Selling Dreams: Melvin Sokolsky's fashion bubble

By Zoe Walker

Melvin Sokolsky, Simone wears fashion by Venet, River Seine, Paris. American Harper's Bazaar, March 1963.
© Melvin Sokolsky / Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Melvin Sokolsky, Simone wears fashion by Venet, River Seine, Paris. American Harper's Bazaar, March 1963. © Melvin Sokolsky / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It is one of fashion's most compelling and surreal images: a girl in a translucent ball in Paris. Photographed in 1963 by Melvin Sokolsky for Harper's Bazaar, the "bubble" series is symbolic of 1960s photography, a time when image-makers left the studio and went out on to the street - with one of the photos featuring in the Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography exhibition opening at the Auckland Museum next week.

Sokolsky, now 80, is still passionate about photography and fashion. He shoots something every day, and recently photographed Jennifer Lawrence for Italian Vogue and Alexander Wang for Harper's.

"I made up my mind to know who's out there," he says, dropping names like Miley Cyrus, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian into conversation. As for "selfies", the latest addition to modern photography?

"Anybody that takes a photo of themselves, no matter how good or bad it is, if they are somebody of note it becomes an important picture, even though it may be the worst picture that's been taken."

On the phone from his Los Angeles home, Sokolsky talked to us about his career and what makes an outstanding fashion image.

"I did a photo in 1960 with a peeling wall background, and they thought I was out of my mind. One of the important photographers of the time wanted to know why they had this vulgarian photographing for the Bazaar. Now, the peeling wall has been copied by every photographer since!

When I started taking those pictures, and I was getting all this negativity, the only one who stood up for me was Diana Vreeland. Of the peeling wall, she said, "It is artistically interesting, and the colour is so far better than anything we've done, I don't see how we can't run it." She saw something in it.

Diana Vreeland called me one day and told me, "I'm having a bit of problem with management. They want to know why all your pictures are with the girls with their legs akimbo." They thought I was sexually trying to say something in sign language but, ultimately, what it was really about was that I came from a poor family, and the people that I saw all day long sitting on the stoop would be sitting with their legs kicked up and so on.

In order for me to get out of trouble, she asked me to do something that was as interesting as the stuff I was doing but something management would not have a problem with. So I came up with the idea of doing the Paris collections as street photography. That was where the bubble idea began.

The idea was an out-of-space missile with a girl in it. And they asked, "Well, how do we see her?" I made up a story about how it was flying by its own ability to travel on magnetic lines of force - and it sounded interesting to them. I said, "Why don't you let me do the cover; let me show you what I mean?"

It was for the March 1963 cover of Harper's Bazaar. I took the bubble to Weehawken in New Jersey so it could look over New York and see the Empire State Building, and we put the model Simone d'Aillencourt into it. Some very good things happened by accident. The two hemispheres of the bubble had an eighth of an inch space so Simone could breathe.

That was another question they asked, "How does she breathe?". And I was a smartass kid and said, "Well, when you came here in your car, were the windows closed? How did you breathe?".

But through that opening, the air was blowing up and it blew the dress like no fan could. The dress is floating around, and I shot maybe six rolls of film, brought it in to Nancy White, the editor-in-chief, and she said, "My gosh, this is marvellous. See, you can take beautiful pictures!".

Read more about the Selling Dreams exhibition here.

Then I took the bubble around Paris. I didn't want it to look like a travelogue. Because of the kind of houses and places, I used bits and pieces that gave you a real good impression of what the place looks like. The other part that they loved was, generally, when you do a Paris collection you have to pull out the big bucks because you had to dress people, you had to rent locations, you had to get Audrey Hepburn a special car. I said: "I won't do any of that. I will just fly into a place and let whatever takes place take place. The people in the street [the public watching] will have to look at it - I won't direct them, because they won't be able to help but react to it."

I think that what we do, photographers, painters, all artists, is try to reflect the time. Because what do you think about in the time you're living in? You think about the things that are taking place. This week on television, we see JFK and the assassination. So what people do is reflect in the time that they live in.

Today, everything is so photoshopped they've become illustrations. Nobody has skin like that. I bought a name for a website called Illustography, in the thought that perhaps 10 years from now I will show you my illustrations and what they're like and not call them photographs but illustography.

Today, everyone thinks that everyone is just using photoshop, and the truth of what is going on is that photoshop artists are rewriting the pictures.

I have students who write to me from all over the world and ask me: "How do you get that beautiful skin yet it looks real?"

And I write these words: Have you ever thought of good lighting?

At the time when I photographed the bubble and all of those pictures in the 1960s you bought a camera, you had to know how to use an exposure meter, you had to know how to use lighting.

Right now, wherever you are, you can pull out your iPhone and press the button and get a picture - no matter what you do, a picture will come out. What has happened is the technology has taken over - anyone can take a picture. What the technology has done is that it has taken it down in importance a couple of notches.

What takes place 10 years from now, and where it settles in, I have no idea. But I think that great photographs will always be great photographs, and we will always be able to recognise them.

I mean, you're not talking to me because you saw a picture that looks like someone did it on their iPhone."

Selling Dreams: One Hundred years of Fashion Photography, Auckland Museum, December 6 - February 28.

• Look out for the Viva Smart Talk Series of Wednesday evening events throughout the exhibition, featuring floor talks and panel discussions with photographers, designers and editors.


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