Legendary Lensman Arthur Elgort
On His Life In Fashion Photography
Arthur Elgort—who, tonight, will receive the CFDA Board of Directors’ Special Tribute award—is an industry legend. Over the course of a 40-year career, Elgort has shot for everyone from Vogue and Vanity Fair to Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld. After a stroke last year left him unable to move his limbs, Elgort’s career very nearly ended, but following frustrating months of recovery, the photographer beat the odds and regained movement in his hands and arms. He’s back at work in his large, sunny studio in Soho and recently shot a spread for Vogue‘s April issue with his close friend Grace Coddington, who will present him with his tribute at tonight’s CFDA Awards ceremony.
Here, Elgort speaks with Style.com about the changing style of fashion photography, models versus ballerinas, and the new Madonna—his fellow CFDA honoree.
How did you react when you found out about your CFDA award?
I was listening to a Tchaikovsky piece, I think it was Trio no. 7 or something, and they told me Diane von Furstenberg was on the phone. When they said that, I said, “What is she calling about? I don’t think she wants to give me a job, so maybe she’s got an award for me.”
Your recovery from your recent stroke is an incredible story of perseverance. What was it like to learn your craft all over again?
Terrible, obviously. You know, I couldn’t even hold a camera. I had to start all over again. I shoot differently now. I still take pictures all the time, but it’s not exactly the same. That’s the way it is—I could be dead, so this is a lot better than that.
What would you say makes a great fashion photo?
Well, it can last [a] long ]time] and it’s still good. Would I wear the clothes myself? No. But something about it is nice.
Your candid, “snapshot” style helped to transform the genre.
Well, so they say, yes. I think there were other people there too but they weren’t as lucky as me. I didn’t do it alone, really. I was at the right place at the right time.
Since then, how have you seen fashion photography change?
It’s all the same to me. Except, I notice now the camera is better. Well, not the camera, but what you have is better. If you want to take a picture now, you have your iPhone. My wife has one and it’s wonderful. When I started, you felt like, only I have a camera and no one else does. Now, everyone has one. That changes things, but I am glad I was part of that other thing, though. My daughter is a photographer, too, so that’s interesting. We talk about it. It’s different, you know?
Yes—you’re part of the old guard, but today’s fashion photographers tend to adopt a less-varnished, verité style. I’m thinking of the likes of Juergen Teller and Terry Richardson. What do you think of their work?
]With Terry Richardson] I know the name but I don’t know his style. I know the name because he had a father that was a photographer. In fact, his father was…very good. I couldn’t tell you what Terry Richardson has done, but maybe he is very cool, I don’t know. But I could say that about Steven Meisel and Dick Avedon. I use Steven as a good example because he is still alive. Most of the guys I like are dead—like Penn and Avedon.
Who do you see as an innovator these days, then?
You know, that’s a question for [my daughter] Sophie and not me; I am lost. I don’t know anymore. Now, I just see clothes, they look nice, and I take their picture—I always thought Azzedine [Alaïa] was an innovator.
Who have you enjoyed working with most over the years?
I liked Polly Mellen. She was famous like Grace [Coddington] was, but she was New York. I always like ballet, so I like Balanchine. That was my fun job—I took pictures of ballerinas. I did that before I did fashion pictures. I moved over because I wanted to make money, you know what I mean? I still go to ballet once in a while, but not as much as I used to.
One of my favorite places in the world to take pictures is the Vaganova School in St. Petersburg, Russia, because they haven’t changed at all. Maybe it’s because they can’t afford to—I hope so. Or, maybe they know what they’ve got, I don’t know. Think about all the guys who went there, like Baryshnikov and Balanchine. I love ballet. They say all the greats are dead, but there is always someone new coming up.
Which of your photos are you most proud of?
Here, look at this book, La Révolution de la Mode. There is a photo in here [from an Yves Saint Laurent campaign in 1971]—I was so proud I was included because I was the youngest photographer in there. They gave me a nice layout—they didn’t even ruin it and they usually do. [The photo] is really marvelous.
Look, here is another one [a 1993 photo of Kate Moss]. We went in the restaurant [Paris’ Brasserie Lipp] and those guys were eating. We just asked if we could get on their table and they were more than happy to let us. Kate Moss—she’s the most famous model there is.
You’ve worked with so many famous models—often very early in their careers.
Christy Turlington (above)—I have known her since she began. You know, I believed in her. People thought she was fine, but she wasn’t that great, and I said, “I’m telling you, this is going to go big. I won’t be able to get her myself soon.” Here is when I took her first picture. We went everywhere, you name it, we went there. Certain people know what to do right away. You don’t have to say anything, they just know.
I liked Sharon Stone, I just didn’t use her right away. But all of a sudden she got good and someone wanted me to shoot her. She said to me, “You are doing it because I got good.” I said, “You are damn right I am doing it because of that. It wasn’t because you weren’t good before, but you weren’t that good, so I did Liza Taylor instead. I don’t feel sorry about it all.”
What do you think about your fellow honorees, like Marc Jacobs or Lady Gaga?
Lady Gaga? I don’t know. I have seen her on TV and I think she is good—she’s like the new Madonna, would you say? How do you think Madonna feels about this?
I remember when Marc was just starting—I photographed him—and he worked for Perry Ellis at the time. That’s where he got his break, right? Look what he did.
Is there anyone you haven’t yet photographed that you’d like to?
Oh, I’m sure. Maybe models that I didn’t get that day when we wanted them or something, but I can’t remember specific names anymore. I remember Bill Cunningham said to me once at an event, “Which one is Linda? Which one is Christy? I can’t tell the difference.”