Born in 1954, Steven Meisel became arguably the most important and prolific fashion photographer of his generation. In a body of work notable for its imaginative range and diversity, he has achieved dominance in both editorial and advertising fashion photography. He is the primary photographer for the American and Italian editions of Vogue, where his covers and fashion pages have regularly appeared since the late 1980s, and he has produced some of the most memorable fashion advertising ever created, including campaigns for Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Valentino, and Yves Saint Laurent, among a long list of advertising clients. In fact, when Meisel's work for the fall 2000 Versace advertising campaign was shown at London's prestigious White Cube Gallery, it significantly bridged the gap with fine art photography, a question that had plagued fashion photography since its inception.
As a child Meisel was fascinated with fashion magazines, from which he developed an abiding love of the clothing and photographic styles of the 1960s. As a fifth grader Meisel supposedly went to the studio of fashion photographer Melvin Sokolsky and demanded to meet the famous model Twiggy, and during his high school years he photographed models he saw on the streets of New York, including Loulou de la Falaise and Marisa Berenson. After graduating with a degree in fashion illustration from the Parsons School of Design, he immediately went to work as an illustrator, first for Halston, and then for Women's Wear Daily (WWD). Since he did not want to stay at WWD, he got a camera, taught himself how to take photographs, and took test shots on weekends of various young models and actresses, including Phoebe Cates. Some of these shoots-on which he was responsible for the hairstyles, makeup, clothes, and photography-attracted the attention of editors at Seventeen magazine, resulting in work for Mademoiselle and, eventually, for Vogue. Introduced to Vogue's editor-in-chief Alexander Liberman and its fashion editor Grace Mirabella, Meisel was asked to style hair, apply makeup, and take photographs, first for the French and Italian collections, and then for the New York collections.
Unlike many fashion photographers who base their work on a signature style, the character of Meisel's work is intriguingly diverse. "Inspiration comes from all over the place," the photographer said. "I'm eager to soak up new information-it can be from the nineteenth century as long as it's new to me. It can come from going to the grocery store or looking at an artist from a million years ago" (Meisel interview, 2003; as are all subsequent quotes). His influences range from 1960s fashion, Los Angeles's architecture, Nan Golden's photography, Alex Katz's paintings, and many types of film, from work by Federico Fellini, Woody Allen, and Michelangelo Antonioni to They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Blow-Up, with David Hemmings and Verushka. "My style changes constantly," Meisel started. "Fashion is about change. In order to stay current and excited, I try new and different approaches."
Meisel is also inspired by certain women and has been credited with discovering such supermodels as Iman, Linda Evangelista, and Kristin McMenamy. "My pictures are the result of my fantasies projected onto the girl and of me trying to get the girl into my brain," Meisel said. The photographer also feels he has changed fashion photography by using models of different ethnic types, such as the African Americans Naomi Campbell and Beverly Peele, and older models such as Marianne Faithful, Benedetta Barzini, and Lauren Hutton. "I have the greatest respect for women of all ages. The Barney's ads with Lauren Hutton made a big impact, and I used Benedetta (an Italian beauty who was an internationally-known model in the 1970s) for the Gap campaign." Meisel, like Richard Avedon before him, chooses his models to reflect the zeitgeist. Meisel's work for Calvin Klein, for example, captures the glazed-over disconnect between people of the 1990s, which is why, in the words of one critic, they "feel so subversive." Meisel's Fall 2000 advertising campaign for Versace, which features models Amber Valetta and Georgina Grenville as pill-popping, blue-eye-shadow-wearing Hollywood housewives, affectionately scrutinizes American-style luxury of the late twentieth century.
A Controversial Life
Controversy seems to swirl around Meisel, to the point that he has himself become a celebrity. "People get interested in me," he said. "In the mid-80s there was a hubbub about me." The fact that he was Madonna's choice to photograph her 1992 book, Sex, further fanned the flames of Meisel's notoriety. "I knew Madonna from the clubs in New York. The content was entirely her fantasies … from her thoughts." Equally shocking to some were the so-called "kiddie porn" advertisements Meisel created for Calvin Klein, which in the photographer's words "got so much grief from conservatives. I did a story for L'Uomo Vogue using bathing suits on young boys. Calvin came to the studio, saw those pictures and wanted it done like that." In 1999 Meisel produced an Opium perfume campaign featuring model Sophie Dahl wearing nothing but diamonds and shoes, and in January 2002 he took fashion photography close to the realm of soft porn in a twenty-two-page story for Italian Vogue, which featured Russian model Natalia Vodianova.
Steven Meisel's prodigious talent and extraordinary creativity, coupled with an unerring sense of the zeitgeist, make him the most important fashion photographer to have emerged in the late twentieth century. Like the greatest fashion photographers who have preceded him, Meisel continues to merge his own inventive range of ideas with an extraordinary ability to capture the moment in order to produce fashion photographs of importance and interest.
Klein, Rebecca. "Steven Meisel." American Photo 14 (May/June 2003): 58.
Lehrman, Karen. "Beyond Fashion? Steven Meisel: From the Collections to the Collectors." Art and Auction 22 (June 2001): 96-104.
Steven Meisel. Telephone conversation with author, 5 September 2003.
Sischy, Ingrid. "The Shuttered Bug." New York Times Magazine 150, (19 August 2001 Supplement): 148.
Spindler, Amy M. "Tracing the Look of Alienation." New York Times, (24 March 1998): Fashion section.