campbell walking under a Louisiana live oak hanging with moss, light bursting through the background (Vogue, 1992). It feels as though the images themselves are about documenting people who just also happen to be wearing beautiful clothes.
Elgort remembers getting into fashion from the world of dance photography, how staid and posed all of the images were, how he wanted to give them some life and movement. So he did. He would not be the first fashion photographer to do this–this is something Avedon became famous for, of course, but Avedon’s movements were planned. Elgort instead became the improvisation to Avedon’s choreography.
Similarly, on location he still prefers natural light. His assistants in the past have wondered what lighting he used on set but, Elgort says, “I never use a light at all. Never did. I used my eyes and said ‘it’ll look good, take a picture of it.’” He says he hasn’t used a flash in 20 years. “I think, you’re good, you’re good. And you’re no good, you’re no good,” Elgort continues. “You could have everything. You could buy all the things, and you’re a lousy photographer or you’re a good photographer because you just are.”
“It’s joyful. It’s movement. It’s fun.”
In the work on view in “On the Move,” Elgort’s sense of spontaneity, joy, and humor is prevalent, from his famed photo of a giraffe craning its neck into Kenya’s Giraffe Manor hotel (Vogue, 2007) to another classic of Kate Moss standing on a table amongst the staff at Paris’s Cafe Lipp (Vogue Italia, 1993). “Well, we’re all there, we might as well have fun, right? I mean, Come on. It’s a wonderful job compared to a lawyer,” he laughs (following it with an impish “In case your father’s a lawyer, don’t tell him that”).
Elgort’s sense of joy is infectious, says gallery owner Etheleen Staley, who first met him in the 1960s as a stylist on an ad campaign he was shooting. She still remembers their shoot. “He made it such a fun day,” she said. “I think people really enjoyed working with him and it comes out in the pictures.” Indeed, this is something he’s been known for in the fashion industry since he started working. “People in the fashion industry usually don’t smile at all,” she says, and yet his images are loaded with them. “I think that really exemplifies Arthur’s work. It’s joyful. It’s movement. It’s fun. It’s a reflection of him.”
Many of the images in “On the Move” are new prints from Elgort’s extensive archive. He took more than one photo on each shoot, of course, and some of the ones on view were at the time extras, ones that didn’t get chosen for publication but were still great images.
The gallery has been representing Elgort for close to 30 years, but there were still images they had never seen before, to their delight. Other images had been published previously but had never been made into prints. “We thought it would be nice to show pictures that were sort of considered undiscovered,” Kocis says. “So we were very happy that a number of these pictures had never been printed before.”
Luck and talent
Elgort is still working, too. In the coming weeks, longtime models and friends Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista will be in his studio again, having selected him as their photographer while being filmed for another project.
Beginning on January 23, in an exhibition curated by Carla Sozzani, Elgort will show images at Paris’s Fondation Azzedine Alaïa made in collaboration with the eponymous late designer. “We couldn’t speak the same language, and we got along well because we both liked to eat,” Elgort says. “And also, we just looked at each other and said, ‘I’m gonna do this and you do that.’”
Like Alaia, Elgort also made his career being an original, a status he has maintained for over 50 years. Anywhere there’s behind the scenes footage or documentation of fashion, Elgort’s influence is there.
“There’s something about Arthur where it’s a little bit face value,” Kocis says. “I always think he photographs models as if they were just regular people and then photographs regular people like models somehow, and it all sort of comes together.” In that vein, Elgort has photographed his family throughout his lifetime, and now enjoys photographing his grandchildren who he says already know how to stand when the camera comes out. “Open your eyes and let’s go!” he says.
“We’re just lucky that we found something that we can make money on, and we love it,” Elgort says. He uses the word luck often when describing his career, even though luck can be nothing without talent. “Because it is luck a little,” he says. “I guess I’ve always felt that way. But I feel that I did a good job so I don’t feel bad about it.”