Meeting Melvin Sokolsky – Notes from a Student

Martin Harrison in his introduction to Seeing Fashion, an Arena Editions’s collected works of Melvin Sokolsky’s photographs from the ’60s, tells the story of the photographer’s encounter with Edgar de Evie’s Jell-O ad early in his career: Mr. Sokolsky, from the Lower East Side, young, and hungry, was greatly impressed at the $4000 advertising photographer received for the photo.

Speaking at length — befitting the rhythm of our long conversation, which flowed from photography to politics, writing, and our contemporary cultural issues — on the subject of honesty, Mr. Sokolsky pointed out that Harrison’s version, though with factual information, is not true: “He is saying, in other words, that Melvin was interested in the money and not the idea.” The truth: “That was not what it was about. I told [Harrison] about Edgar getting $4000 for Jell-O and that [Edgar] was insulted when I told him that I would’ve liked the picture better if the pouring Jell-O looked blurred.”

Mr. Sokolsky does not like inaccuracies. Naturally, he’s not so keen on superlatives either: “They’re embarrassing.” Which is another way of saying that to speak with Mr. Sokolsky and his works without a thorough knowledge, let alone a rudimentary understanding of photography, was a dangerous feat. No inaccuracies, either factual or essential. No gratuitous praises. As such, I talked little and listened. Dressed entirely in black, he led me around the gallery and talked about the various ways in which his works were conceived, produced, and received, and what they may or may not mean in the era of selfies and Instagram (the platform on which Mr. Sokolsky posted a picture from the Bubble Series and received meagre 50 likes).

Sokolsky was born in New York in 1933 and at the age of twenty-one joined Harper’s Bazaar’s distinguished staff, which included, among others, Nancy White, Diana Vreeland, and Richard Avedon. In 1962, Sokolsky photographed the entire editorial content of McCall’s. Within the decade, he began his career as a commercial director/cameraman, for which he has won twenty-five Clio Awards. He has been actively involved with the physical and technological natures of his craft, applying self-developed techniques to his works well beyond the spectrum of contemporary usage or even of Photoshop. With over half a century’s work, to say he is prolific is an understatement. The exclusive retrospective at Izzy Gallery (1255 Bay.) is a chance to view his iconic works, especially those from his time at Bazaar, including the famed Bubble and Fly series.

The glamour and drama attached to working in Harper’s Bazaar, however, was not the subject at the edges of our revolving conversation. Underlying it was a sense of urgency regarding the need to reclaim and reaffirm the values and definitions of creative endeavors. “Somebody told me — I forget who — something very early in the game that I still remember. ‘It is most important that you write everything accurately and vet it and back it up. Sadly, 90% of people who pick up the book will not read a word of it. Only the publisher, the people involved, care that much.’ But I’m doing it because, on this planet, there’s a history. Doing an honorable job is important because otherwise history is going to get distorted.” There are moral implications for the artist in doing things right. He was, also, pointedly telling me to ‘do an honorable job’ regarding this article. And with that in mind, let us revisit.

The Bubble Series, seen anew, carries a depth beyond the sensuality, joy, and vibrancy of the immediate image. Outside the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and the appraising gaze of its audience — who could spend at the time, as Mr. Sokolsky pointed out, enough money to buy a car on a Chanel dress —, the photographs can be viewed in an entirely different context — not as a icon but as a living work of art. The photographs on view, like the best of portraits, evoke narratives; the atmosphere of Parisian streets; the passersby who take respite from daily life and who, with their presence, reflect a viewer’s curiosity and awe.

Simone D’Aillencourt in a Nina Ricci by Melvin Sokolsky from Harper’s Bazaar, 1960

An even earlier work showing Simone D’Aillencourt in a Nina Ricci dress standing in a hovel atop a bed of old newspapers is perhaps even more to the point. The incongruity between the subject and her surroundings evokes much more than musings on Ms. D’Aillencourt’s beauty or the dress:

‘When you write something — would you admit this to me? — you have to have some kind of point of view that makes it special. […] I took that picture [of Simone] for Harper’s Bazaar, an upper class fashion magazine for wealthy women. Melvin Sokolsky came from New York’s Lower East Side and had no idea about wealthy women or fashion. He just liked taking pictures that were interesting. So I found this loft, a hovel, with walls falling apart and old newspapers. [The dress] was one of the most important New York collection dresses. When I put them together and photographed them, it was immediately rejected. It was accepted by the art director and the head of fashion but the editor-in-chief said, ‘Are you people out of your mind? The readers of Bazaar would not be able to identify with that place.’ But then Mrs. [Diana] Vreeland said, ‘That’s precisely the point. Juxtaposition — it’s a painting.’ […] So [the editor-in-chief] acquiesced — because of the deadline, not because she wanted to; there’s always a reason. Then letters came in asking, Who is this Sokolsky guy? I was twenty-one years old in 1960 and suddenly I got myself a reputation for ideas.’

The conceive a photograph as a template for an idea rather than a product with a function is the point of view. That with retrospect one can easily see how the colorful dress stands out in juxtaposition to the surroundings and thereby attracts even more attention to itself is only a testimony to the photographer’s vision. The magic of the image lies in creating a narrative through the incongruity of the subject and its surroundings. To see pictures from Mr. Sokolsky’s wide-ranging career is to see numerous changes in his style, experiments with contemporary photographic technologies and emulsions, and conceptual focus. His signature is less of a particular style or a palette but is rather his approach to photography itself.

look_down by Melvin Sokolsky from Harper’s Bazaar

This can be easily seen by opening a random page in Mr. Sokolsky’s self-published Archive. From fashion photography that reflects his fascination with surrealist art to reportage and portraits, they showcase his indelible style and continual innovation.

A conversation with Mr. Sokolsky is a variegated lesson; on photography; on the nature of working in the fashion industry; on creativity and craftsmanship. At one point in our meeting, he said, “What I’ve discovered is that most people are aesthetically blind.” But it was not a condemnation as much as a pedagogic reprimand. Reprimand so that we should see better. And in seeing better, do better even if it’s for that hypothetical 10% who do pick up the book and read or see a photograph and truly see.

Melvin Sokolsky’s Retrospective runs through February 11th at Izzy Gallery. ‘Archive’ is available for purchase at sokolsky.com. 

Izzy Gallery (1255 Bay Street) represents works of acclaimed photographers — Douglas Kirkland, DeanaNastic, and Lillian Bassman, among others. Each piece in the gallery is hand selected from the artists’ archives, which makes an opportunity to visit in and of itself a unique experience. 

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