Steven Meisel had a boyhood fascination with beauty, so we’re not surprised at how his life’s turned out. Born in 1954, and showing early artistic talent, he copied from publications like Vogue, and later attended art school, majoring in fashion illustration.
An admirer of photographers such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Jerry Schatzberg and Bert Stern, he came to believe that illustrating was the past, and photography was the future. While working at Women’s Wear Daily, he approached Elite Model Management, where his designs caught the attention of booker Oscar Reyes. Reyes allowed Meisel to photograph agency models (including Phoebe Cates), which he did at weekends in his apartment or on the street, while working as an illustrator during the week.
When some of these models took their portfolios to castings at Seventeen magazine, they were also carrying Meisel’s future, in the form of his photos. A phone call from impressed magazine staff followed, inviting him to work with them.
He’s gone from that call to being one of the most successful fashion photographers in the business, working for the likes of Versace, Valentino, Dolce and Gabbana, Balenciaga, Louis Viutton and Calvin Klein, and with involvement in Prada campaigns since 2004. As a protégé of editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, this native New Yorker has photographed every cover of Italian Vogue since 1988. Another backer is American Vogue’s Anna Wintour, who praises his unmatched ability to pick and mold models, and his intuitive powers: “He’s just sensational and has been since day one”.
Meisel has been credited with promoting the careers of Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and many more, while his 1983 shoot for designer Stephen Sprouse helped his friend’s meteoric rise to fame.
The American shot another acquaintance, Madonna, for Vanity Fair and Louis Vuitton, as well as creating the covers for some of her singles and albums, including Like a Virgin, and providing pictures for her 1992 book, Sex. She says that she respected Meisel’s care: “He treated each photo shoot like it was a small film and insisted we create a character each time we worked, but then would make fun of the archetypes we created”. She also admitted that they got along because they’re both divas!
Steven Meisel isn’t afraid to be provocative. In Vogue Italia’s September 2006 issue, he caused a stir by questioning the restrictions on liberty in post 9/11 America, with models portrayed as terrorists and police officers. The July 2008 edition was devoted to black models, in response to the fashion industry’s increasing racism. He found that despite it being the magazine’s best-selling month ever, it had no effect on the major shows, complaining that: “It’s the same as it always was and that’s the sad thing for me”. In fact, he thinks it’s worse nowadays.
How do we sum up a photographer who has been described as “an absolute chameleon” by the curator of the LA County Musuem of Art? He’s certainly a master of re-invention, approaching every shoot as a new beginning. But perhaps we should admire him most for not being afraid to place trends in a social context.
The featured photo is Model Karlie Kloss For Vogue Italia Dec. 2011.
Christy Turlington In Vogue Italia October 1989
1920’s Style “Paris Je T’aime” for Vogue US 2007
For Allure US, June 1991 The Model is Linda Evangelista
Model Linda Evangelista In Vogue Italia June 1990
Christy Turlington In Valentino Couture For Vogue Italia September 1991
Christy Turlington Vogue Italia June 2010
Grunge and Glory Collection In Vogue US December 1992 With Kristen McMenamy and Nadja Auermann
Without Embellishment Model Naomi Campbell In Vogue Russia (Apr. 2010)