Thursday, December 6, 2012

Surreal Sokolsky: Classic Fashion Photography

Melvin Sokolsky
Much has already been made of photographer Melvin Sokolsky's early career work for Harper's Bazaar and McCall's Magazine. How a young photographer, with no formal training, achieved something quite unusual and significant. He was able to put his own strong creative stamp on his work, inside the very commercial environment of the fashion industry. He did it his way. It was rarely easy. But the results speak for themselves.

Sokolsky, along with luminaries Helmut Newton and Man Ray, remains one of my favorite fashion photographers. The focus of his work, especially his famous early work, seemed primarily focused on creating a striking image, an iconic pose and creative composition, making a statement about beauty and distinction (or perhaps something deeper), and above all, positively grabbing your attention. The "fashion of beauty", as opposed to the other way around. His images have never gone out of style, even if the hemlines do.

His photos concerned themselves less with clearly illustrating any clothing or jewelry products, and more with his own surreal visions. He was a colleague and friend to Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali and his influence is sometimes evident in Melvin's work. Perhaps most notably in his Spring 1965 "Fly" series for Harper's Bazaar.

Before elevators, women descended staircases "in style". 
His personally chosen models were not "clothes horses" but rather willing participants in his sometimes outlandish dreamscapes. Many photographers (and, sadly, all too many fashion designers) try to shock for the sake of shocking, but Sokolsky would take your breath away with creative elegance, or by staging highly unexpected and surreal scenarios. The actual fashion, the clothing itself, seemed like what any woman would naturally wear... while gliding down a staircase and floating across town to a posh dinner party. Gee, I hope her pearls don't snag on a telephone pole.

Notice the lovers embracing below on the balcony. A narrative begins to unfold in your imagination.

He made the viewer want to know what is going on in that moment. Where exactly are these people? Who are they? And even sometimes, what are they wearingHis work held your attention. It invited you to study it. 

Or possibly, since I'm someone not as interested in the clothes as I am in his technique, that's just how I perceive it. 

Here's another of Sokolsky's gravity-defying pieces. Achieved long before Adobe Photoshop made images such as this commonplace.

Modern in concept - Classic in execution. 

"It's the only way I fly." Back when Super Models had super powers.

Sokolsky's most celebrated work is probably his "Bubble" series from 1963 (again from Harper's Bazaar). Filmed in New York and Paris, the model held her breath while encased inside a plastic sphere, thrown into the air by crew members. After one particuarly grueling shoot, the whole crew broke for lunch and forgot to unlock the model's airtight sphere for over an hour.  It was a tragic event that nearly derailed his burgeoning career.  ...

With Le Dragon

Okay, I'm kidding. She could breathe fine. There was no accident. No one was hurt. And the sphere was not "thrown into the air" either. But rather... well, maybe I'll hold the "behind the scenes" reveal for the end of this post. 

Enjoy the "surreality" of Melvin Sokolsky. 

Imagine. It's Spring 1963. You're strolling along the Seine in Paris. Baguette in hand.
And "Hey look, there's a girl in a giant bubble!"      

New York City

Okay, so how did Sokolsky get these images? What's his secret? 
Quite simple actually. He carefully airbrushed out the suspension cable attached to the top of the plastic sphere. It was held aloft by a crane truck which can be seen reflected in the sphere in some shots. In other shots (not included here) the cable's shadow can even be seen against the background. I purposely selected the images for this post that best kept the illusion's secret. 

But here's a couple on-set images taken during the Paris shoot (Winter, 1963).

Melvin Sokolsky and his giraffe-hybrid model.

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